Let’s kick-off this emotional roller-coaster of an article and talk about the saddest video games that will bring forth the onion-cutting ninjas and make you sob uncontrollably.
The gaming industry has evolved tremendously in the last decades. From barely distinguishable pixels that were more abstractizations of characters and locations than anything else, we’ve reached a point where we can render fully fleshed out worlds and characters in high detail.
And with high graphical fidelity comes the opportunity to deliver emotional, believable stories because, you know, it’s really hard to become attached to a coalescence of polygons.
As with many other things, whether a story is emotional or not is highly subjective. For this purpose, we’ve strived to pick out sad games with well-crafted stories that even if they will not make you burst into tears, they’ll at least make you reach out for a box of napkins just in case.
Criteria for choosing the saddest video games:
- Is the story well-crafted and devoid of cheesy, tear-jerking moments?
- Are the characters relatable enough to make players feel they’ve developed an emotional bond with them?
- Does the game discuss/debate themes revolving around depression, anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, whether emotional or material?
- Does the game contain at least one scene (preferably the ending) where players are forced to wipe at least one tear from their eyes?
It’s also worth mentioning that, for the purposes of this article, we’ve temporarily strayed away from the realm of RPGs and included games from all genres. We did that in order to be able to include all the sad video games we have ever played. With that being said, let’s kick-off this emotional roller-coaster of an article and talk about the saddest video games that will bring forth the onion-cutting ninjas.
25. Shadow of the Colossus
Initial Release Date: October 18, 2005 | Platforms: Playstation 2, 3, 4
- Developer: Team Ico, Sony Interactive Entertainment, SIE Japan Studio
- Average length: 8+ hours
- Genre: action adventure
MARCO GIULIANI → Shadow of the Colossus, or “Oh God, WHAT HAVE I DONE?!’’ for those of you who prefer its alternate title, is one of the saddest video gaming experiences, not necessarily because of the story, but rather the actions of the player. You play as a young man who, wishing to save his slain maiden from her faith, sets off to a forbidden kingdom.
Once there, a mysterious being with the power to revive the dead makes a proposal – in exchange for resurrecting the woman, the young man has to slay the kingdom’s sole inhabitants. Said inhabitants are 16 ancient colossi. Some of them are larger than the eye can see, while others are powerful enough to turn you into a bag of flesh and bones.
Presumably muttering ‘’Sucker’’! and thinking that he struck the deal of the century, the man sets off to kill these colossi. However, there’s a catch – these colossi, as threatening as they may sound, are peaceful creatures who don’t attack unless provoked.
So it’s not so much ‘’monster slaying’’ as it is senseless murdering, a fact that becomes pretty much evident as soon as you accept the proposal, all in the hopes that the weird looking dude will keep his promise and resurrect your loved one. And the saddest thing about this game is that you have no choice in the matter – if you want to save your love, you have to accept this bargain.
The ‘’cause justifies the means approach’’ will make less and less sense with each slain colossi, as you’ll realize that you’re essentially killing innocent creatures for your own personal gain. Oh, and remember the ‘’sole inhabitants’’ part? Yes, you’re practically committing genocide for a girl. If that’s not tear-jerk material, I don’t know what is.
Initial Release Date: December 13, 2018 | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Windows, MacOS
- Developer: Nomada Studio
- Average length: 4-6 hours
- Genre: platformer, indie
BAABUSKA→ GRIS is an indie masterpiece of outstanding beauty, where every frame becomes a painting. I stumbled across the title by accident. From what I saw in the trailers, the game featured many of the elements that I appreciate in games – that deeper meaning, a completely unique art style, meticulous details, and interesting platforming sequences. But trailers are generally designed to show the better parts of a game, right? This was not the case for GRIS. As a matter of fact, after playing the game, I found that the trailers severely underplay the brilliance of the game.
Despite its vivid facade, GRIS is one of the saddest video games I’ve played, dealing with loss and self-discovery. There is almost no text. Instead, designers used color, delicate art, universal icons, and a haunting soundtrack to convey the story of a young girl who lost herself and her voice. The color of the canvas is a manifestation of Gris’s emotions. The world changes around her to reflect her feelings – from a barren desert to lush forests, and finally, the sky (that she overtakes). The art of the game is not static. It evolves through layers of patterns, shapes, and colors, adding more depth to the story and helping you uncover new mechanics.
“Gris is about the fear we live with, and finding the voice to defeat it.” – Polygon
“The Darkness” is also a manifestation of Gris’s depression. It begins as a harmless flock of birds but eventually transforms into a giant creature or dark ocean that threatens to swallow her whole. No design choice is random in this game. Even the statue, Gris’s image of herself, reforms as the girl gets closer to overcoming her grief.
It’s impressive that Nomada Studio was able to convey something so universal in merely 4 hours of gameplay. I believe that GRIS will remain relevant for years to come, due to its ability to explain mental anguish and depression through breathtaking art. Gris may not make you cry out loud, but it is a profound experience that will shake you to the core.
23. Telltale’s The Walking Dead Series
Initial Release Date: April 24, 2012 | Platforms: PS4, Android, Xbox One, PS3
- Developer: Telltale Games
- Average length: on-going series
- Genre: interactive adventure game
MARCO GIULIANI → Zombie apocalypse media is known for many things, and subtlety is not one of them. The TV show bearing the same name is no exception, which is why it came as a total surprise (at least for me) that a product related to the Walking Dead franchise can evoke non-memable dramatic moments.
Telltale’s Walking Dead is less about smashing zombie heads to pieces and more about the human condition. It’s about making tough decisions in desperate times, decisions which aren’t easier to make even when you or your friend’s survival is at stake.
