Video games generally aren’t shy when it comes to doling out death and destruction. Mowing down wave after wave of nameless enemy scum is no longer the exception, but the rule. Even the greenest gamers stay cool and collected while playing executioner, unperturbed by the steadily-rising body count. But as games evolve, so too does their ability to get under a player’s skin. Gone are the simple side scrolling adventures of yesteryear, replaced by games with better graphics and more complex ideas. The more immersive the experience, the more invested gamers become. As soon as you’re hooked, developers strike: they unexpectedly pull the plug on a dearly beloved character, never stopping to consider just how many feels their audience will feel.
Think about it: you dump a tremendous amount of time into these games, dedicating your attention and energy to a specific cause in a simulated world. Relationships, jobs, sustenance: these things become secondary when you’re knee-deep in a great game. Whether you’re trying to save the entire universe or simply survive for one more day, when a particularly-beloved character gets put six feet under, a part of you dies with them.
Today, let’s remember the little virtual heroes that were taken away before their time. These are the most devastating deaths in gaming history.
*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
10. Crono (Chrono Trigger)
Squaresoft was giving franchise characters the ol’ Game of Thrones treatment before Game of Thrones was even a thing. 1995’s Chrono Trigger is no exception, and Crono’s death is one of the most groundbreaking moments in the history of gaming. The very idea of killing off such a beloved character was unheard of back in the Naughty Nineties, but that didn’t stop the heartless jerks over at Square from doing it anyways.
Crono is unexpectedly (and surprisingly easily) killed during a showdown with the game’s Big Bad Boss, Lavos, who actually looks like a giant sea anemone. An-en-oh-me? Uh-nem-oh-knee? A-mem-oh-ny? Whatever. While it is actually possible to bring Crono back from the dead, gamers dont need to; Chrono Trigger can be continued and beaten without the spikey-headed hero. That type of power makes this already-unforgettable death even more unforgettable-ier, and anyone who was ever unlucky enough to experience it still feels the burn.
Sidenote: The above clip is from the original SNES version of the game from 1995. Square later released a remastered version for other platforms (including Playstation 1 and the Nintendo DS) with full anime cut-scenes. You can watch the re-imagined moment here.
9. Noble Team (Halo: Reach)
The majority of gamers didn’t love Halo: Reach. Even so, there’s just no denying that the deaths of Noble Team were incredibly well done — the final frames are packed with camaraderie, firefights, acts of valor, and tons of feels. Cortana’s casual introduction served as a great tie-in to the rest of the Halo franchise. Kat’s seemingly nonchalant death was an unexpected sucker punch. Simply put, the whole affair was beautiful, but in a really morbid and awful way.
As if watching each member of Noble Team perish wasn’t bad enough, Reach forces us to watch as our character, Noble Six, makes his (or her) final stand. Six is relentless, blasting through countless Covenant soldiers while enduring heavy fire. The final member of Noble Team even fights off a few fearsome Sangheili warriors before being overwhelmed. Gamers stand idly by while their virtual self is swarmed and killed, the brutal final transmission relayed via helmet cam.
8. Ashley / Kaidan (Mass Effect)
The Mass Effect franchise is best known for its tendency to force gamers into making life-or-death decisions on the fly. If played in its entirety, dozens upon dozens of seemingly unimportant choices have resounding repercussions that carry over into Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. The battle on Virmire is just one of many no-win scenarios; you’re forced to choose which squad-mate to sacrifice, Ashley Williams or Kaidan Alenko. It’s a moment that gave many gamers pause, driving home the fact that every single decision has lasting consequences. Not many video games can do what Mass Effect does.
If you’ve yet to play the original Mass Effect, you’ll be faced with this decision soon enough. Save Ashley. Just do it. It’s not that Kaidan is a bad guy. Saren is a bad guy, and Kaidan is actually probably a really good guy. Unfortunately, Kaidan is voiced by the same actor who gave life to Carth Onasi, the sniveling and emotional brat in Bioware’s 2011 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. He was the worst. Seriously.
7. Dominic Santiago (Gears of War 3)
People don’t pick up copies of all-out splatterfests (like the Gears of War games) expecting a lot of character development or emotional investment. Generally speaking, they’re playing because it’s BEYOND AWESOME to unload thousands of rounds into the Locust horde, occasionally chain-sawing enemies in half with their trusty Mark 2 Lancers. For the record: by occasionally, we mean very frequently.
