Video games that will profoundly mess you up
Twist endings. Sucker punches. Moral dilemmas. Psychological terrors. These games will mess you up.
We love games that inspire a strong emotional reaction. We’re not just talking about the elation of victory, getting a bit teary over a melodramatic cutscene, or looking over your shoulder nervously after an hour of horror gaming in the dark. We mean games that leave you breathless and confused, hurting and betrayed, cowering and whimpering. Games that linger in the mind – or blow it entirely.
The games below all have the capacity to affect the player deeply. Please note that there will be massive, weighty, egregious SPOILERS in the discussion, so please skip straight past any title you want to experience for yourself; these games are most successful when you go in clean.
We may as well start with the Big Daddy of twist endings: Bioshock, the delightfully sandboxy combat of which distracts you from all the narrative warning signs – until it’s too late.
Rapture is such a beautifully realised world that you’re inexorably sucked into the lore and backstory almost without noticing that a great deal of groundwork is being laid; you arrive at the end fully briefed on the warring philosophies of the undersea utopia without realising it, thanks to a masterclass in embedded narrative. Meanwhile, the meaningless red herring moral dilemma of whether to harvest the Little Sisters or not keeps your attention away from the questionable nature of the rest of your actions.
And then the punch: it turns out that none of your actions and choices mattered a jot. You were being controlled all along, and you never even knew. You’re brainwashed – or are you?
It’s hard to convey the impact of this moment in text form, but there’s more going on here than just a surprise ending. Bioshock deliberately foregrounds the lack of choice and pressing linearity of narrative shooters, as well as most players’ unconscious acceptance of that. If you think about it too long you’ll never look at games the same way again.
Papers, Please is not any easy game. Processing enough hopeful travellers to pay your bills requires concentration, accuracy and speed, and it’s very hard to muster those virtues when you’re being threatened, abused, pleased with or even almost blown up.
On your first few goes the stories of the people interest and sometimes touch you; repeating chapters to try and pass difficult checkpoints turns you into a stamp-bot, ruthlessly refusing to engage in your quest to pay for heating so your kids don’t freeze. It’s not a pleasant transformation.
The escalating security requirements of your overlords, the increasingly desperate attempts of the populace to cross the border and the genuinely stressful management of your time and money while juggling the possibility of assisting revolutionaries all add up to a game experience that cannot be described as comfortable. Papers, Please leaves you exhausted, conflicted and questioning.
Spec Ops: The Line
A re-telling of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops: The Line deliberately engages with the horrors of war our action-hero triple-A shooters regularly gloss over.
One scene in particular sticks out: the player fires white phosphorous into a building, which is shortly thereafter revealed to have been full of civilians. You’re not just told that this was the case, though; you have to move among the bodies, absorbing the consequences of the action. It’s genuinely horrifying.
The long list of atrocities and horrors would be confronting enough on its own, but The Line isn’t content with making you feel deeply uncomfortable about ever playing another military shooter; it also pulls out a twist ending where you discover that the leader who has guided you through this ordeal, whose orders you obeyed and who you intend to hold accountable for what you’ve seen and done – was you all along. You did these things, and lied to yourself to pretend you didn’t want to.
Blow this for a game of soldiers. I need my teddy bear.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Silicon Knights has clearly lost the plot, but the question “why would anyone give those guys money?” is very clearly answered with Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem; if this cult classic had been published on multiple platforms and backed by a publisher with the horror experience to market it, it would likely be more widely recognised for its brilliance.
Much of the impact of Sanity’s Requiem is that pure Nintendo gamers hadn’t really played anything like it on their family-friendly consoles, but to be fair neither had anyone else. It introduced the sanity metre, a concept then so novel Nintendo trademarked it, and like Metal Gear Solid 2, manifests your character’s declining mental comfort by messing with you through glitches and gameplay twists.
Uncomfortably disturbing and eerie in a way that lingers long in the mind, Sanity’s Requiem also distinguishes itself by getting a bit meta. Early in a play through you’re given the choice of one of three alignments, and it’s only after you complete the game with all three alignments that the true ending is revealed; you have been manipulated in three timestreams simultaneously to wipe out the rivals for a potentially greater ancient evil. What in the heck. Take my money.
The Walking Dead: Season One
If you’ve got kids or parent issues, The Walking Dead: Season One is harrowing. Talltale is skilled enough that everyone else is reasonably likely to be strongly affected, but there are huge groups of gamers out there for whom the story of Lee and Clementine is damn near unplayable.