There’s a lot to say about this game, but it would be a shame spoiling even after all these years, so you haven’t had a chance to play it, make sure to get on it. There’s one thing we can say without spoiling the story: it’s a zombie-themed game, so don’t expect a happy ending. If that isn’t saddest video games material, I don’t know what is.
22. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Initial Release Date: August 7, 2013 | Platforms: Android, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, iOS, Windows PC & Phone
- Developer: Starbreeze Studios
- Average length: 3 hours
- Genre: adventure game
MARCO GIULIANI → Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the only game that managed to not only convey story elements from gameplay mechanics, but take this concept to the next level. It’s probably the only game where the mechanics and control scheme will make you, well, feel things.
Brothers puts you in control of two unnamed siblings (Little Brother and Big Brother), who leave to find a cure for their sick father. The premise is as simple as it gets, and Brothers functions so well as a deeply emotional experience thanks to its unpretentious nature. Each brother is assigned to one of the sticks, and the gameplay (which mainly consists of simple puzzle solving) is built around this concept.
It might not sound like much, but the thing is, our brains are accustomed to working solo. In the first hour or so of Brothers, you’ll struggle, until that magical moment when it morphs into a seamless control scheme that makes so much sense that it will make you think how on earth nobody thought about this before.
As you learn how to control the two characters, you’ll feel the bond between the brothers grow. The relationship between the brothers and the emotional impact of the game’s story is made even stronger due to the fact none of the characters speak a single word of a recognizable language – and no, don’t even bother to decipher it, it’s pure gibberish.
There’s nothing much else to say without spoiling the (albeit short, about three hour) experience, so if you haven’t had the chance to play it, please do so. No other game will make you cry because of a freaking button press.
Initial Release Date: September 15, 2015 | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS4, Windows, Linux, MacOS, PSVita
- Developer: Tobby Fox
- Average length: 12 hours
- Genre: RPG
MARCO GIULIANI → Undertale, another meta-masterpiece akin to The Stanley Parable, entered the scene at just the right time. In an industry where western video game design has taken (with the risk of generalizing) a more realistic route, Undertale took the opposite route, ditching the cynicism, grittiness, and violence of many popular titles in favor of a lighter approach.
One could argue that Undertale is a work of postmodernist video gaming, as it deconstructs (you’ll be hearing this word a lot here, so sorry in advance) many conventions of metagaming that we take for granted – saving, loading, replaying and even discussing the game.
But the real hook of Undertale is how it recognizes our deeply rooted ways of thinking about violence in videogames and exploits them for maximum effect. Granted, Undertale has its fair share of jokes, meta-irony and fourth-wall-breaking moments, but the thing about it is that, unless you go through a full-asshole playthrough, most of the times you’ll cry out of sheer joy and happiness.
Like any major work of art, Undertale is both sad and bittersweet. It’s hard to talk more about it without spoiling the experience, but if you’re up for some feels, Undertale is a mandatory play.
20. The Last of Us
Initial Release Date: June 14, 2013 | Platforms: Playstation 3
- Developer: Naughty Dog
- Average length: 30 hours
- Genre: action adventure
MARCO GIULIANI → The Last of Us is a brilliant and deeply emotional experience for the same reasons as Telltale’s The Walking Dead. On the surface, it’s your run-of-the-mill third-person shooter set in a post-apocalyptic world, so a person who has no idea about it wouldn’t include in the list of the saddest video game of all time. But again, that’s just the surface.
What separates The Last Of Us from its counterparts is the relationship between the bandit Joel and Ellie. You follow them through all of their fights and struggles and witness their bond growing with each event, and their father-daughter relationship strengthening over the course of the game.
Like any good post-apocalyptic story, The Last of Us challenges you morally and emotionally. Things are not black and white in real life, let alone in the dog-eat-dog world of the post-apocalypse.
The Last of Us makes you question whether or not murder is justified in certain conditions, or if it’s worth letting a person join your group to increase your chances of survival to the detriment of your relationship with the others.
The game throws numerous nail-biting dilemmas at the players, and no matter how much you think, there’s no ideal choice – it all comes down to surviving and learning to live with your decisions.
19. Always Sometimes Monsters
Initial Release Date: May 21, 2014| Platforms: Android, Microsoft Windows, Linux, PS4
- Developer: Devolver Digital
- Average length: 20 hours
- Genre: RPG
MARCO GIULIANI → At some point, we’re all going to hit rock bottom – breakups, poverty, unemployment. We all know that feeling of despair when nothing seems like it’s ever going to be okay, and the ”dirty” feeling we get after making a choice we’re not necessarily part of. Adulthood is an ugly, confusing mess. And if, for some reason, you want to experience these things in game form, Always Sometimes Monsters is the perfect place to do so.
Always Sometimes Monsters is often described as a ‘’realistic’’ take on the role-playing genre. Not realistic in the sense that swords don’t make ‘’squiiish!’’ sounds when drawn or that guns have accurate recoil, mind you. The realism comes from the fact that you’re playing an actual person (who could very easily be me and you) who’s going through some tough times.
The player assumes the role of a failed author who receives notice that the love of their life is about to get married across the country. To make matters worse, you’re broke and about to be evicted from your sleazy apartment, so good luck figuring out a way to crash your ex girlfriend’s wedding on the other side of the country.
At the beginning of the game, players are introduced to their character through a quasi-narrative sequence during which you can decide the gender and orientation of the character. From this point forwards, players are free to tackle the objective as they wish. One of the first conundrums the player faces is deciding between paying the rent, or pocketing the money and sleeping on the streets before heading off to the West Coast.
From this point forwards, Always Sometimes Monsters turns into a rollercoaster of emotions and conflicting feelings that become harder and harder to shake off. In some parts, the game will trick you into thinking that making a dubious decision is your only way out and that the cause (in this case, crashing your ex’s wedding, which is quite selfish to begin with) justify the means, only to leave you feeling morally bankrupt.
