Video games offer something that no other narrative medium can: interactivity. Film, television, and literature are the traditional forms of storytelling, but they’re all passive. The journey is predetermined and you’re only a spectator. Video games take that to the next level. You’re not just an observer; you’re the actor.
Of course, video games can have linear narratives. They can also have sandbox, open world, nonlinear stories. Either way, the important thing is that you are the character. You experience the story as it happens in real time. And when it comes to emotional gaming, there are some seriously impactful scenes that will take your breath away.
Disclaimer: I hate spoilers. In this article, I do my best to avoid revealing the specific plot points and character arcs that define the emotional impact of these games. That being said, just knowing that these are emotional games could itself be a spoiler as it will color the gaming experience. Continue at your own risk.
The Walking Dead (PC, PS3, X360, and more)
This game has nothing to do with the television series except for its name and setting. Developed by Telltale Games, The Walking Dead is a graphic adventure game that focuses heavily on character arcs, player choices, and human drama. It’s not a puzzle game. It’s not a shooter game. It’s a story game.
The crux of the gameplay rests on quick-time actions, a mechanic that’s often lambasted for being clunky, immersion-breaking, and unnecessary. However, The Walking Dead makes perfect use of it by forcing you to make story-altering decisions in the heat of the moment. It creates an atmosphere of urgency and tension that complements the game’s gloomy and gritty reality.
And those quick-time actions will break your heart. You’re bound to make bad decisions – embrace it because that’s part of the experience – and those mistakes will result in plot points that twist your gut. There’s a reason why The Walking Dead won over 80 Game of the Year awards. It deserves every single one of them.
The Last of Us (PS3, PS4)
Like The Walking Dead, The Last of Us is a narrative-centric game that takes place in a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world with a larger focus on story and characters than gameplay itself. However, The Last of Us does have elements of action-adventure and survival horror, making it a more compelling experience for many gamers.
The developers, Naughty Dog, have succeeded in doing what many survival horror games fail to do these days: make us care about the characters. Consequences and stakes only matter if you, the audience, care what happens. When the safety of your favorite characters is threatened, that’s when tension and horror truly shine.
That’s what makes The Last of Us such a memorable and emotional experience. The atmosphere, mood, setting, characters, and plots all come together in a cohesive way that grips the heart and makes you feel human. Truly, The Last of Us is one of the PlayStation-exclusive games worth buying a PlayStation to play.
Metal Gear Solid 3 (PS2/PS3, X360, 3DS)
Having been released back in 2004, Metal Gear Solid 3 might be one of the older games on this list, but don’t let that cheapen your perspective. Yes, the graphics and the gameplay might feel dated – it is over a decade old after all – but the story builds up to one of the strongest and most emotional climaxes in gaming history.
Metal Gear Solid 3 stuck to its stealth-action roots with a couple of gameplay twists that some critics liked and others didn’t. In that sense, Metal Gear Solid 3 is a safe bet for more of the same heart-pounding, edge-of-the-seat operations that defined the previous titles in the franchise.
But unlike its predecessors, Metal Gear Solid 3 streamlines the narrative flow and tightens up the storytelling so well that it effectively amplifies the cinematic atmosphere up several notches. It’s beautiful, it’s exciting, and it all leads to an ending that will leave you with an impression you won’t soon forget.
Heavy Rain (PS3)
Heavy Rain is the story of four protagonists who are caught up in the mystery of a serial murderer known as the Origami Killer. The player interacts with the environment, as well as with quick-time events, to drive the story forward. This game is a thriller, yes, but it’s not an action-thriller. It’s slow, deep, and immensely powerful.
The player’s decisions dictate the story and it’s entirely possible for all four of the main characters to die. Different decisions can lead to multiple endings with one of those climaxes being a grand example of just how strikingly powerful a video game can be in its imagery and mood. For this reason, many consider Heavy Rain to be more of an interactive film than a traditional video game, reminding us that video games can be art.
If you’re looking for actual gameplay, look elsewhere. That’s not where Heavy Rain excels. Instead, if you want a dark film noir game that explores the depths of the human condition, there are few games as good as this one.
Lost Odyssey (X360)
Lost Odyssey is a bit of an odd title to include, mostly because it’s a lesser-known game. It didn’t sell very well despite favorable reviews from critics. Part of the reason for that was likely due to its unconventional art style and old school gameplay mechanics. Admittedly, it’s a bit dull on the gameplay front, but the narrative side stories are incredible.
Here’s the premise: what happens when you’ve lived a thousand years but remember nothing of your past? That’s the central mystery of Lost Odyssey in the main character Kaim, who comes to learn that some things are better off left in secret.
In general, reception of the game’s story was split: the main storyline didn’t receive much love while the memory flashbacks were praised for being emotionally weighty and deeply moving. Should you play this game? If you aren’t bothered by mediocre gameplay, yes, it’s definitely a story worth exploring.
We cry for different reasons. For some, the death of a loved one is what takes us over the edge. For others, it’s undying loyalty, brotherly sacrifice or grave injustice that tugs at our hearts. These games may not end with you in tears, but they have the necessary ingredients to make it happen.
Not satisfied? Check out our other post on games that will touch you emotionally.
Have you played the listed games? Did they make you cry? Are there any unlisted titles that have resulted in puffy red eyes and a mound of wet tissues? Share your thoughts on the most emotional video games by commenting below!