By episode three the pressure to protect, cherish and teach Clem weighs down like millstones. The failures of other parents, despite their very best efforts, is a constant theme throughout the season but really begins to bite in this one.
By the time you reach the conclusion of the season, faced with the choice of asking Clem to murder you or to die knowing you’ll reanimate and possibly harm her, it’s almost a relief. You have done what you could, and you can forgive yourself for what you couldn’t do, because by now The Walking Dead has beaten a lesson into you that you may never forget: you cannot protect your children. And nobody can protect you, child.
Another very famous twist ending, Heavy Rain really does a number on the player with its red herrings, false trails, and seeming contradictions.
Tasked with tracking down the Origami Killer, the player is more than gently nudged into wondering whether one of the multiple playable protagonists is responsible for the kidnapping of his own son. The game deliberately highlights chunks of missing time and asks you to consider what the character was doing during these periods.
This makes the reveal much more awesome, because you were half right. The killer is one of the cast members, but it’s one that you’re unlikely to suspect, even with meticulous exploration. In fact it almost feels impossible, and many players considered the solution unfair.
A repeat play through, in the knowledge of what comes next, can make you feel stupid; the clues are there all along. What happens during the times the camera’s not on the player? What’s the simplest solution to a locked-room murder? You asked all the right questions, but you didn’t point them in the right direction.
In the same first-person-puzzler vein as Portal, but on a whole ‘nother level. Whereas Portal 2’s single-player puzzles devolve into obstacle courses, near impossible to get stuck on once you realise every single object is part of the solution, Antichamber can hold you down for days.
It’s not just that the puzzles are tricky, it’s that they escalate in multiple directions. You are free to explore in any direction you choose, switching to an alternate path if you get hopelessly stuck, but each twist of the corridors throws up a new kind of challenge, requiring you to bend your brain in yet another new direction.
Escher-like tricks of perspective and unreal architecture must be accepted and incorporated into your mental landscape in order to proceed. The act of getting your head around the puzzles feels like physical effort; you push and push and push and suddenly squeeze on through to emerge on the other side of a gestalt switch that leaves you disoriented. You may have scraped off a limb or two in the process, though, and you’re going to need them back when the game switchbacks and undoes all its own work to insist you think perpendicularly to your current course.
Play this one alone and don’t use guides. Beware of the hangover after marathon sessions.
The new byword in horror, PT was a playable teaser for Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s cancelled take on the Silent Hill franchise. As an adventure game it is reasonable; as a horror experience it is extraordinary; as marketing it is phenomenal; as a combination of all three it is a work of genius.
Unforgivingly inaccessible, PT left many players confused and bored, seemingly stuck in a dull loop. But for those who worked out how to get further, its mysteries are still being discussed. What makes the baby give its final laugh? What determines which of several random corridors you’ll see at a specific point? What does the dialogue refer to? What do the numbers mean?
Plugging away at these puzzles is an exercise in masochism, unless you’re happy to turn the sound down and the lights on. PT is deeply, profoundly scary. Go in cold and play in the dark. Your heart can take it – probably – and maybe one day you’ll even stop looking over your shoulder.
PT was deleted from the PlayStation network after Kojima and Konami’s falling out, but if you missed out one of your mates may have it on their PS4 still. If not, at least Resident Evil 7 took some cues from this greatly mourned project.
Nier is a game that gives back what you put in, and therein lies one of its greatest strengths. On the surface it’s a reasonable RPG with action combat, not so spectacular to differentiate it from the pack. Engage a little and shit starts to go south – not only is it filled with weird, genre-defying gameplay moments (bullet hell, gardening, even a text adventure), but it’s also magnificently, wonderfully, unashamedly fucked up.
For example: one of your main party companions is a sort of weird floating skeleton thing with the soul of a child, and it turns out that’s the least screwed up thing about him. Every major character in Nier has a fucked up backstory, and their personal circumstances – who and what they are – is never the real issue: it’s what other people have done to them. Which turns out to be: really fucked up things.
On top of everyone’s personal fucked-up-ness, as you explore you’ll discover that things are not as they seem, and in fact your entire quest to save your daughter (or sister, if you’re playing the Japanese PS3 version Nier Replicant) is fucked up and the existence of everyone you’ve ever met and the world you inhabit is super fucked up. The final villain, an unceasing antagonist, turns out to be the original from which Nier is cast as a shadow or reflection – and that hurts.
And we’re still not done! Return in New Game+ to unlock the backstories of the enemies you fight throughout the game, putting a whole new perspective on events, and complete four different playthroughs in order to unlock the ultimate ending, which deletes your save file and bans you from ever using the character’s name again. What do you expect from a Drakengard spin off?