Actions that players take in different timelines, as the games features several flashbacks from the player character’s youth and college years, will influence the ending. Ultimately, it’s up to the players if they take the Machiavellian route to win back their love or let go.
18. This War of Mine
Initial Release Date: November 14, 2014 | Platforms: Android, Nintendo Switch, PS4, iOS, Xbox One, Windows, MacOS, Linux.
- Developer: 11 bit studios
- Average length: player-determined
- Genre: survival game
MARCO GIULIANI → This War of Mine has been so far the only game that put players not in the shoes of a highly trained super mercenary, but a group of day-to-day civilians who are struggling to survive in an active war zone. Set during a civil war (loosely based on the Yugoslav Wars) in a nondescript Balkan country, you start the game with a small group of ordinary people, each with their own skills and stories.
Their skills (or ‘’competencies’’, to be more precise) are linked to their backstories. Bruno was a celebrity chef, so he uses the smallest amount of ingredients to cook. Katia worked as an investigative journalist, so you want to send her out to trade with other survivors thanks to her innate haggling skills. Pavle, a former football star, is the fastest runner but has the smallest inventory. Boris is the strongest, but the slowest of the bunch due to a foot injury.
Their personalities are as varied as their backstories – while some survivors can’t stomach murdering and stealing from innocents, others are more willing to turn a blind eye to such acts or even do them if it means surviving another day. In This War of Mine, players have to strike a balance between helping other people in need and tending to your own survival, as well as question the morality of your actions.
It’s up to players to decide if murder is justified if it means getting medicine for a sick fellow survivor, or stealing food from innocents in times of hunger. Your actions (both ‘’evil’’ and altruistic) will have a direct impact on the character’s current mood and post-war lives.
This War of Mine, tough quite simplistic in terms of gameplay mechanics, manages to generate some very grueling situations wherein you’ll have to juggle between the logistics of survival (which resources to stock in your limited inventory) and the well-being of your comrades (smoking cigarettes vs bartering them for supplies, for instance). A later expansion even added children into the mix for a greater emotional punch.
This War of Mine mastered its subject matter and as a result, the saddest video game moments do not feel forced because they’re delivered more through emergent gameplay, and less scripted events. It’s an unforgettable experience that perfectly encapsulates the dread and hopelessness of civilians in war zones. This is why it deserves to be included amongst the saddest video games of all times.
17. Life is Strange
Initial Release Date: January 30, 2015 | Platforms: Android, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, iOS, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh operating systems
- Developer: Dotnod Entertainment
- Average length: On-going series
- Genre: graphic adventure game
BAABUSKA → I am not a huge fan of episodic adventure games, but so many of my friends praised Life is Strange that I had to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed.
In essence, Life is Strange is a coming of age story, with a sci-fi twist, and a masterfully told plot. The game features themes that are relatable for most teenagers: depression, death, introversion, the need to belong, etc. Developers weren’t afraid to dive head-first into difficult issues, such as teenage suicide, drug abuse, and sexuality.
“Not good to Fool with Father Time” – Stephen King, Marvel Spotlight, The Dark Tower (Jan 27, 2007)
For me, the main selling points of the game were Max’s ability to rewind time and the genuine relationships between Max/Chloe. Who wouldn’t want to go back and fix their mistakes? At first, the ability seems harmless. Play longer and you will notice how all the little changes Max makes impact the game’s universe on a larger scale.
Whenever you go back in time to fix something, something worse happens. It becomes clear, early on, that Max is in over her head.
In the end, you are faced with an impossible decision, a decision that no teenager should have to make. No matter what you chose, you’re going to cry.
16. TO THE MOON
Initial Release Date: November 1, 2011 | Platforms: Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh operating systems
- Developer: Feebird Games
- Average length: 7 hours
- Genre: adventure game
MARCO GIULIANI → To The Moon is like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind of video games – a story set in a vaguely Sci-Fi universe that hits you in ways that you never imagined are possible. The story of the game (kind of) surrounds two people, Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts, who have the weirdest jobs possible – they alter people’s memories in order to make them believe that they’ve accomplished all of their goals and wishes.
However, there’s a catch: if they do perform the operation, all of their old, ‘’real’’ memories are wiped and replaced with the ‘’fake ones’’, reason for which the operation is performed only on people who are about to pass. The story of this particular game follows their attempt to fulfill the dream of an elderly man, Johnny. His dream? To go to the moon.
The gameplay consists mainly of exploring Johnny’s memories for significant objects, events and ‘’energy’’ to strengthen the memory and connect the dots between the man’s life phases. Once the player has seen all the memories, they can start manipulating them, switching characters, events and objects between them, in order to make Johnny believe that he’s accomplished his dream.
The story itself is beautifully crafted and is carried by the great writing and music, which together create some very emotional moments. It doesn’t stir the kind of artificial emotion that, say, a tear-jerking dramedy would, rather the raw type of feelings that only something deeply personal, that only you would know the significance of could.
A Steam user described it best when writing:
‘’There are odd, mismatching anecdotes in everybody’s life that would not absolutely mean a thing for anyone else beside a handful of people. Like an old, tattered soccer ball, an origami rabbit figure or an ugly platypus plushy…’’
It’s sad, happy, depressing, and at times downright enlightening. It’s a story about the things that make us human, with all of our flaws and dreams.
15. That Dragon, Cancer
Initial Release Date: January 12, 2016 | Platforms: Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, Ouya, Macintosh operating systems
- Developer: Numinous Games
- Average length: 3 hours
- Genre: interactive adventure
MARCO GIULIANI → That Dragon, Cancer’s emotions are conveyed not necessarily by its subject matter, but more by the presentation. The game, developed by Ryan Green, is inspired by his and his wife’s experiences after their third child, Joel, was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor at twelve months of age.
