Skip to main content

5 of the Most Unexpectedly Emotional Moments in Games

Sometimes video games go on a sudden mission to make you feel things, and you get dragged along for the ride when you least expect it.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

Video games elicit powerful feelings in players, even though some people who pretend to be hardcore and stoic will deny it. Granted, being on the emotional end of a game admittedly feels embarrassingly weird sometimes; how's it even possible to cry about a character who's a mere 18 pixels tall, or laugh along with a cinema built out of polygonal blocks? Yet, we do it. Over and over.

While we can usually guess at a game's tone before we even plug it in (Mario is the King of Happy, and JRPGs are the Kings of Drama), a sudden twist or tonal shift sometimes flies out of nowhere and throws a wrench into everything we think we know about that game or genre. We might laugh uproariously at a game that's been heavy-handed up until that point, or we might find a raincloud in a game that's been nothing but sunshine nearly the whole way through. Or we might just hear a piece of music that makes us feel nice when we're least expecting to feel anything at all.

Earlier today on Twitter, Ars Technica's Senior Gaming Editor Kyle Orland asked his followers share the most "unexpectedly emotional" they've experienced in a game. I started thinking, and I soon realized I'm an emotional puppet to most of the games I play. I can't decide on just one title that's made me weep, or laugh, or wonder. So here are five. Most of these titles are a bit aged, but beware of spoilers.

Mega Man X's Ending (SNES, 1993)

Nearly every Mega Man game has a story, but those stories rarely stretch far beyond "Oh no, Dr Wily is up to his old tricks again." Mega Man X, the first Mega Man game for the SNES, went a little harder with a Terminator-style tale about an android dictator bent on wiping out humanity. Then the titular Mega Man X loses his mentor, Zero, when the red Reploid launches himself onto an armored attack vehicle in an act of self-sacrifice.

But even though Mega Man X's tone is a bit dark from its opening moments, I found myself surprised at the game's ending. The scrolling text is more of an epitaph than a victory celebration, and it assures Mega Man X—you—may have won, but the Reploids who died during the struggle are gone for good. There's absolutely nothing congratulatory about Mega Man X's ending, and that was a big surprise for my young self who was used to "Hooray! You won!" credit scrolls from my games.

I guess Mega Man game endings have always been a little melancholy though.

Watch on YouTube

By the way, Zero came back in later games. So did a lot of Mega Man X's initial Maverick line-up. Try explaining that to my over-emotional 13-year-old self in a pre-Mega Man X2 world, though.

Rosalina's Storybook in Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007)

I've already talked at length about why the sweet watercolor illustrations in Rosalina's storybook are sad. I'm including it on this list because it's certainly an unexpected infusion of sadness in a series that generally shies away from the emotion. Way, way, away from it. The storybook even begins as a lighthearted adventure about Rosalina travelling across the galaxy before it veers into "dead mother" territory. Oof.

Jowy's Betrayal in Suikoden 2 (PSOne, 1998)

Suikoden 2 is a game that starts with a children's brigade getting slaughtered for political reasons, so you know from the outset it's not the kind of RPG where the characters solve problems between countries by making politicians sit down and talk things out.

As the war drags on and more lives are lost, one of the game's heroes, Jowy Atreides, performs a political assassination for reasons that are—well, not good, but not as terrible as they initially seem. It takes a while for Jowy's intentions to come into the light, and he gives no indication he harbors such terrible intent until the knife comes out.

And everything went super-duper well!!

The initial shock is a gasp-out-loud moment, possibly followed by a heartbroken "Jowy! I was rooting for you! Everyone was rooting for you! How dare you."

Pokémon Sun and Moon's Eevee Trainer Subquest (Nintendo 3DS, 2016)

I never used to expect much out of Pokémon's stories, but Pokémon Sun and Moon set a standard I'm going to measure Gen 8 against. Just a heads-up, Game Freak.

Funny thing is, I believe Game Freak will live up to my expectations. Even though the upcoming Let's Go Pikachu! and Let's Go Eevee! are clearly geared towards younger fans, there's a sidequest in Pokémon Sun and Moon that made me realize with no small amount of surprise that Game Freak understands its fanbase is generally growing older—and so are the people working on the games.

The sidequest that nets you Eevee's ultimate power-up begins when a middle-aged man working behind a grocery store counter tells you about how he used to run with a famous troupe of Eevee trainers. He's pining for the glory days now that he works all hours to support his family, and he asks you to check up on his pals. He chisels clues on where you can find the trainers from memories of his younger days, and from his descriptions, each trainer's personality seems to match up with their Eevee's evolution. The Jolteon's trainer was quick-witted, the Sylveon's trainer was fae and ageless, the Leafeon's trainer was a natural beauty, and so on.

"Great news! You're going to die."

When you find each trainer, however, you learn age has taken an ironic toll on them. Leafeon's trainer is resorting to expensive and harmful treatments to retain her natural beauty, and she confides she's falling apart. Jolteon's trainer, once a sharp thinker, is suffering from dementia in a nursing home. And Sylveon's owner died some time ago.

As you meet one Eevee trainer after the next, the game weaves a narrative in your head. It's not that the trainers are entirely unhappy (er, barring the dead Sylveon owner). For better or worse, they've grown up and been forced to take whatever life dishes out. Their days of reckless infamy are over. They have jobs now. They have families and responsibilities. They have to deal with sickness and aging. Eventually, they'll die whether they're ready to or not.

I was surprised to find such a poignant story in a Pokémon game. And as someone who's not exactly getting younger, it's eerily relatable even though it's centered around magical animals. I guess owning candy-colored fantasy foxes can't defang all of life's problems.

The Ending for The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Game Boy, 1993)

All right, I know Link's Awakening never stops warning you that Link's adventure is a dream, and the very nature of dreams is that they disappear forever when the morning arrives. I just never expected the game to follow through on its bluff.

"Link's Awakening is so cute and silly," I said when I defeated the Nightmare. "There's no way Nintendo's going to kill everyone off." Then that image of Marin singing started to fade…


Read this next