I'm a sucker for a sad ending. Show me a chick flick or rom com and I guarantee tears. Maybe that's why I like games that pull at my heart strings - those unusual experiences that aren't afraid of dealing with death, loss and abandonment. Amongst these, there are a few that stand out due to their mature handling of the one subject that none of us can escape: loss. These games, rather than depress, leave me feeling just a little richer and wiser.
I'm going to look at experiences that have meant something to me personally - Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid IV and Fable 2. As we go, I'll need to dig into what makes them tick, so there will be spoilers aplenty; be forewarned if you've not played them through yet.
Shadow of the Colossus - Layered Loss
Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games that had to be included. From the slow, lonely journey before the game starts, to the discovery of the abandoned environments and the eventual death of your companion, loss runs deep through Team Ico's veins.
Although many know and have written about the climactic sacrifice, there has been less said about the wider tapestry. This is a game that engaged me with loss on a number of levels that combined to create some powerful feelings.
First, there is the potential death of our Wander's companion, Mono, that is slowly played out during our search for her recovery and the slaying of Colossi. Then there is the land's loss of life. As I explored the landscape, it become a character all its own. The barren spaces are punctuated with artifacts from a previous age of inhabitation.
Finally, there is the strange sense of loss as each Colossus is slain. Where other games would greet this end level success with trumpets and triumph, here it is met with orchestral sadness. Each death places the validity of our quest further in question, as we acknowledge the price of losing each unique creature. I loved how this tension was reflected in the deteriorating pallor of Wander's complexion and Mono's slow return to color and voice.
Each sad layer is delivered with a light touch, and is never hammy or overblown. Shadow of the Colossus looks loss in the face and deals with it on its own terms. What results is more than a game that works, but an experience of real emotional value. And, as is toyed with in its appearance in the film Reign Over Me (with a rare serious performance from Adam Sandler), this is gameplay with real therapeutic resonance.
Final Fantasy VII - Unexpected Loss
The loss in Final Fantasy VII surrounds Tetsuya Nomura's green-eyed character, Aeris (translated from Aerith). But rather than the brooding slow approach we are used to in a videogame character's demise, Aeris' death is early, untimely and unexpected.
This is a moment of real, unexpected loss. As Tetsuya Nomura reflected during his October 2005 interview in Electronic Gaming Monthly, "Death should be something sudden and unexpected, and Aeris' death seemed more natural and realistic."
Revisiting these moments of Final Fantasy VII reminds me of the TV series "The Wire." There too, death is not glamorous or climatic, but simple and unexpected. And as Yoshinori Kitase shared in his May 2003 Edge interview, "In the real world ... people die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space ... These are the feelings I wanted to arouse in the players with [Aeris'] death relatively early in the game. Feelings of reality and not Hollywood."
It's the unexpected and everyday nature of Aeris' demise that is most affecting here. Perhaps because we know that this is a little too close to the truth of loss in real life.