The doctors gave the child only four months to live, but despite developing numerous complications and the condition worsening, Joel went on to live another four years.
From a gameplay perspective, That Dragon, Cancer is played as an exploration game from both third and first-person perspective. During the story, players have to face decisions similar to the ones Ryan Greene and his wife had to face. The real emotional kick comes not necessarily from the game’s premise (which is tragic enough on its own), but from the presentation.
Ryan and his wife’s experiences oscillate between grittily realistic, to highly abstracted. The game includes some imaginative reconstructions of the moments Green experienced, like the one featuring Green taking a wagon ride through the hospital with his son. The game is narrated either directly by Ryan, or indirectly through several real-life recordings and voicemails made by the family while spending time with Joel.
That Dragon, Cancer is one of those games that is very hard to describe due to its personal nature. Taken at face value, it’s a game that chronicles the family’s and Joel’s story. However, it’s so much more than that – it’s about helping people cope and open up with others with the loss of loved ones. You can check out PewDiePie’s playthrough of it here.
14. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Initial Release Date: June 24, 2014 | Platforms: PS4, Android, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, PS4, Xbox 360, Windows
- Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
- Average length: 9 hours
- Genre: adventure, puzzle
MARCO GIULIANI → The story of Valiant Hearts: The Great War reads almost as a quirky post-modernist take on historical events. The plot, inspired by letters written during World War I, follows four characters on the battlefield who help a young German soldier find his love. But like all great tales, this is only the surface – Valiant Hearts is as much a love story as it’s a story about friendship, sacrifice and survival.
Despite its Wes Andersoneque premise, Valiant Hearts doesn’t shy away from portraying the misery and brutality of war.
And believe it or not, it captures the nightmare that was World War I without graphic depictions of blood, gore and violence, focusing instead on the implications and the human element rather than the obvious elements. It’s a deep and very touching story coming from the last place you would imagine.
13. Gone Home
Initial Release Date: August 5, 2013 | Platforms: PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Windows, Linux, MacOS, ioS
- Developer: Fullbright, Blitworks
- Average length: 2 hours
- Genre: walking simulator
MARCO GIULIANI → June 7th, 1995. You arrive home after a year spent backpacking through Europe – you can’t get more 90’s than that, but that’s a discussion for another time -, and surprise surprise, nobody’s there to greet you. Since back then instant texting was the stuff of cyberpunk flicks, you start poking around the house to find out why everybody is missing.
Gone Home is essentially an interactive story that is unfolded as you go through the family’s objects. There’s no actual gameplay to speak off other than pressing X to interact with a random object, so the only thing left to carry the game is the narrative.
And oh, boy, what a narrative – you would never expect the history of a seemingly average middle-class American family to be so interesting. The family members are mundane and interesting enough to seem like people you would know in real life, whether neighbors or relatives.
In some ways, it’s quite similar to Night in the Woods in the way that it captures a certain moment in time or an idea.
The house itself is a treasure trove of 90’s memorabilia. If you’re old enough to remember that era – not the 90’s as a whole, but that specific time in the middle of the decade when we were at the confluence between analog and high-speed communication technology – the effort the developers put into the details becomes even more admirable.
It’s excellent at conveying its location and time, with tons of little details scattered throughout the house, like your sister’s room and the decor of the home. The Pacific Northwest setting adds another layer of flavor to the setting – hello, grunge! Hello, Twin Peaks! -, making the house feel cozy and familiar even if you’ve never set foot in the United States, let alone the Pacific Northwest.
As mentioned above, the real hook of the game (and the emotional impact, for that matter) comes from rummaging through the family’s possessions and discovering their personalities bit by bit. In this sense, Gone Home aptly oscillates between humor – like the main character noting her dad’s fascination with supernatural flicks, or discovering his porn stash – and not-so-humorous moments, most of them involving the main character’s teenage sister and her existential crisis.
As you’re going room by room, you start piecing together what happened during your absence, as well as some details about the family’s history. Some of them are absolutely hilarious in their utter mundaneness, while most of them are absolutely heartbreaking. Obviously, we’ll not spoil any details because that defeats the entire purpose of the game, but there’s one thing we can say – most times, reality is blander than we could ever imagine.
12. Ori and the Blind Forest
Initial Release Date: March 11, 2015 | Platforms: PC, Xbox One
- Developer: Moon Studios
- Average length: 8-10 hours
- Genre: adventure, platform
BAABUSKA → I’m a sucker for emotional stories, so don’t judge me when I tell you that Ori and the Blind Forest had me crying from the prologue. Maybe it was the music, the art, the heart-warming relationship between the orphan Ori and the gentle Naru. I don’t know.
This game reminds me of the Disney animations I loved so much as a child (I cry at those too btw). I guess it also makes me feel like a child again. The emotions are so simple and pure that it’s impossible to sit straight-faced through the experience.
“Let us remember the night. When I lit the skies ablaze. I called out to Ori. Yet hope never came.”
Right from the start, Ori’s entire world implodes on itself. She is left alone, once more, in an uncaring world.
“… An orphan once more. With no reason to stay.”
As you begin the adventure, you can feel Ori’s sadness from the way that you control her movement. She is slow, unsure, and afraid. Barely a few seconds into the actual gameplay, and Ori falls asleep, exhausted from grief. The perfect soundtrack kicks in again and, before you know it, you’re crying.
Congratulations, you’ve made it through the prologue.
But what about the rest of the game? I don’t want to say that the entire gameplay was as emotional as the first few minutes. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to top-off that prologue. There is a change in pace, but the game is gorgeous, challenging, and fun overall. And the last few scenes will probably have you bawling a bit.
