Back in 2006, I attended a conference in Scotland where the subject of games as emotional experiences was a theme. Respected journalist (now developer) Margaret Robertson gave an excellent talk about the games that had moved her.
Robertson's speech asked whether or not games could make you cry. At that time, the idea that video games could inspire tears was still a novelty, one which was not entirely accepted by the broader arts world.
"I'm here to try and put paid to a pervasive myth, that games aren't art because games can't make you cry," she said. "It's so patently untrue."
A decade on, we live in a world where emotive games are no longer a rarity. This year has been especially bountiful.
If you're looking for something to play this Christmas, something with depth, story and character, I'd like to point to some of my favorites from the last 12 months. I won't include spoilers. Generally speaking, the big emotional punches come at the end of these games, though that is not always the case.
Top of my blub list is Blackwood Crossing. It's a story of sibling love, of grief and of the fraught passage from childhood into adulthood. A small cast of beautifully drawn characters travels through a dream world of memories. Simple puzzles form the game's structure.
It's the work of a tiny team of former racing game developers, who wanted to create a deeper experience. A game like this would hardly have been possible back in 2006, a time when large publishing and retail concerns controlled the video game market. Modern development tools and digital distribution nodes made Blackwood Crossing’s development practically possible. But the most important factor is the growing number of us who love to play narrative games that are more about people and relationships than conquest and skill.
Likewise, What Remains of Edith Finch is a complicated, layered tale about a cursed family. Although its beats largely deal with death, it's often humorous. The interactions between characters are framed by their perceptions of themselves, the knowledge that they exist as the stories they tell themselves.
Last Day of June is another family tale, in which a loving husband tries to create a perfect set of circumstances that will change a tragic timeline. It's a puzzle game that relies on the player making tiny changes to interlocking events in order to create alternative outcomes. Set in a painterly world, its characters convey universal patterns of human behavior, without use of dialog.
Rakuen is a top-down RPG that looks like it might have been made in 1992. But the retro artwork disguises a charming story about allyship and generosity. The game is set in a hospital ward that leads to a magical alternative universe. Players perform quests that have parallel effects in the real world. As much as I loved the characters and their stories, it's the musical score that strums the heartstrings.
Audio storytelling also helped elevate Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice above its genre roots of psychological horror. It's a troubling tale of self-doubt and anxiety. Binaural sound design enhances the game's fear factor, but constant whispers of degradation, discouragement and worry probe the dark corners of our minds, exploring how we compartmentalize despair.
Night in the Woods takes place in a mining town, badly mauled by shifts in the global economy. A college-dropout called Mae comes home to see old friends — anthropomorphic animals — and to witness their stories. But the narrative is seen through the filter of Mae's deteriorating mental health, allowing us to empathize with a young woman whose life is shaped by internal challenges.
Stories Untold is a creepy game that pays homage to '80s tech and to the text adventure. It's inventive, playing with upsetting revelations and a clear sense of human malevolence.
The episodic Life is Strange returned this year, delving into the angsty personal relationships of teenage girls. It's a dialog tree / puzzle game that lets loose with the complications of growing up. Life is Strange captures a sense of love, tragedy and loyalty, successfully placing the player inside the feelings of its characters.
Butterfly Soup is an indie visual novel that tells the story of four girls and how they find themselves, and their feelings for one another, through their mutual love of baseball.
And then there's Everything, which defies the language of storytelling. It's an interactive toy that allows you to become anything in the universe, from a star galaxy to a seedling. The game's backbeat is a sense of wonder at the glory of existence, as well as astonishment at the pointlessness of it all.
Finally, a word about big budget games. If you're looking for emotional depth from your average shooting game, you're likely onto a loser. But some games manage to create lump-in-throat situations.
I had a few wobbly moments playing Assassin's Creed Origins, which takes place in a cruel world of rampant corruption and inequality. Many of the characters and quests are really pretty silly, but some of them made me feel very sad for the characters I met.
Similarly, Horizon Zero Dawn may ostensibly be about taking down robot monsters, but it manages to create a slow-burn story of humanity at our best, and at our worst.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus offers some upsetting scenes that try to grapple with the problem of using violence and hatred, as a solution to defeat enemies who are violent and hateful. Nier Automata has at least one scene that will likely make you choke up.
These are just a handful of the games this year with emotional punch. We are all, of course, different from one another, but it's nice to be able to share these narrative moments, as well as find out what makes other people tick. Please feel free to use comments below to share the gaming moments this year that gave you big feelings.