Video games. I’m pretty sure most people who would read this wouldn’t think of them as being deep or meaningful. Aren’t they just about blowing shit up real good? Carnage? Dismemberment? Fatalities in gruesome spectacle? Well, yeah, they can be. Most of the time.
But this summer, I’ve played two games which had me sick with sadness. Two. In one season. And there’s still a month left. What’s going on?
To be fair, I would say that 90% of video games that I play do not elicit an emotional response beyond the violent catharsis or the challenge of a good puzzle, so the two games I’m going to talk about here are anomalies. A long, long, long time ago, when I first started playing video games, the emotions related were more about my reactions to playing. When I’d play River Raid (1982) or Pitfall (1982), it was the excitement of coming close to instant death (in the game, of course) and trying to score better / higher than the last time I played (back when video game scores meant everything). Somewhere along the line, I stopped playing video games in late-middle and all of high school (read this as I missed Nintendo NES and SNES, hence I’m not a fan of them). But when I got to college and bought a PS1 along with Metal Gear Solid (1998), I was off to the races again. Which is why, when I popped in the demo disc for Final Fantasy VII (1997), I was perplexed. What was this? This wasn’t Crash Bandicoot (1996). There were no levels. Just a lot of characters talking to each other. I didn’t understand it.
But once everyone was talking about FFVII, I decided to give it a spin. That is when I had my first legitimate emotional response not from playing the game as the operator / controller but to the content of the game itself. It was, of course, when Aeris dies.
Oh. My. God. That didn’t happen. Did it? Much like Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane in Psycho (1960), you weren’t expecting someone so vital to the plot to be killed off. Aeris was a playable character! How could she be dead? It’s weird, but watching the video before I dropped it in here (to make sure it was accurate), I actually got a bit choked up, even after all these years. Is that some funky Proustian thing when I hear that music? I don’t know.
But since then, games have rarely affected me to that extreme of an emotional level. Every once in a while, they did. I will never forget when I was playing Fallout 3 (2008)(greatest video game of all time), and I picked up radio signal Oscar Zulu about the father who’s boy was “very sick” and “needs medical assistance.” I scoured the area trying to find the drainage chamber they were in. When I found it, the long-dead corpses reminded me that most of the radio signals in the game originated from long ago. But the voice of the father, so desperate, dug at me.
There’s a scene in Red Dead Redemption (2010) where John Marston and his group come upon a ranch and are trying to look for the family that runs it. When they head into the barn, they find the family, all hanging from the rafters, disemboweled. I was mortified at the cruelty. I still can’t believe I saw that in a game.
But the two experiences I’ve had recently have had a twist of the knife in my gut, because I have to participate in the heartache and horror. First up is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013). The game was interesting because it had innovative game play. You controlled two brothers: Naia (the older brother) and Naiee. Naiee is justifiably traumatized because in the opening of the game, you learned that he can’t swim, and his mother died trying to rescue him. The boys’ father now is deathly ill from a mysterious disease, and the boys are told to go and get special water from the Tree of Life. They set out on their quest (with always a sense of urgency – you get cut scenes of the father writhing in pain). The interesting thing about how the game is played is that the left side of the controller is for one brother and the right is for the other. It’s like playing a cooperative game with yourself (left and right brain). At times (at least for me), it was difficult. But I got the brothers through until they are about to make it to the Tree of Life. This is when the girl that they saved earlier turns into a spider and mortally wounds Naia. Naiee races up the Tree of Life to get the water to save his brother, but when he reaches the base, Naia is dead.
Here is the link. It's around the 5 minute mark, but watching the whole thing will demonstrate the art style.
But that’s not the insanely sad part. What happens next is I, as Naiee, have to dig Naia’s grave and bury him! Holy hell, the pathos! I’m suffocating holding back tears as I did this. Naiee makes it back to the village (in a yet continuing touching part you control the ghost of the dead Naia to “help” Naiee get back).
The second experience happened this weekend. Valiant Hearts (2014) is DLC (downloadable content) from Ubisoft about WWI. This makes perfect sense, as we are remembering the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the worst war ever (if you want to argue WWII was worse, my opening gambit is “we wouldn’t have had WWII if it hadn’t been for WWI” – your move). The art style of the game makes it seem sort of cute, but this game was dark and wrenching (one level had me crawling over mountains of corpses to escape shelling). All the figures are tragic. Karl is a German living in pastoral splendor in Belgium with his wife Marie and their son. He is forced to enlist in the German army as Marie’s father, Emile, is drafted into the French infantry. An American character, Freddie, joins the French army because his wife is killed by the Germans on their wedding day, and Freddie is just plain out for revenge. No one is having a good time. They meet up with a medic, Anna, whose scientist father has been kidnapped by the Germans. The good news is, by the end of the game, Karl is reunited with Marie and his son, and Anna is reunited with his father. We don’t really know what becomes of Freddie, but because of some ruthless suicidal orders from the French lieutenant to charge when it was obvious they would all be killed, Emile hits the French lieutenant on the head and kills him. He is then court martialed and found guilty.
Again, that’s all very tragic, but then I had to march Emile out to the post where he is tied and awaits the firing squad. That’s fucking terrible! Why did you make me do that, game?
I don’t know what to make of these games that are emotionally punishing. I don’t know if this is a new trend or just an anomaly. I don’t know if this is part of an overall shift in the culture where popular media will just go there, rip your heart out. Sure, movies have plenty of experience with this (I’m more apt to have a movie disintegrate me), but video games? I’ll definitely be interested to see what happens next. Since not only were these great games to play, they were great to experience.