Oh, and if you’re looking for more reasons to cry, you’ll be happy to know that Ori and the Will of the Wisps will be released next year. We’ll see if that one wins a spot in our list of the saddest video games.
Initial Release Date: May 20, 2014 | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS4, iOS, Windows, Linux MacOS, tvOS
- Developer: Supergiant Games
- Average length: 6-7 hours
- Genre: RPG, turn-based strategy
MARCO GIULIANI → If Bastion was a true modern masterpiece, Supergiant’s follow-up, Transistor, can be described as a heartbreakingly beautiful game. It’s essentially a showpiece that demonstrates the full potential this medium has in terms of creating meaningful art.
The story follows Red, a famous singer in a city called Cloudbank, who is attacked by the Process, a robotic force commanded by a shady group known as Camerata. After barely managing to escape, she comes into possession of the Transistor, a mechanical sword which was meant to bring her death.
The sword seems to have absorbed the voice and consciousness of its last victim, along with Red’s voice, who now is physically incapable of speaking. Through it, the man is able to speak to Red, and also serves as the game’s narrator.
Similar to Bastion, the emotional component isn’t conveyed through traditional means, rather through Red’s struggle to save the city from the Process and regain her most precious possession – her lost voice. Transistor, through its aesthetic and visual style, oozes a sort of urban melancholy (think about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, only Sci-Fi) that feels eerily familiar, despite its far-future Sci-Fi setting.
From start to finish, Transistor is a beautifully crafted game with a great story that will make you go through the whole spectrum of emotions. It doesn’t overstay its welcome – clocking in at about eight hours, it’s a short and sweet exercise of masterful video-gaming that will satisfy those who are looking for an intense experience.
10. Last Day of June
Initial Release Date: August 31, 2017 | Platforms: PS4, Nintendo Switch, Windows
- Developer: TOvosonico
- Average length: 4 hours
- Genre: adventure, puzzle
MARCO GIULIANI → Last Day of June is, simply put, an interactive adventure game about love, loss and grief. The story is inspired by Steven Wilson’s haunting song ‘’Drive Home’’ – by the looks of it, post-Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson has recovered some of his mojo – with the game itself serving as a recreation of it.
Despite its colorful color palette – which certainly adds a layer of charm to the game – Last Day of June launches some pretty tough dilemmas – what would you do to save the one you love? Where do you draw the line between saving and protecting your loved one and hurting others? Is saving your loved one to the detriment of others a noble pursuit which demonstrates unwavering loyalty and strength of character, or is it a purely selfish act?
Obviously, there can’t ever be a right answer to these questions, so the least we can do is acknowledge the full extent of your actions and live with the consequences. In this respect, Last Day of June does a marvelous job of exploring, debating these dilemmas and even offer a few solutions, without sounding overly preachy or cynical.
9. Max Payne & Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
Initial Release Date: July 23, 2001 / October 15, 2003
- Developer: Remedy Entertainment
- Average length: 14h / 16h
- Genre: third person shooter
MARCO GIULIANI → The first Max Payne title puts you in the shoes of a cop whose family was brutally murdered by a group of junkies. After finding out that said junkies were under the influence of a drug called Valkyrie, Max decides to transfer to the DEA and put the people responsible for plaguing the streets of New York with this drug behind bars.
During his undercover sting in one of New York’s crime families, Max is unwillingly drawn into a shadowy conspiracy and framed for the murder of a fellow cop. From this point forward, with nothing to hold him back, Max goes on a rampage, hoping to bring down the people responsible for his family’s death.
On the surface level, the premise of Max Payne is as basic as it can get. However, what separates Max Payne from other action games (and noir works, as a matter of fact) is the manner in which the story is presented. The destruction and hundreds of bodies that Max leaves behind are mere background noises compared to the inner struggles that he goes through.
The game itself is a comprehensive exploration of Max’s psyche, and the thing that I found most interesting is the fact that at no point does he attempt to justify his actions. Max is simply a man who has nothing to live for anymore, so he might just as well try to unravel the conspiracy before going out with a bang.
What made Max Payne unique at the time is the presentation. The game uses a comic-book panel format instead of cutscenes, which is not only a brilliant stylistic choice that perfectly conveys the mood of the story and Max’s psychological torment but a clever workaround to the studio’s then-limited financial resources.
With Max’s quest for revenge completed and all people responsible for the death of his family dead, one might wonder what comes next for a man like Max. Technically, Max has no reason not to throw his guns in the first ditch and settle in a place as far away from New York as possible. Realistically speaking, there’s no chance a man that went through Max’s experiences could ever heal, as Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne aptly demonstrates.
The sequel takes places two years after the events of the first game. Max is back with the NYPD as a detective, and apart from shooting the odd crook from time to time, it seems like he got his life back on track. But life’s not so rosy for the troubled detective. The theme of this story is revealed from the title itself – if the first game was about a man’s (albeit homicidal) attempt to face his demons, the sequel is about succumbing to said demons.
In terms of narration and emotional impact, Max Payne 2 is superior in every respect to its predecessors. Even though some time has passed since the events of the first game, Max’s wounds are far from being healed.
In fact, you could argue that he’s in a worse state than before, as a two-year-break from the chaos and rampage that provided a slight degree of mental relief for Max is enough time for him to think back to what he’s lost. As proof, it doesn’t take much for Max to fall back into the same destructive habits. The major difference now is that while his actions in the first game were purely reactive, this time around, there’s really no reason for him to do what he’s doing, as up until a certain point, there’s no shadowy conspiracy to be unwillingly pulled into to speak of.
If Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the only game that has managed to accurately portray the intricacies of mental illness, the first two Max Payne titles (and the third one, but that one is focused more on addiction) managed to portray the vicious nature of grief, pain and depression and wrap them into an intriguing story in a way that makes sense from a thematic perspective.
8. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Initial Release Date: August 8, 2017 | Platforms: PC, PS4 (also available in VR)
- Developer: Ninja Theory
- Average length: 8-12 hours
- Genre: action adventure
BAABUSKA → While mental illness has been used in many video-games as a mechanic, few studios actually utilized it as a vehicle for exploring the realities of mental health. Ninja Theory, a studio that has impressed us with many cult classics, like Devil May Cry or Enslaved: Odyssey, has taken a bold step with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – a narrative driven game with simple mechanics that tells a dark and relatable story.
Hellblade’s gameplay is molded around the dark and incredibly profound journey of a young woman (Senua) through her personal hell.
I’ve had the pleasure to play Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice two times. The culmination of the first playthrough left me completely broken. You know a game is godly when it triggers the ugly cry and you start leaking fluids from every opening on your face. Even a few days after completing my initial playthrough, I would still find myself thinking about Senua’s journey.
To be honest, I didn’t get the story completely. Not at first, at least. A lot of people don’t. That’s because it is formatted in a very unusual way. It is less a journey through the real world, and more a journey of the mind. The hardest battles are fought in the mind – this is a theme that permeates through the entire game.
Understanding what actually happened in the game’s reality is almost impossible due to Senua’s mental psychosis. But that’s not the point, anyway. The point of the game is to tell an engrossing story of love and loss. And it achieves this beautifully, not only through its superb narrative but also by stripping down all unnecessary game mechanics.
There are no tutorials. No HUDs. No maps. No tips when you get stuck. Only the voices. Those haunting voices that sound too real to be coming from a game.
“The game embraces simplicity, stripping away many of the ancillary systems that modern gamers have come to rely on more and more, and showing that, when it comes to telling an engrossing story and keeping players engaged with tense combat scenarios, sometimes less is indeed more.” – GameCrate
As a Dark Souls fan, I resonated with the combat style. It never felt overwhelmingly difficult or unfair. While satisfying, the combat is also extremely simple. Very little is explained to you, but with every death, the tremendous feeling of angst intensifies. Too many mistakes and Senua will fall to the darkness.
For me, this was one of the main reasons for being glued to my chair for the entirety of the playthrough. I felt like I was fighting for my own life. As you get deeper into the story, you learn more about the protagonist’s past, her deep suffering, and her reason to keep going. I don’t want to spoil the game too much, but the ending resonated so deeply with me. It answered many questions that I ask myself about life, death, and mental health.
Senua isn’t a game. It’s a journey.
7. Night in the Woods
Initial Release Date: January 10, 2017 | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS4, Android, Xbox One, iOS, Windows, MacOS, Linux
- Developer: Infinite Fall, Secret Lab
- Average length: 10 hours
- Genre: adventure, platformer
MARCO GIULIANI → Night in the Woods is a story-focused exploration game that takes place in Possum Springs, a small town populated by zoomorphic animals. You play a young woman named Mae, a recent college dropout who returns to her hometown only to find out that it bears no resemblance to the place she left behind.
The small, crumbling town of Possum Springs serves as the perfect backdrop for the themes explored by the game’s story, which include depression, anxiety, loneliness, mental illness, the economic perils of the lower and middle classes and, more broadly, the death of small-town America.
As serious as the subject matter is, Night in the Woods treats them in a slightly lighter tone – think of it as a combination between Bojack Horseman, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and Aziz Ansari’s Netflix original Master of None.
The emotional punch comes not through dramatic scenes, but through the implication. The characters are light, quirky sarcastic and a joy to hang out with, but you can’t shake off the feeling that there’s something more to them that they let on. In fact, this is the main hook of the game – exploring the town, talking to its colorful inhabitants and doing silly stuff with your friends.
However, the greatest thing about this game is probably the town itself. Once a booming mining town, Possum Springs is succumbing to a slow death and to make matters worse, some of its inhabitants (including an old friend of Mae) have been disappearing one by one into the woods. Mae meets up with her old friends and spends time with them, noting that they’ve all changed and matured during her absence. For old time’s sake, they decide to work together to unravel the mystery.
While the mystery surrounding the disappearances occupies a good chunk of the story, the game’s main focus is exploring the themes mentioned above. Possum Springs shows the vestiges of a formerly active town turned into a mere shadow of its former self due to changing economic tides. The developers managed to nail that small post-industrial town feel to such a degree that at times I felt like I was taking a stroll through my own home town.
Though it’s the place Mae spent most of her life in, she can’t help but feel alienated from the town and its inhabitants. It’s an experience that most people who have left their home towns in search of better opportunities (whether for college and work) can relate to.
Night in the Woods is not necessarily a game that will make you cry uncontrollably, but the sheer emotion expressed by its well-written characters and the town itself will get to you eventually. It’s not sad, but melancholic.
6. Stardew Valley
Initial Release Date: February 26, 2016 | Platforms: all recent platforms
- Developer: Concerned Ape
- Average length: Player Determined
- Genre: farming simulator / RPG
MARCO GIULIANI → Stardew Valley is many things – it’s happy, colorful, endearing, nostalgic, relaxing, idyllic, and, to some degree, a tad idealistic, especially in how it treats the small town vs big corporate interests issue. We’ve already talked about what makes Stardew Valley one of the best RPGs (nay, games) ever released, but for the purposes of this entry, we’ll be taking a slightly different approach.
While Stardew Valley is surely not devoid of humor and silliness – with the quirky small-town setting contributing to that – one can’t help but notice an underlying sadness that isn’t so obvious from the start. Though at the start of the game, your primary objective seems to be bringing your grandfather’s farm back to its former glory, after a while, you realize that it’s more about aiding the community indirectly through your entrepreneurial efforts.