The newer Nier Automata also deserves a place on this list, but it’s too recent to spoil. Don’t sleep on it.
Dragon Age 2
Dragon Age games do not have default romance options but whoever is first to make a move is probably going to be many players’ choice. In Dragon Age 2 the first character to express feelings for Hawke is Anders, a mage first met in Origins expansion Awakenings who shares his body with a spirit of Justice.
Anders has a lot of problems related to the tense, frequently abused relationship between mages and Templars, and carrying around a being from another plane hasn’t settled him down much – especially as that being is gradually corrupted by its exposure to humanity’s failings.
At the end of Dragon Age 2, Anders commits an act of terrorism; he had severe provocation, and his cause was just, but the means are probably unforgivable to most players. If you had any affection or sympathy for the cat-loving mage, this end to the romance (or friendship or rivalry) is in itself jarring and can leave you shaken up, but the journey itself is also extremely interesting.
As this terrific blog post details, Anders as a romance-able character breaks all the rules, aggressively manipulating the player and pushing them into no-win situations. It’s remarkable and very finely timed, so that when the player realises Anders is going off the deep end they’re deeply engaged in what amounts to an emotionally abusive relationship. Sometimes shit just gets a little bit too real, you know? Let’s never date again.
There’s a sequence in Fable 3 about two thirds of the way through the game where the player has to travel through a series of caves in a desert. As they journey, the environment gets darker and darker, and some sort of nameless, faceless evil comes out of the shadows, taunting and manipulating them.
It’s pretty creepy, especially as the environment fills up with a weird black goo and the player’s NPC companion starts freaking out. You might need a little breather from all this horror in order to calm yourself down.
But in this instance that option is not available. Fable 3’s pause screen is actually a sort of pocket universe where the player can retreat to change clothes and equipment, collect treasures, set up co-op games, and chat with their butler, as voiced by John Cleese. It’s a cheerful, pleasant place with warm lighting and a comforting soundscape – usually.
Open your pause menu during the sequence under discussion, and you’ll be denied a haven. The black goo is present even here, inside what is in some ways the manifestation of the player character’s mind, and its shadow falls over you. Doors are blocked. Your butler, an otherwise ever-present companion, is missing. And the sounds of the darkness do not stop.
There’s nowhere to hide from the horror. Ten out of ten.
Metal Gear Solid 2
Metal Gear Solid is a series that loves to mess with the player, breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge its own existence as a game and even building questions about the difference between reality and simulation into its themes. This last is especially prevalent in MGS 2: Sons of Liberty, which turns out to have been one big simulation all along, designed to see if Raiden could be shaped into a successor for Snake – among other goals.
This revelation is delivered in the last third of the game and is enough of a twist to leave you feeling blown, but it’s the method of delivery that really kicks. In one of the creepiest and most effective uses of faux glitches, the player is faced with game over screens, audio discrepancies and weird visual effects. It’s a terrific bit of transference, in that the player begins to question what’s going on – is the game crashing? – even as Raiden questions his reality.
Hours later it all resolves in a boss fight and one of the longest, dullest cutscenes in the history of gaming, which makes you feel a bit better, if even less clear on what on earth was going on.
From about half way through BioShock Infinite turns into one unceasing mindfuck, the delights of which need more unpacking than this small space allows for. What’s interesting is how deep the rabbit hole goes, though; in a mindful or repeat playthrough, you’ll see the seeds of your own mind blowing sown hours ahead of time.
There’s one very early example, and while it wouldn’t be fair to call it representative – there’s nothing else quite like it elsewhere in the game – it’s the beginning of BioShock Infinite’s sharp right-hand turn into weirdness.
It’s easy to miss, but when Booker is exploring Columbia for the first time there’s a statue of Lutece, the scientist responsible for Columbia’s many advances. As you find out later on, there are actually two scientists called Lutece – a man and a woman – and the game is deliberately vague about which one is the celebrated genius responsible for the flying city. If you happen to be looking at the statue, you’ll see it actually switches from one to the other before your very eyes.
There’s no explanation for this, and Booker doesn’t make much of it, but it’s a foreshadowing of later revelations; you find out some pretty interesting things about the twins which explain why this occurs (and if you look and listen carefully, some other things which make them even more interesting) and with hindsight the weird “glitch” makes perfect sense.
At the time, though, it’s an isolated incident. “Did that happen? Did I imagine that? Was that a bug?” Oh no, child; it was a signpost.
Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness
The fourth Quest for Glory game is one of a number that wind the player with a big reveal after they’ve already trotted through a substantial portion of the story.
Much of its impact is related to its place within the rest of the series. It was the first in the series to feature voice acting. It sticks out by not having a numeral attached to the title. The themes were a bit darker and more serious than previous and later games. It just feels… anomalous, somehow, and weirdly so.
In this context, the player was encouraged to treat it seriously, engaging with the characters and plot. To then find out that a helpful companion is not just a bad guy but the bad guy – well. It left us stunned.
The Silent Hill series as a whole is an absolute no brainer for this list, having scared and even scarred so many gamers. Looking back on it all now the early games seem a bit silly, with dodgy graphics, clunky mechanics and easily manipulated design; it’s hard to really engage with the atmosphere in the way we did the first time through the streets of this nightmarish town.
But Silent Hill gets to you in more ways than just being scary. Its characters are all deeply flawed (and therefore relatable), and when you cut through the complications the answer to the enduring mystery of Silent Hill is usually “people make their own nightmares”.
The various teams who have worked on Silent Hill have interpreted it in different ways, often to the disgust of its fanbase, but the series has always been most successful when it taps into primal horrors, eschewing spectacle and gore in favour of the kinds of fright that feel like they could have come from your own brain. It’s the frequency with which Silent Hill recreates the dark corners of your own psyche that make it so powerful.
Thief 3: Deadly Shadows
All three original Thief games contain supernatural elements and all of them can be very eerie. The gameplay of Thief is such that you’re invited and indeed almost required to lean in, engaging closely. It’s not just the tense fear of discovery but the need to rely on subtle clues and cues to successfully stealth your way around; you can’t just put on some music and kick back on the couch with this game.
This level of close engagement leaves you wide open, emotionally, and Thief 3: Deadly Shadows in particular capitalises on this masterfully with its penultimate level. In Robbing the Cradle, you explore Shalebridge Cradle, an abandoned orphanage and mental asylum (a nice double whammy, there).
The entire level is creepy to the max, with dead inmates wandering around, a supernatural mystery to solve, and eventually the need to escape the building’s hold on Garrett. What really gets me, though, and what makes me sometimes think bad things about Ion Storm, is that the first section of the level, which is the scariest part, doesn’t contain any threats at all. You wander around utterly convinced you’re about to be offed, and there’s not a blessed thing out there.
System Shock 2
The third Ken Levine entry on this list (fourth, if you stretch the Thief entry to cover the first game) and the spiritual precursor to the BioShock games that followed. Initially pitched as a totally separate game by a new team in the style of the first System Shock, System Shock 2 was eventually reworked as a true sequel, allowing Levine to bring back SHODAN, one of gaming’s finest antagonists, now turned ally.
In typical Levine style, things are never quite what they seem, and SHODAN manages at least three shocking reveals as the cyberpunk thriller unfolds. It’s not really the story that gets to you, though; it’s just (just!) the ever-present feeling of threat and – wrongness. The sound design is so on point that it has never been topped, which is part of it, but it’s also a bunch of small things – the way enemies try to convince you they’re on your side even as you take them down, SHODAN’s inhuman commentary, the constantly degrading weapons.
Both System Shock games are amazing and will live on in your mind afterwards, but it’s System Shock 2 that will have you switching off the PC and climbing under the bed to snuggle with your blankey.
In an excellent blog post dividing horror games into various categories, Amnesia: The Dark Descent designer Thomas Grip cited Clock Tower as an example of “horror simulation” – a genre which tries to recreate the experience of being caught up in a horror movie or novel. He differentiates this from “horror wrapping”, where a shooter, adventure or other genre of game is dressed up like a horror game.
“What sets Clock Tower apart from Resident Evil is that its core mechanic is not there to entertain, it is there to put the player in the shoes of a protagonist in a horror story,” Grip wrote, later claiming that no game after it (including Silent Hill, Resident Evil et al) managed to replicate this feat until 2003’s Siren.
The action of Clock Tower is all about horror. Nothing exists in it to do anything but inspire feelings of fear, helplessness, inevitable capture and narrow escape. There’s no shotgun moment, where the protagonist gets the tools to fight back; there’s no guaranteed win formula. You’re not scared as an adjunct to playing the game; being scared is the game.
It doesn’t hold up today, but we have big hopes for spiritual successor NightCry. Clock Tower fans are still having nightmares.
Cart Life will break you.
We’ve covered a lot of games on this list that target the player with fear or shock plot twists. There are plenty of other games that leverage sadness to get to you. Cart Life, now available for free, is one of the few games to worm its way into your brain and unlock a depression.
