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The loss of a character or a belief in a game is a distinct feeling. It carries a different sort of weight than a loss in film or television. A player is not simply a spectator, watching with no autonomy or control. A player embodies the values and experiences of the character being controlled. With that, at least for me, comes a greater sense of connection and care for the events of the world. The victories feel sweeter when they are achieved by my hand. But the defeats and the failures, the moments where all seems lost, they hit all the harder. When they do, it is all I can do to keep my head raised, believing that the next point of happiness or strength will lighten the burden I now must carry. It is this conviction, this hope that my character and I can come back from even the greatest of sacrifices and the wrongest of choices, that gives me the strength to push through the darkness of the saddest video game moments. No games have left me with a desire to see the light break through the clouds in the coming chapters like the ones on this list. Spoilers ahead.
John Marston's Last Stand - Red Dead Redemption
A part of me had believed that John Marston had redeemed himself in the eyes of the law. After all the time he had spent, I believed the respite would never end. And after spending time with his son and wife, It appeared all was right in his world. But it was not to be. Despite everything he had done, he could not wipe his slate clean. The law gathered outside the barn he and his family were in. Marston sent his son and wife away. He took a deep breath and opened the doors of the barn. Facing off against too many men to count, John draws his pistol one last time. In that moment I believed I could take all the bastards down with me. But I couldn't. They obliterated me. John collapsed to the ground, blood soaked and wheezing. And his story ended. If only it had ended there. Jack picked up his father's mantle. He pursued and executed Edgar Ross, the leader of the men who killed his father. In doing so, Jack became the very thing his father never wanted him to be, making the ending all the more bitter.
Survive - Halo: Reach
Any Halo fan entering Reach knew that this was not a story victory. As the game progressed, and the members of Noble Team were picked off, I became numb. Jorge sacrificed himself to destroy one ship, only for a fleet to arrive moments later. Kat was shot in the back of the head by an unseen sniper. Carter slammed his ship into a Scarab and Emile was killed by an Elite Zealot. Jun had left with Halsey. I was all that remained. With the escape of the pillar of autumn, I believed my job complete. Even though I was certain Noble Six wouldn't make it out alive, I was not prepared for my final objective. The game offered me one word, “Survive”. I didn't understand, but as I fought the unceasing onslaught of the covenant beneath a burnt red sky, I began to see. A blast cracked my helmet, and then another. Despite my greatest efforts, I could not win. And with a few more elites surrounding me, I fell to the ground and a final cutscene played. From the perspective of my helmet, I watched as Noble Six fought to his last breath, and an elite buried an energy sword into his chest. It was the first time I had fought to my death in a shooter, and not responded shortly after. Let's hope Halo 6 isn't quite as sad.
Joel's Lie - The Last of Us
From the moment Joel lost Sarah, I was confident The Last of Us wouldn't have a happy ending where everything is wrapped up and the world is saved. As Joel and Ellie's journey progressed, and the bodies of dead friends and foes piled up while facing some of the scariest video game enemies, I believed it could only end in more tears. By the time Joel had been impaled, I was certain his death would come soon after and mark the end of this tale. Looking back, maybe that would have been better. When I heard Ellie’s death could be the factor that changes the tide of this conflict, I eagerly rushed from room to room, killing everyone in sight. Even though I saved Ellie and it was what I wanted to do, I knew I had failed to see the bigger picture. I murdered the people that wanted to save humanity because I couldn't bear to go through the death of another child. I was left unsure of my actions. Watching Joel lie to Ellie out of love as the story came to a close broke me. Of course I didn't really have a choice in the matter, but if I did, I don't know if I would have changed anything. Even without the death of a main character, Joel's lie has become one of my saddest video game moments.
Mordin Solus - Mass Effect 3
Sometimes a death catches you severely off guard. Mordin Solus was a nutty doctor/scientist who played a large role in the creation and dispersal of the genophage in the Mass Effect series. He rarely allowed himself to show any emotion, and always looked at the big picture. Getting to know Mordin over two games was a joy. Despite his rational thinking, I could always see the emotion he fought back breaking through. After enough conversation and missions, Mordin began to share his feelings on his work with the Genophage. He had come to regret his decision, believing it to be unjust. He carried this burden with him, and when his chance for redemption came, I realized I was looking at him for the last time. Mordin had to cure the Genophage, and he was going to die doing it. I didn't think the death of this loopy, fast-speaking alien would linger, especially in a game where death seemed to claw at an old friend with every new mission. It didn't make it any easier that many of his final lines harkened back to his most humanizing moments in Mass Effect 2. While it pained me to watch someone I had worked hard to build a bond with and save die, I knew it had to be done.
Agro - Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is a dark game shrouded in mystery and legend. It is a journey into darkness for the one you care about where saving your friend may mean losing yourself. With each victory, I felt less triumphant. Wander’s body deteriorates with each slain Colossus. My fears and doubts towards this deal with the devil reached its apex when I lost Agro. It came out of nowhere. I had been so focused on myself and Mono, I never even considered a risk to agro, perceiving his mechanics to give him enough reason to never die. He did not die in battle. He died as a bridge collapsed behind us, and in his last moments, he saved me. Now I was alone. Nothing had seemed to be paying off. I knew Dormin was benefiting from my chaos. I no longer even believed I was going to get Mono back. Anger and hate filled me. This saddest of moments is thankfully reversed when Agro is revealed to be alive in the end of the game, though it will never relieve me of the guilt and weakness I felt in the time after his assumed demise.
Soap - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
It is hard to believe a death from Call of Duty left me feeling so exhausted that I couldn't play more for the rest of the night. But I had been through so much with Soap! What kind of a name is Soap anyways? How can I possibly sound serious when saying the death of Soap was one of the saddest video game moments? It was though. Soap had been through so much, and playing as him to kill both Zakhaev and Shepherd, and alongside him to brave snowstorms and gulags had left him as my favorite character in the the trilogy. His and Price’s storyline in MW3 opened up with me escorting the wounded Soap to safety. I was certain that saving him there would mean he would not die later on. While I loved Price as well, I would rather have lost him. I felt a father-son relationship between the two, and to feel the pain of Price losing Soap was too much. Exacting vengeance in the final mission had never felt so cathartic.
Finding Dom's Wife - Gears of War 2
The story of gears of war is certainly not the happiest of tales, and there are a handful of events in the series that could be considered some of the saddest video game moments. It is a tale of humanity's struggle that spares no atrocity. Great victories and achievements often come with greater sacrifice and loss. None hit as hard as the conclusion of Dom's ten year search for Maria, his wife. He and Marcus battled their way through the locust network, only to find their enemy imprisoning and torturing hundreds of humans. They searched through the camps of iron maiden-like pods with little but hope that they would find his beloved. They did find her. I was filled with relief as she exited the pod in perfect health, unscathed by the events that had preceded. And as Dom embraced her I felt like this was it. This was the faint glimmer of hope that keeps these two men pushing on when all around them has fallen to ash and woe. But it was not to be. It was all Marcus could do to mutter Dom’s name. As his senses return to him, he sees her as she is. Malnourished, ghostly, not an inch left unscarred or unbloodied. She stared at him with milky white eyes and a blank expression. Dom was distraught, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. As Marcus puts his hand on his shoulder, and Dom turns, exclaiming, “I don't know what to do.” Marcus replies, “Dom, it’s ok.” He walks away to give Dom his moment. Dom pulls out his revolver and holds it to her head. Marcus hears the shot ring out behind him, and all feels lost. Few moments had me as thirsty for locust blood as Dom telling Marcus, "I wanna kill 'em all."