You assistance can be as tangential as buying naturally grown, but overpriced seeds from the local store instead of in bulk from the supermarket, or as important as helping the mayor restore the town’s decrepit community center instead of siding with the JoJa corporation, who wants to turn the town in yet another nondescript town lacking any personality and local flavor.
Your neighbors surely need your help, as the town’s economic stagnation has left them with no options. Their real, biting stories – the alcoholic mother who became unemployed after the town’s bus service was shut down, the army vet with PTSD, the teenage boy who dreams of becoming a rockstar but can’t escape the town, the old couple who nostalgically reminisce of the ‘’good old times’’ – makes Stardew Valley so much more than a mere farming sim.
It’s about a group of people who, despite their happy-go-lucky attitude, need something to look up to, and as the newcomer with the huge farm, you can be the strong figure that these lost people desperately needed.
5. Dark Souls
Initial Release Date: September 22, 2011 | Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
- Developer: FROM SOFT
- Average length: 40+
- Genre: action RPG
BAABUSKA → Oh boy, where do I start…
Should I say that it is one of my favorite games of all time? That I watched almost all the lore videos on YouTube, read all the item descriptions multiple times, cross-referenced them, and formulated my own theories on the game? No, this list is about the saddest video games out there that will make you cry. I believe that Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 1 in particular, is a game that will definitely make you cry.
You will cry as you die to a boss that is just one hit away from defeat (other symptoms may include controller smashing). Cry at the tragic story of heroic characters. Cry after defeating a boss that you died to 100 times. Cry as the futility of your own quest is revealed. Cry as you watch Vaati’s, fittingly called, “Prepare to Cry Trailer”. And finally, weep gently as you realize you have just finished playing Dark Souls for the first time ever… and you will never be able to experience “the first time” again.
Dark Souls has challenged the RPG genre through its compelling and hazy narrative. Its story isn’t shared through unskippable cutscenes, but through thoughtful one-off touches that are so easily missed. Developers want you to pay attention to the items, the world’s architecture, loot placement, sparse NPC dialogue, and hundreds of other subtle touches.
If you’re not paying attention, you might sleep-walk through the entire game without comprehending your role in the story. Chances are you’ll light the first flame and go to bed content for what you have achieved as the Chosen Undead. What a fitting end to your typical fantasy story.
Only Dark Souls isn’t your typical fantasy story, and the myth of the Chosen Undead is nothing more than a lie perpetuated by those who want more fuel for the first flame. Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. But if you have the insight and resilience to go beyond the surface of things and try to understand the true meaning of the world, Dark Souls will make you cry in the most fulfilling way.
Lore-hunting in Souls game is a noble pursuit and not everything can be explained through facts. Most of the game’s universe is based on myths. By choosing to construct its world with myths handed down through history, where even the concept of time is convoluted, Dark Souls’ story becomes a reflection of a culture’s agenda. A great example in this sense is the tragic story of Artorias, who is portrayed as a legend, despite having fallen to the corruption of the Abyss. Ingward doesn’t lie to you when he says:
“… but the Abyss is no place for ordinary mortals. Although long ago, the knight Artorias traverse the Abyss. If you can find him, and learn from him, the Abyss may prove surmountable”.
He genuinely thinks that Artorias succeeded in his quest and survived. Your role in the story is obscured from history. Your victory becomes his victory. In essence, this is how myths are perpetuated – mere fragments of the story survive and the conclusions become inexact. This means that the player takes an active role in collecting, analyzing, and theorizing the story – and when this happens, the game becomes much more personal. The characters are no longer pixels on the screen, but your cherished companions.
What really struck me at the end, was coming to terms with the ever so gently foreshadowed futility of my quest. There are two choices you can take before everything ends: become fuel to the flame, as so many before you have, or if you’ve pushed hard enough, simply walk away and let the fire fade. The choice is yours.
Awakening on NG+ was eye-opening. The souls that I found on my way were no longer simple currency, they were the essence of every other Dark Souls player that came before, failed, gave up, or died, simply to wake again and repeat the never-ending cycle. Every line of dialogue became a precious nugget of information and every character quest-line failed, especially those of Solaire and Onion Bro, pained me more than I can say. My perspective on the game changed completely.
4. The Cat Lady
Initial Release Date: December 7, 2012 | Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Linux
MARCO GIULIANI → The Cat Lady follows the story of Susan Ashworth, a 40-year old woman who is going through a tough time. She has no family, no friends, and her only companions are stray cats.
One night, when Susan is on the verge of commiting suicide, she is taken to an eerie place similar to limbo where a being called the Queen of Maggots grants her immortality. The catch? She has to kill five psychopaths.
From a genre perspective, The Cat Lady is a psychological horror title with lots of disturbing moments. At its core, though, it’s much more than that, as the developers found a way to take depression and loneliness and translate it into game-form flawlessly.
The Cat Lady serves both as an intriguing horror story aided by a great art style and a coping mechanism for those who suffer from depression, as the main character is portrayed in a relatable (and most times sympathetic) fashion.
3. The Witcher 3
Initial Release Date: May 19, 2015 | Platforms: PS4, Windows, Xbox One
- Developer: CD Projekt Red
- Average length: 70-100 hours for the main-story, 200+ for full completion
- Genre: fantasy RPG
BAABUSKA → Witcher 3 is an exhilarating role-playing experience, considered by most the best fantasy RPG of all time. While it may not be my number one, it’s really high-up on the list. The game does everything right. Through its memorable characters, inspiring soundtrack choices, and carefully crafted dialogues, Witcher 3 will have you crying when you least expect it.
Ironically, it was the side-quests that made me feel so strongly about the main story. After 200+ of game-time, I have come to the conclusion that the secondary missions breathe life to the game. They paint the picture of land ravaged by war and the struggles of people who’ve lost hope. One such quest is “Of Swords & Dumplings”, which clarifies the disturbing political and racial agendas that are at work across the land.
