**You know what would be really sad? If you read ahead without realizing there are SPOILERS everywhere. If you don't want to know about the plot of these three games, just note the names and play them for yourself. Read on at your own risk!**
Everyone knows sometimes video games don't have warm and fuzzy storylines. A lot of people had their first indication that video games could be sad when they played popular games, like the entries into the Final Fantasy or Call of Duty series. But some games that have a truly gutteral, heart-wrenching plot go overlooked, especially in the current generation of gaming.
Here is a trio of games that each came out a few years ago, but haven't really seen as many tears as they deserve. I'll even put them in order from sad to saddest, starting with...
#3: Shadow of the Colossus (PS2 -- 2005; Remastered on PS3 -- 2011)
Shadow of the Colossus is a game that received absolutely stellar rankings among critics of its time. It is often cited as one of the most influential video games of the past decade, and for good reason. The ambiance and atmosphere of the game are ahead of its time. With close to no dialogue at all, the game's events are mostly accentuated using a riveting soundtrack and beautifully realistic environments. Even the 16 giant colossi the main character, Wander, must fell all almost seem like they could've been real creatures of the Earth.
But what I'm going to talk about isn't the excellent design and soundtrack of the game that it is so well-known for. Speaking to SoC's crybaby factor, I must refer to the timeless plot.
The plot of SoC is actually extremely simple: the girl Wander loves is dead, and he wants to bring her back to life. And he will do anything. He'll even go as far as to make a deal with the devil. That is the premise to SoC. He brings his implied lover to a forbidden temple, in a land cursed by a fallen god named Dormin.
With the resurrection of the damsel the only goal in mind, the player spends the rest of the game controlling Wander and finding ways to slay each of the 16 giants. After slaying a certain amount, the player notices Wander's body growing paler, his hair darker and strange patterns forming on his skin. And by the time the final colossus is killed, the final part of the plot is revealed.
The King of the land that Wander was from appears with his guard, revealing that Wander had stolen a sacred sword (the only one able to defeat the colossi) and fled with his dead lover under penalty of treason. Too late to stop him, the King discovers in horror that slaying each colossus forced Wander to absorb their spirits, and now that they have all been brought together...
Surprise! Dormin has been reborn, because all of the colossi had been keeping a piece of his power. Wander's body is sacrificed as he transforms into a giant, demonic colossus (Dormin) and the player is forced to play it as it attacks the King and his men.
Feeling the sadness yet? It gets better. It turns out, the demon kept it's word and the girl does in fact come back to life. But only after Wander is dead and gone. So after everything that was done, the player does feel like they accomplished their goal, but what about Wander? Well, he will just never know he succeeded. His love may be alive again, but he won't even have the satisfaction of knowing his overcoming of insurmountable odds wasn't a total waste of his life.
And this is the LEAST sad of the three.
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#2: Lost Odyssey (Xbox360 -- 2008)
Lost Odyssey is a JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) exclusive for the Xbox 360. The game was also a great critical success, despite meeting with some flak for it's old school turn-based combat system. The story was well received, and it's the background story of the characters that really make the game shine. However, I can't break down the whole game like I did with #3 because, well...
It's kinda long.
So, instead I'll break it down pretty basically for you. There is a group of heroes who appear to be immortal; they can't easily die and don't seem to ever age. It takes a while before the game reveals why, but for the sake of this article it's not that important. Every character has an equally interesting and deep story behind them. Just to focus on one, let's stick to the main character, Kaim. Kaim is a man who has lived for a thousand years. He has been through many different wars and seen different nations rise and fall, and he has become a powerful warrior with ageless experience. But immortality isn't all sparkly vampires and getting to play god: it is precisely Kaim's immortality that makes the story so damned sad.
The game includes a component called "A Thousand Years of Dreams" which is like an optional journal that you uncover more of as you play the game. The journal entries are each like chapters in a graphic novel complete with a soundtrack and illustration, and written by an actual short story author. In other words, they're pretty darn good. I know a lot of people who love this game just because of these little stories. They tell the tale of different times that Kaim lived his life, and represent his memories being recovered. Here's the thing though:
Kaim's immortal life is pretty morbid.
Just about all of the stories take place hundreds of years apart and highlight something sad that Kaim had to deal with. A good example: one of them talks about a time when Kaim is in a town during some sort of festival to honor those lost in a violent earthquake 200 years ago. And--surprise--Kaim was actually there. Problem is, so was his mortal wife and daughter. Did I mention the earthquake was known by the townsfolk to have no survivors..?
"To live for a thousand years meant bearing the pain of a thousand years of partings."
Yeah. There's 30 or so of these stories and all of them are as sad as the one above. And if you don't feel your gut wrenching after watching the above video (presented exactly as is in-game), then I commend you. Because it had me on the brink of tears while I was playing the game for the first time. They can get pretty tragic in various ways, too. Another entry includes Kaim telling travel stories to a sickly young girl on her deathbed and musing how she'll go onto a better place. He also narrates his frustrations that he can never do the same and join the people he's loved over his life, such as the little girl.