Cart Life is a very simple game. It puts you in the shoes of a cart vendor, and asks you to survive the pressures of life. Nothing it proposes is unrealistic. The situations it puts you in are similar or identical to those faced by millions of poverty-line dwellers all over the first world. None of them are there by choice. None of them deserve it. All of them would have taken an out if they could.
It’s impossible to win Cart Life, because no matter what happens when you’ve finished the world will still be broken.
Hunted: The Demon’s Forge
InXile’s fantasy take on the Gears of War formula came out at a really bad time – just as the market was hitting peak hostility for new properties. It’s a solid action game with some really great features, but it just went completely under the radar – especially as the developer’s old school fans had expected something more RPG-like.
Hunted: The Demon’s Forge has multiple endings based on your choices during the game; you are repeatedly offered the opportunity to partake of a mysterious substance which increases your powers temporarily, and your decision in this matter makes a big difference.
Hunted is playable in single-player, optionally switching between characters, or in co-op. It’s when you play the whole thing with a pal that things get really interesting: turns out if one character uses the power ups significantly more than the other, they will be corrupted and turn evil – and then the other character has to kill them.
This is confronting enough if you’re playing alone, as you’ll likely witness the death of your favourite character, but in co-op it’s an especially brutal twist.
Final Fantasy 7
You have to remember that Final Fantasy 7 was the first really popular 3D RPG. For many gamers, this was their first experience with what was once the only truly narrative-driven genre in gaming, whose light was previously buried under an off-putting bushel of menus and lack of explosions.
So for a lot of gamers in 1997, this was the first time they’d come to know and love characters, and follow a plot more complicated than “save the president”. It is therefore no surprise that this is the first game that made many of them cry.
It’s not just the emotional impact of Aeris’s death, though (looking back, it’s all kind of cheesy, although it was extremely well-delivered for the time). It’s the fact that she dies at all. Main characters just did not die in triple-A console games. It was a betrayal. It was revolutionary.
It was also something the dev team came up with on a whim rather than a lynchpin moment the rest of the game was planned around; in fact there’s plenty to suggest that FF7 was put together with sticky tape and sweat. That it has gone on to such acclaim and kicked off the modern Final Fantasy era is testament to the skill of its creators in working under very difficult conditions.
This place used to be reserved for Playdead’s debut effort Limbo, which remains impactful and excellent even today, but we’ve supplanted it with the amazing followup, Inside, because, wow.
Like Limbo, Inside conveys its narrative in a minimalist fashion – there are no cutscenes, no dialogue, no text logs or audio diaries. There’s just you, and the world unfolding around you, and a very powerful motivation to do what the game demands of you: run left to right, overcoming every obstacle.
It all starts off so sensibly. Kid, running. Men and dogs, chasing. You form your own theories as to why. But shortly thereafter you reach a farm, and the dystopia starts to slide sideways from social into science fiction, by way of atmospheric, visceral and moral horror.
Playdead never explains any of this, but what you conjure in your own head is enough.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
In yet another masterful use of faux glitching, Batman: Arkham Asylum finds a way for the player to experience the mind-altering effects of a Scarecrow attack even as Bruce Wayne does. For those youngsters who’d never played MGS 2: Sons of Liberty or Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, this was an unprecedented bit of psychological manipulation.
There’s little more to be said about this. Arkham Asylum is such a polished package, and nails the Batman atmosphere so well, that this section is a jolt to the system and caused genuine fear in addition to the usual “is my game crashing” freak outs.
Scarecrow is a wonderful villain, and Rocksteady took terrific advantage of him for this game.
A neat little indie puzzle game, The Swapper gets weird really quickly. Its core mechanic, the ability to create clones of yourself and transfer your consciousness between bodies which will clumsily mimic each other as best they can, makes for some really great gameplay – but some uncomfortable questions.
Questions like “how does this work”, “what lives in the bodies when I’m not in there” and “what else could you do with this” are answered, partially, by the game’s plot, conveyed piecemeal as you progress through the Metroidvania-like adventure.
It turns out the colonists on this base, and the scavengers that came after them, have been up to some serious medical research shenanigans in addition to the complicating threat of an alien presence, the Watchers. At the end of the game your character is faced with the choice of staying on the planet to die, or evacuating – but at what cost?
A pretty fucked up cost, actually. Whatever choice you make, the game will leave you haunted. Who knows what Facepalm Games meant us to think, but it definitely meant us to be disturbed.