Despite the fact that the outcome of these quests will not impact the end-game in a very big way, your decisions can change the world around you, much more than other RPGs I’ve experienced. CD Projekt Red managed to create a fantastic, grim world using characters that feel incredibly human. Most side-quests aren’t just annoying “fetch that” or “kill that” BS and playing them reminded me of the old Gothic quests.
Some quests, like “Return to Crookback Bog” will offer you much-needed closure, while others (e.g. “The Last Wish”) will help you deepen your relationship with important characters. Even the seemingly unimportant quests, like boat traveling with Lambert, hunting with Eskel, sharing a drink in Kaer Morhen, getting utterly smashed, and trying on Yen’s clothes become an emotional roller-coaster because you know you can never go back to them. Eventually, everyone moves on – Kaer Morhen’s soundtrack has a great way of reminding you that.
Ultimately, it’s the main quests that tie everything together and make us feel all those warm, mushy things inside.
SPOILER: For me, the most emotional mission was the one where Geralt finally finds Ciri. There may be no dialogue, but the hesitation, the facial animations, and the heartbreaking soundtrack turned this scene into one of the most powerful moments in gaming I’ve ever experienced.
I would love to ramble on about all the moments that made me shed a tear in Witcher, but there are too many. As I said before, I am a sucker for emotional stories and it’s rare for a game to have me as invested as Witcher did. For those of you who haven’t played it yet, it’s an absolute must. For those that have, fire-up that NG+ or read Andrzej Sapkowksi’s books -CD Projekt Red learned a thing or two from his emotional storytelling.
2. Thomas Was Alone
Initial Release Date: June 30, 2012 | Platforms: all recent platforms
- Developer: Mike Bithell
- Average length: 4 hours
- Genre: puzzle platformer
MARCO GIULIANI → What’s the last thing you cried at? A cat nursing a couple of ducklings? An article referencing an unusual act of human kindness? A video of a dog greeting his owner after a stint in the military?
If you felt weird crying at things far removed from you, then oh man, wait until you play Thomas Was Alone. In this game, the player controls one or more simple rectangles representing artificial intelligence beings. The story takes place within a computer mainframe, where some unknown event caused several A.I. routines to go rogue and become self-aware.
Each rectangle has its own pros, cons, with their colorful personalities (after all these years, it still sounds weird) being conveyed by the narrator’s vivid descriptions. As the game progresses, the narrator reveals each shape’s thoughts, dreams and inner struggles, which are reflected in the way they fit into the environment.
For example, one shape is short, stocky and unable to jump to great heights, but it can serve as a makeshift staircase to aid other shapes. Other shapes are placed horizontally by design, so they can help other shapes access unreachable places. As the shapes progress through the story, more information is revealed about them, and they even form relationships.
As abstract as it might look, Thomas Was Alone is a sweet and endearing game made even better by the narration and great writing. And if conveying freaking shapes with quirks and very distinct personalities doesn’t constitute as great writing and saddest video games material, I really don’t know what does.
1. The Beginner’s Guide
Initial Release Date: October 1, 2015 | Platforms: Windows, MacOS, Linux
- Developer: Davey Wreden
- Average length: 2 hours
- Genre: adventure / interactive story
MARCO GIULIANI → After the meta-ironic deconstruction of gaming tropes and mechanics brought by The Stanley Parable, people wondered how David Wreden’s follow-up will look like. The answer came quickly in 2015 when The Beginner’s Guide hit the market.
The Beginner’s Guide is an interactive storytelling video game narrated by Wreden himself. The scope of the game is trying to understand the nature of a person by exploring files and documents on their computer, without being provided with any context. The player is aided by Wreden’s narration, who comments on the player’s findings and provides various tips to help them advance over difficult parts of the game.
On a surface level, The Beginner’s Guide is an exploration of the struggles (both emotional and intellectual) that art creators in general, and game developers in particular, go through. Similar to Stanley Parable, it also serves as a sort of meta-commentary on the contrast between viewing them as art or entertainment. On a deeper level, the game may be a deconstruction of Wreden’s psyche prior and after releasing The Stanley Parable, the title that propelled him to the position of industry legend overnight.
There’s no set interpretation, but if we were to pinpoint a central theme of the game, that would be the reasons why we create art in the first place. Do we make art out of a need for social validation? Out of a desire to leave behind a legacy? Do we make art just for the sake of leaving something beautiful behind? These are some of the questions that The Beginner’s Guide tries to answer. It’s a deeply emotional experience that all creators, regardless of field, can relate to.
So, what was the saddest video game that YOU have ever played? Let us know in the comments below!
Although I’ve always had a love for everything related to pop culture (films, TV shows, comics books), video games were, and will be my one true love. My first contact with video games occurred sometime in the late 90’s when my parents got me a NES console.
I still remember the satisfaction I felt after beating the final boss in Ninja Gaiden getting past the first freaking level of Battle Toads after several weeks of excruciating pain. You can call it hopeless nostalgia, and you’d be right. And I’ll search for and dissect every video game that will give me even a tinge of that experience (Read more…)
PC gamer since I was 7. Back then, the only way to install games was from floppy disks (if you were lucky enough to have friends) or Level Magazines. Even as an adult, my passion for gaming is still going strong. In 2016 I relinquished my casual ways and started playing a game that would define me forever: Dark Souls 1. My Twitch channel was born out of the simple desire to show one of my friends (a Soulsboune lover) how miserably I could fail at it.
Nowadays, I find happiness in single-player, story-driven games and experiences that I can share with my community. I also cosplay or create unique looks on occasion. If you want to learn more, you can follow me on Twitch, Twitter, or Facebook. (Read more…)
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