Still another involves him meeting a veteran in a bar who was too guilt-ridden over war atrocities to go home and face his family. Kaim talks him into it and is about to leave when he is attacked at gunpoint. The soldier throws himself in the way, wanting to cancel out lives he's taken by saving one. Of course Kaim is immortal anyway so the man just throws his life away when he dies of the bullet wound. Yeah. This game highlights things like that.
Immortality turns out to be one of the saddest concepts, ever. I'll never think of it the same way again, and neither will you if you play this game.
But to move onto what I consider the saddest game I've ever played:
#1: Nier (PS3, Xbox360 -- 2010)
When it comes to games like Nier I don't even know where to start. The game has a complex plot. Trying to keep it as simple as possible, at some point in the 21st century is a massive outbreak of a virus from another dimension. It gets weirder than that. This virus transforms people into shade-like monsters that prey on the living and infect them as well, and they slowly seem to lose their sanity and physical forms the longer they are infected.
In the beginning of the game, a father is protecting his daughter from these creatures with the help of an experimental, talking book (told you it got weirder) called a Grimoire created from the same energy the infection came from. Apparently this man has some sort of immunity to the virus, but his daughter is sickly and succumbing to the effects. In the end, he manages to defeat all the "Shades" with the help of the Grimoire, but the scene cuts as the girl has an apparently fatal coughing fit.
The game fast-forwards exactly 1,312 years later. The player is introduced to a small, farm town years behind the setting they were in before the timskip in technology. The same man appears to still be searching for a cure for the same little girl, who is suffering from something the townspeople call the Black Scrawl. It is revealed to him that the only way to cure her is for him to find the Black Grimoire and the White Grimoire and bring them together. And so, the rest of the game involves your journey to do this.
Along the way you meet a few companions and other characters that each have tragic backstories as well, but the most important (and depressing) thing about this game is the overarching plot and the emphasis of it on the main character, Nier, himself.
Here's the spoiler-heavy breakdown. At some point in the story, you find out that the one leading all the Shades is a dude called the Shadowlord. He also is the one with the White Grimoire, so when Nier already has the Black Grimoire, the party realizes the only way for them to cure his daughter is to confront the leader of the monsters himself. Sounds simple, right? Except this:
The Shadowlord is the original Nier.
It turns out that the man you started the game as was the real Nier. The one you're playing as is a clone, along with his daughter. To make it even worse, every single person you've met in the game is a clone. Why did this happen? Well because about 1,300 years back that virus I was talking about before was threatening to extinguish all of humanity.
So if the people of the world were just supposed to be vessels, why did they all seem real? That's the problem. The artificial "replacements" of the world suddenly started to have free will and emotions. They began to manifest souls of their own, so the clone Nier began having the same drive to save his daughter that the real Nier--the Shadowlord--has always had. Basically, the Shadowlord lures you, the clone, to him so you can bring him the Black Grimoire and he can revive his daughter. And he succeeds, and you're forced to watch as the daughter you've fought the whole game for is absorbed by, well, the real one.
Only once this happens, she decides that the clone's love for her own father is even greater, so she forfeits her body back to her. So YAY you did it! You reached your goal and revived your daughter, even if she is a clone!
Except that you're not the real Nier, so you kind of just screwed up his 1300 year quest to save his own daughter's soul... Hmm.
It gets worse. Once you kill the Shadowlord (who goes insane and attacks you at this point), you can playthrough the game again but this time with the strange noises of all the Shades you fight being translated. Now I wonder; if everyone including your protagonist is a vessel made to accept the souls of the "real" people, where did all those souls go?
That's right. Every enemy in the game--every Shade--is actually the soul of a real person. Most of the time you spend killing them you'll watch in horror as the words translated at the bottom of the screen indicate that it is actually a noble, and benign soul trying to communicate with you. Or they'll be calling you a monster and fighting you as the killer of all mankind. Yeah, in your quest to save your daughter and kill the "monsters" it turns out that you're actually eradicating all the real people of the world's souls. Talk about a twist, huh?
Here's the real kicker. As it turns out, every one of the clones are sterile. Whenever they died, the androids you killed would just rebirth them as new vessels with their memories erased (thus explaining why 1300 years have passed and the clone Nier still existed).
There's 5 different endings, and all of them result in this. You feel like a hero the whole game, only to find out everything you did was an act of rebellion against the real you. You singlehandedly kill innocent souls to revive your daughter, who isn't even meant to exist. And after all this, you have caused the inevitable destruction of humanity.
Talk about a sad ending.
So if you want to see a REAL sad video game ending, check out any of these three lesser-known titles. Not even reading about them can prepare you for the tears, and I promise they'll be even sadder if you play through the whole thing. Even though it can be extremely depressing, these games all approach the title of masterpiece, and the quality of drama they represent is by and far rivaling some of the best novels or short stories that exist today. Not all of the best games are smiles and sunshine, and there's no question that games like this are worthy of your attention.
Have fun crying.