The Fall is about an AI embedded in a combat suit, which is activated to find the human inside the suit is unconscious and in danger. Determined to protect this precious cargo, A.R.I.D. sets off to bring the occupant to safety – manually overriding aspects of its own programming in order to gain full control of the suit’s functions.
This altruistic mission is not rewarded; a cursory examination from a second AI leads to A.R.I.D. being declared faulty, and the rest of the game is something of a cat and mouse between the two intelligences.
It’s hard for the player to know who to trust; A.R.I.D.’s motives seem good, and the Caretaker AI is an obvious antagonist, but the one is a mirror to the other. What rogue AI has ever felt it was doing the wrong thing?
And this is only part one of a trilogy. The Fall Part 2: Unbound is expected later this year.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Another game that projects the effects of the character’s mental suffering onto the player, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is extremely unsettling.
Even more than other games that foreground the player’s sanity, Call of Cthulhu does an excellent job of making you feel them, even adjusting your control sensitivity so you question your own movements and feel physically helpless. Falling too deep into the pit sends you to a game over screen, too, so it’s hard to set aside feelings of dread, and once you’re on the slope it rapidly gets slippery.
Although it is flawed, difficult and buggy, it’s also one of the best Cthulhu Mythos games ever produced in its capacity to inspire real fear and a sense of gravity in you. It’s a shame Headfirst Productions went arse up (pun not intended but cheerfully accepted) as it had at least two more of these in it, and maybe they wouldn’t have been eye-bleedingly ugly to the modern gamer.
The Stanley Parable
Whereas Bioshock is a linear narrative-driven first person adventure that incidentally raises questions about the genre through its story, The Stanley Parable takes the genre of linear narrative-driven first person adventures and dissects it, gleefully flinging its innards about the room like Christmas decorations.
Whether you are the sort of person who dutifully does what they are told in video games or the kind who will ignore a game’s prompts from the get go, The Stanley Parable has a message for you, and that message is: games are even more interesting when you ask them questions.
The Stanley Parable challenges you to misbehave; to loiter; to break rules; to glitch; and most importantly to question the “rules” of video games. It speaks to you with an expanded vocabulary, when you are used to listening in toddler speak. Most impressively, it always catches you just when you think you’re going to fall through a crack; itself a commentary on the futility of designing for player freedom, it is a masterwork in just that.
Planescape: Torment is literate, playful and yet somehow very playable. Its power comes from its designers’ willingness to turn the conventions of RPGs on their heads. Yes, your hero wakes up with amnesia, but rather than setting out to save the world because he just happens to be chosen one, the Nameless One is just looking to die.
Dying happens a lot – it’s not an easy game – but it’s not the end of the world, or even of your play session. It’s almost as if Planescape: Torment shrugs and accepts the fact that it is a game, and builds your inevitable deaths into itself rather than clumsily pretending they didn’t really happen.
This alone would secure it a place in memory, but Planescape: Torment has much more going for it. Set in a world where demons and the undead are not just facts of life but ordinary people, it doesn’t shy away from dark subject matter. When the player is given a choice, it’s never a matter of picking the “good” and “evil” options. Once experienced, never forgotten.
Mass Effect Trilogy
If you want proof that Mass Effect messes people up, just look at the intense backlash over the ending of the trilogy. While it’s true that it wasn’t the most satisfying of conclusions, it’s not true that it wasn’t threaded through all three games (the man vs machine theme is hugely important, and Shepard herself is hinted to be more machine than even she realises) or that it wasn’t long enough (the majority of the third game is the true ending to the trilogy, not just its final hours).
No, the strength of the reaction wasn’t so much to the ending’s quality (we’re used to shitty writing in games) so much as a reflection of just how much people cared. Oh, how they cared. BioWare spent three games making us care, convincing us that what we did mattered – and then in the end, it didn’t: Shepard dies, her surviving friends are stranded on an alien world, the infrastructure of the galaxy is destroyed. That’s not what we wanted, and for some people, it’s not what they earned after 30 hours of shoot-and-loot.
Much more than the amended ending, the Citadel DLC went a long way to calming this fury, as it provided a snapshot of a happy Shepard to take away with you. But at the end of the day “Shepard is still dead and my life is empty”.
The Last of Us
Naughty Dog: your blatant manipulation of our emotions has not gone unnoticed. There’s many a gamer with a previously untarnished no cry record brought sniffling to the tissue box by your bleak-ass ending.
Naughty Dog’s achievement in making players really care about the ending is particularly impressive in light of the linearity of The Last of Us; it’s much easier to get players invested if they’re making decisions. Instead, it just put you in the shoes of a deliberately every-man protagonist and let you fall quietly in parental love with a perfect little spark of a human being.
