We recently played through Dying Light and - while we enjoyed it – we have to admit that we didn’t really feel anything. We never got that sense of terror you’d expect from rampaging nightmarish zombies. We never felt any emotional connection to any of the characters we tried to save. We never felt any real anger towards the villainous Rais [EDITOR’S NOTE: Didn’t that arena scene where his henchmen are chanting “RAIS!” and look and sound just like that prison scene in The Dark Knight Rises?]. In the end, we had a fun coop experience in a game but kinda regretted that we didn’t really feel anything about any of the events or characters. Ultimately, we were just going through the motions, not unlike the zombies roaming the city.
Dying Light is not alone, it’s only the most recent example. Sunset Overdrive aims to be fun without any other emotional investment, Destiny is fun but almost entirely emotion-free, and Far Cry 4 doesn’t even reach the emotional highs of Far Cry 3 (we miss you Vaas, Michael Mando rules!). Today, it seems like there are fewer and fewer games that give you the feels. There are some exceptions to the rules, however! Here are some recent games that gave us a palpable emotional experience.
The mother$%#&ing orc captains in Mordor
Talion is a supernatural ranger with a lot to do: he’s solving his own murder, stopping a marauding army, and attempting to prevent Sauron from taking over all of Middle-earth. With all this going on, however, I will stop drop everything to take vengeance on some trash talking orc who got the best of me in a battle. Watching those guys cackle when they chase you off from a losing battle or – worse yet – best you in battle and get promoted for it made me angry enough to drop all other priorities until that orc paid for his victory. While so many games try very hard to build some antipathy towards their antagonists, Shadow of Mordor’s randomly generated trash talking orcs inspire more homicidal rage than Rais, Pagan Min, and Crota combined.
The final chapter of Valiant Hearts
Valiant Hearts is a great game about war. Through the eyes of four different characters, you experience life on the front lines, time in a war prison, and civilian life alongside the war. The primary protagonist, Emile, is the heart and soul of the story. He’s drafted into the army and sent to the front lines while his son-in-law, a German, is deported and drafted into the German army. Emile spends the game befriending soldiers, keeping his family together, and trying to survive the war. The last battle which takes place literally on the bodies of fallen soldiers with your deranged commanding officer forcing you and your comrades to march into certain death and leads to an inevitable conclusion which is both tragic and heartbreaking.
Monument Valley’s Totem
Monument Valley is a beautiful if subtle game. I actually am not sure I remember what the story of the game is (something about birds) but I remember Totem, the bizarre living pillar you encounter midway through the game who helps you solve some puzzles. He becomes a cute companion who’s follows you like a pet. In a game in which cutscenes are rare, there is one sad scene of Totem attempting to follow you to sea and sinking beneath the waves, seemingly mindlessly dying like a lemming (I told myself he surely swam back to shore and went to a movie or something). When he later returns - nonchalantly simply waiting for you to catch up to him – it’s a very happy moment in a largely aesthetic game.
The Joker’s last laugh in Arkham C
I guess it’s not much of a spoiler but (SPOILER WARNING) at the end of Arkham City, the Joker dies. He's spent the entire game concealing an illness affecting both the Joker and Batman but after you (as Batman) finally secure the cure, he ambushes you, causes you to drop the drug, and dies laughing when he realizes that -despite everything he's done - you still would have given it to him. Batman silently carries his corpse out of Arkham City with a solemnity reflecting the fact that he’s both won and lost; he’s stopped him but failed to catch him. It’s bizarrely deflating. There’s no final battle against the Joker and you do save Arkham City. The haunting thing about the end of the game is knowing that - when all was said and done - the Joker had the last laugh.
PT’s unnerving horror
PT is a game that everyone should play. When you start the game, you awaken in a hallway and you'll immediately be amazed by how impressive the graphics are. You'll enter a hallway and look at the various nondescript objects there and eventually make your way to the end of the hallway and through a door. The door returns you to the start of the hallway and you'll note that everything is largely unchanged. You'll make your way through the hallway and start the process again, feeling confident that you know what's going on. You'll go through the hallway a couple of more times before that figure is there, the large, terrifying figure in the hallway. You'll then wonder if you have an attack button or if you have missed a secret passage, but eventually you'll have to face that menacing figure and then....well, if you played the game then you know what happens and if you didn't, well I won't spoil it. Needless to say, last year PT inspired more horror than any other title in years. Forget Silent Hill, we're looking forward to PT 2.
The Brother’s final gift (MAJOR SPOILERS)
Okay, here are some more spoilers. (SPOILERS) The end of brothers involves one brother having to complete the adventure without the other. For the entire game, you control both brothers with each of the control sticks, a gameplay mechanic which works remarkably well except in situations where you have to swim (where the older brother carries the younger). At the end of the game, the younger brother is on his own and soon finds himself having to cross a body of water. Entering the water, he flounders as he usually does and can't cross the water until - out of frustration - you move the other stick, the older brother's stick, and sudden the younger brother can swim. The older brother, you realize, is very much present in that instant and for a brief moment in the game, it is impressively powerful. In one little powerful moment, the game completes a story of how one brother inspired another in a way that only a video game can.
Those infamous giraffes
Is there anything more moving than those giraffes in The Last of Us? After Ellie’s nightmarish experience away from Joel, her bubbly personality has been replaced by quiet reflection. As the two continue their quest together, she’s suddenly subdued and resistant to Joel’s attempts to draw her out (a terrific reversal of their typical dynamic). Suddenly, the two catch sight of some grazing giraffes whom they stop to watch. It's a moment of that’s both aesthetically beautiful and emotionally poignant. Ellie loses her childhood and rediscovers some of the beauty of the world in one great scene. So few games show characters experiencing the fallout of their actions; most characters become hardened killers with hardly any emotional consequences for their actions. The Last of Us is considered a masterpiece, and this scene was one of the best examples of why.