Emotion in Mainstream Games

I saw a tweet last week from a game “critic” that gave me pause:

“If you want emotional, sad, introspective game experiences, you won’t find them from AAA studios or publishers,” tweeted Feminist Frequency writer Jonathan McIntosh. “You gotta go the indie route.”

Sorry, Jon, ol’ buddy, but like most of your criticism, you’re wrong again.

I love independent games. They’re often niche, unusual, special games simply because they’re crafted free from the shackles of bureaucracy and publishers’ demands. In fact, I love indie games so much I founded and ran a website dedicated to covering them for more than a year.

But as great as indies are, to say AAA games (read: expensive-to-create, full-priced blockbusters) are incapable of giving players emotional experiences is disingenuous at best.

Here are five AAA video game moments that filled me with all sorts of feelings. Spoilers abound, so tread carefully.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us is packed full of emotional moments between main characters Joel and Ellie.

Joel comes to rescue Ellie in “The Last of Us”

Picking the most striking moment in Naughty Dog’s masterpiece “The Last of Us” is a difficult task considering how many powerful, gut-wrenching, tear-jerking scenes are packed into that 10-hour game. But for me, the moment the middle-aged player-character Joel comes to rescue the 14-year-old, potty-mouthed girl Ellie from a cannibalistic killer stands out.

In the game’s third act, you briefly play as Ellie, the girl Joel has been tasked with taking across the post-apocalyptic country in a desperate attempt to save humanity from a fatal, fungus-related disease. Until that point, Joel, who lost his own teenage daughter years ago, had no real attachment to the spunky Ellie.

Ellie is captured by cannibals and eventually escapes, leading to a climactic battle in a burning restaurant as Joel tries to find her in an escalating snowstorm. Playing as Ellie, a cutscene starts as the fight ends. Fueled by anger and fear, Ellie gets the upper hand on her opponent and starts maniacally hacking the cannibal in the face with a knife. That’s when Joel grabs her from behind, causing Ellie to swing around, ready to take down another would-be attacker.

Joel grabs Ellie’s face and hushes her, calling her “baby girl,” the nicknamed he’d reserved for his real daughter he lost years ago. Ellie lowers her defenses and the audio fades out and is replaced with an emotional acoustic song. The players don’t hear what both characters say to each other in those moments, but their relationship is forever changed. From that point on, Joel and Ellie share a love and father-daughter bond not even the threat of humanity’s annihilation can break.

Booker learns the truth in “BioShock Infinite”

Like “The Last of Us,” “BioShock Infinite” tells the story of a father’s love for his daughter, but the truth isn’t revealed until the game’s final moments.
Throughout the story, main character Booker DeWitt tries to protect and escort the powerful Elizabeth out of Columbia, a city floating in the sky. Near the game’s conclusion, Booker realizes through Elizabeth’s time- and space-bending abilities that not only is the game’s antagonist an alternate reality version of Booker himself but that Elizabeth is, in fact, his own daughter he had sold years ago to pay off outstanding debts.
The shocking twist is perfectly unveiled and makes perfect sense within the fiction. I remember my jaw dropping the moment it all clicked—realizing the implications of Booker’s actions and his relationship with Elizabeth throughout the game. Knowledge of the truth made replaying the game from the beginning even more impactful.
Metal Gear Solid 3
The Metal Gear Solid series has plenty of emotionally impacting moments, but the end of ‘Metal Gear Solid 3’ stands out.

Snake kills Boss in “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”

Chronologically, “Metal Gear Solid 3” takes place before anything else in the franchise’s confusing and convoluted story. You play as Naked Snake, a super soldier sent into distant jungles to learn more about a Soviet-made mobile tank capable of nuking the United States.
Through Snake’s journey, he discovers his longtime mentor and mother figure, Boss, has defected to the Soviets, making her Snake’s enemy. He encounters her a few times throughout the story, but it isn’t until the end of the game she and Snake face off.

The fight itself is beautiful, as it takes place in a field of white lilies that dance and sway in the breeze. Snake is forced to use the close-quarters combat moves Boss herself taught him in order to take her down. He eventually does, and a cutscene plays out where Boss asks Snake to shoot her. Control is given over to the player, who is forced to be the one to pull the trigger, adding to the discomfort of the scene.

As sad as that is, it gets worse. In an epilogue, a character explains Boss wasn’t a traitor at all. Due to complex reasons (I said the game’s confusing), Boss had to pretend to betray her country in order to secure an important artifact. Her final mission was to disgracefully die at Snake’s hands, her reputation and name forever tarnished, with only Snake and a handful of others ever knowing the truth.

Turrets bid you farewell in “Portal 2”

After spending who knows how long locked in an enormous underground lab desperately trying to escape homicidal robots trying to kill you as you’re armed with nothing more than a gun that can shoot portals to instantly travel between distant locations, players finally beat “Portal 2” and are allowed to leave by the game’s antagonist.

As the main character, Chell ascends an elevator, deadly turrets that have given her nothing but trouble throughout the game sing her a song instead of shooting her. The elevator moves higher, and Chell sees an entire orchestra of turrets that sing her an Italian opera song bidding her farewell.

It’s ridiculous, charming and strangely poignant. It’s hard not to be when, after all Chell is been through, she’s deemed worthy enough to finally be free of the lab that’s been her prison since the series began.

Dom finds his wife in “Gears of War 2”

The “Gears of War” series isn’t known for its loveable characters and strong storytelling, but one element of the series’ narrative carried more weight than I expected.

Main character Marcus Fenix’s best friend, Dom Santiago, spends the entirety of the first game looking for his wife, who was lost after monsters erupted from the earth’s crust and started exterminating the human race. After 14 years of searching, Dom still hadn’t lost all hope by the second game.

Partway through “Gear of War 2,” Dom begins searching giant metal cases that contain the husks of human prisoners the enemy had captured. He finally opens one to see his wife step out, just as beautiful as the day he last saw her.

But reality overcomes the illusion, and Dom realizes his wife is nothing more than a scarred, emaciated husk of a woman who can’t speak, move or even recognize her husband. In desperation, Dom repeated apologizes to her and gathers the courage and humanity to put his wife out of her misery by shooting her.

Dom’s years-long search had finally ended, but ignorance was probably bliss.

This article originally appeared on Jake Magee’s GazetteXtra gaming column, Press Start.

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