At the end of the game, Joel – not the player – dooms the world rather than lose a second daughter. Those of you puffing off about this being the wrong call should just pray the choice is never put before you.
Aliens vs Predator
Aliens vs Predator (the 1999 original, now known as AvP Classic, not the regrettable 2010 follow up) is the reason we held on through years of hugely dodgy Aliens games until Alien Isolation arrived to deliver on the franchise’s promise once again.
With three unique campaigns, AvP gave us the chance to play as a human, Xenomorph and Predator, but balanced all three so that they present equal levels of challenge. What that means is that none of three characters ever feels entirely safe; there’s always something nasty out there, waiting for you to slip up.
The human path is definitely the most nerve-wracking, and you can thank it for the existence of the excellent Alien: Isolation, which takes the survival horror elements of AvP and developed them into a full game. The ping of the motion detector, and the resulting pants-shitting terror, is one of gaming’s most treasured communal memories. It’s terrifying.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
An under-appreciated minor deity in the pantheon of classic CRPGs, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is very much the product of its team, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines developer Troika Games. By that, I mean the content is seriously messed up.
There are loads of examples of really horrible situations and events in Arcanum, but there’s one in particular which is especially notorious thanks to Troika’s refusal to provide a satisfactory conclusion.
The quest, which is further discussed in this blog post, has players looking into the origins of half-orcs. In the course of the investigation the player encounters evidence of horrifying, torturous experiments, which they can then hand over to a journalist to be made public.
But nothing comes of it. If the player returns to the scene, the journalist has vanished, and nobody working in the building has ever heard of him. Should the player visit the facility mentioned during the quest, they find it utterly empty, with all equipment removed, although obviously in use relatively recently.
To this day new players get online, angry and upset, demanding to know how to progress the quest to an imagined next step; surely it doesn’t end there. Surely the baddies don’t just get away with it. This is a video game and I know how they work. Sorry, son; you got Troika’d.
The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion
Most of the fourth Elder Scrolls game is pretty straight forward; kill the demons, close the gates, restore the throne. As ever, it’s in the side quests that things get really interesting, and Oblivion has a fantastic Dark Brotherhood quest line.
Getting into the Brotherhood is itself pretty messed up since you have to murder someone; not just kill them, but murder them, which usually means deliberately setting out to catch an innocent unawares. And I suppose there’s a case to be made for it being a bit weird to cheerfully stab your way across Cyrodil for fun and profit.
About two thirds of the way through the quest, though, things get really good. Turns out someone’s been intercepting your dead drops, and for the last goodness knows how many murders you’ve been exterminating the guild itself. As you see in Skyrim, this act nearly destroys the Brotherhood altogether, but it’s the moment of revelation, when you look back at the small hints and clues you should have spotted, that you get a wave of emotion and regret.
There are multiple reasons Catherine is so devastating. The first is its overt engagement with psychological themes – the near-Sisyphean puzzles Vincent tackles have a truly surreal feel to them, echoing the useless effort of dreams that leave your sheets tangled and your body aching. The towering hazards that loom out of the depths explicitly represent his fear of commitment and entanglement. The pillows are a red herring; the horns and sheep aren’t about bedtime, but a jab at how it feels to be herded through life by expectations and social pressures.
The second is probably that Vincent’s dilemma, his mistakes and compromises, are so relatable and human. Everyone has, at least, been tempted to do the wrong thing, and everyone knows the fear of consequence.
The supernatural business in the final third is necessary, really; Catherine is a game that stands on its own merits as a social drama and breathless, almost horrifying puzzler.
Even viewed as a vanilla puzzle platformer, Braid is enough to give your brain a thorough mangling; the way the environment guides you through the constantly evolving time-bending mechanics feels a little bit like having your mind rolled flat and then kneaded back into a loaf every ten minutes.
But where Braid really shines is when you start to wonder about its quiet narrative. The final level reveals that the princess you’ve been trying to “rescue” is actually trying to escape you, and the knight holding her captive has snatched her from your clutches. The monster in this relationship was you all along; a painful echo of an all-too-common real world revelation.
This endgame twist is powerful and shocking enough that many feel aggrieved by it, and go looking for further explanations – Braid is about atomic bombs, Braid is about Mario, Braid is about everything but me and my blinkered perception of myself as a Good Guy.
Knights of the Old Republic
The original Star Wars, bless it, is a pretty straightforward hero’s journey power fantasy of Goodies versus Baddies, and subsequent revelations – the baddie is your dad, the hottie is your sister – did not prepare fans for what the Extended Universe holds. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is just one example of the drama this universe can offer.
See, part way through Knights of the Old Republic your Goody Two Shoes character is revealed to be a brainwashed Sith. This is extremely unsettling for those who’ve been staunchly and merrily mashing that Light Side button through the game because that’s what heroes do.
Some people say that Knights of the Old Republic is badly designed because all the Dark Side powers are so cool and interesting that there’s little motivation to choose the Jedi over the Sith. But consider this: maybe that’s the point? Star Wars is all about the temptations of power, after all. If BioWare deliberately built that into the mechanics… well. More power to it.
A precious treasure of one of Microsoft’s many half-hearted attempts to get Japan onboard Xbox, Lost Odyssey swung and arguably missed thanks to old fashioned JRPG design and painful loading times.
For those who liked the one and tolerated the other, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi produced a banger, pouring all his energy into the narrative rather than fancy features.
What starts off as a promising story of disruptive technology (or rather, magice) and subsequent political turmoil quickly moves out of the realm of international warfare and into absolute bonkers territory, where it turns out the reason a bunch of major characters are so confused is because they’re half-stranded entities from a parallel universe, who just forgot. A late-game sacrifice makes the ending especially bittersweet.
Mental asylums are a classic horror setting, because they tap into a handful of very real fears: fear of losing your capacity to distinguish reality from symptom, and fear of losing your agency in a world where those with atypical mental health are at best stigmatised and at worst – well.
Video games generally don’t bring a light, respectful touch to this discussion and Sanitarium is no exception. Nevertheless, it’s an unusually effective horror game despite its bird’s-eye perspective. Much of the impact stems from the constant blurring of perception; the player never knows what’s real and what’s not.
Kicking off with amnesia in an uncaring system, Sanitarium barely pauses to sip at this cup before descending into a supernatural tale of horror. You may be perfectly happy with this – just another day in video games – but your smile slips when it becomes clear that whatever you thought was going on, everything here is on you. And what you did.
Papo & Yo
You may be able to play Papo & Yo without batting an eyelid, in which case we are delighted to learn you made it through childhood so even-tempered and balanced.
For the rest of us, Papo & Yo’s seesawing AI companion is the rake that uncovers something rotting beneath the surface. The bright and cheerful big friend who lets you climb all over them becomes a noisy, view-filling beast which leaves you battered and bruised on the ground. You tiptoe around their snores, which seem to fill the world; you have to learn to manipulate them, to exert a level of control on yourself and the world around you that no child should be forced into.
To say that Papo & Yo is a game about growing up with abuse is to greatly undersell its impact. Pause the game, press the heels of your hands into your eyes, and shudder and shake.
Professor Layton and Unwound Future
Professor Layton? Really? Those cute and cheerful DS games about the weird guy in the hat who solves puzzles?
Yes, really. After producing two games someone at Level-5 suddenly started to wonder if this bestselling series of brain-benders might not be the best place to show off a heart-wrenching story of love lost and found and lost again.
At the end of the time travelling story of Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (or “Lost Future”, in Europe and associated territories), Layton’s companion Celeste is revealed as Claire, the only woman he has ever loved, believed dead these past ten years but actually flung into the future. They have one brief moment together before she is sucked back to the moment of her now guaranteed death, in order to preserve the timeline.
In most other video games this would be the opening cutscene and Layton would go on an action-packed revenge rampage, but as it is, it’s simply the end. And it’s devastating. Would you let the world go to hell if it meant saving Claire? Claire refuses to put Layton through making that choice.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
We already have one Metal Gear Solid entry on this list, but can we talk about Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater for a bit?
In typical Hideo Kojima fashion, Snake Eater is full of neat little twists and tricks that play with conventions and reverse expectations – and also just plain old bonkers material. But this one has a couple of moments that are especially effective.
One is a boss encounter in which the player must survive a gauntlet of spectres – one for every enemy they have killed so far. Those who play non-lethally enjoy a low-stress if spooky saunter, but everyone else is harrowed from all sides. At the end of it all, the sad corpse of The Boss’s dead lover, The Sorrow, is all that remains.
Another is the final encounter with The Boss herself. After tens of hours exploring the tangled relationship between master and student, which is all mixed up in a very messy human way, all is forgiven – but nevertheless, Snake must take her down with his own hands. She doesn’t make it easy, but as the music swells and the petals fly, it’s your own pained reluctance that presents the greatest difficulty barrier.