As it turns out, those moments of mind-numbing violence are just part of the setup. Dom is one of the very few characters across the entire Gears franchise written with any real emotional depth, and his heartbreaking fragility always stood in stark contrast to the game’s gore-soaked missions. His self-sacrifice is undeniably tragic — it is the final act of a broken man, determined to protect his few remaining friends.
Hopefully the upcoming Gears of War 4 will stick to the bloody bloodshed and won’t attempt to connect with gamers on an emotional level just to tear their hearts out. Welp, too late.
6. Joker (Arkham City)
Joker’s death at the end of Arkham City isn’t sad. No, sad isn’t the right word for it. Sad doesn’t even begin to capture the full range of conflicting emotions that accompanied Joker’s last breath. Fans of the Batman franchise — whether they be comic readers, movie watchers, video game players, or all of the above – know that while the Crown Prince of Crime was pegged as a villain, he was always so much more than that.
The deeply troubled Joker may have been the physical embodiment of chaos, but he was also the only person who really knew the Batman; they were the greatest of enemies, but in some ways they were also the closest of friends.
Rest in Peace, Joker: Not a monster, just ahead of the curve.
5. Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 3)
It’s hard to decide which is more difficult to swallow – delivering the death blow to Mordin Solus, one of gaming’s quirkiest and most lovable aliens, or being unable to stop it. Regardless, that moment pales in comparison to the epic and inevitable passing of Commander Shepard, the Saving Grace of Mankind (and a whole bunch of other Kinds, too).
Mass Effect 3‘s controversial ending pissed a lot of people off. When a fan-favorite franchise with thousands of unique story-lines branching across multiple installments ends in one of three ways, it can seem like a bit of a letdown. Or maybe it’s just poetic? Few studios take the time to create deaths as poignant or as powerful as this one, and for good reason – not many virtual characters were capable of capturing hearts like the hard-nosed Commander of the S.S.V. Normandy.
4. Zack Fair (Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII)
In Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, we finally get answers to some of the major questions that haunted us during the original game. Spoiler Alert: Zack was a real boy! Not only was he NOT a figment of Cloud’s (allegedly) genetically-engineered memories, he was also one of the baddest dudes this side of Cosmo Canyon.
Unlike 98% of people in Orange County, he never once betrays his morals, his integrity, or his sense of self, even in the face of certain death. After being subjected to years of brutal tests and countless painful experiments, Zack doesn’t care about having his revenge. He’s only got one mission, and that’s getting back to his Number One Chick, Aerith.
Zack dies with a smile on his face, knowing he fought the good fight and protected his BFF Cloud. Before tucking in for the long nap, he carves through like 749,526,348 Shinra grunts. If you ever wondered how Cloud Strife came to possess the Buster Sword (or who inspired that epic hair) just watch the exchange above.
3. Sarah (The Last of Us)
The minute you started playing The Last of Us, you knew this was coming. Why else would Naughty Dog developers dump gamers into her shoes to start the game? You knew it was coming, and it still hit you right in the heart-place. Scenes as emotional as this one are the reason that Virtual Reality consoles shouldn’t be allowed. Can you imagine having to endure this in a fully immersive headset? Nope, no thanks.
Sarah’s death isn’t the most action packed in gaming history. It isn’t the landmark death of a franchise character. Hell, you barely even get to know Sarah before it all goes down. But maybe that’s why it’s so effective; by playing as Joel’s daughter, for even just a moment, gamers share Sarah’s utter disbelief and fear while society starts to collapse around her.
It’s raw, unbridled human emotion that drives this scene, so realistic it makes you forget that it’s just a game. As Joel cradles Sarah’s lifeless body, you can’t help but feel any remaining hope slip away in a world that’s slowly sinking into madness.
2. Lee Everett (The Walking Dead)
In Telltale’s The Walking Dead, there are countless ways for Lee (and his companions) to go. Surviving the entire ordeal isn’t as much of an accomplishment as you’d think; regardless of how many people you rescue or how carefully you navigate the zombie-infested missions, you still end up super-duper dead.
So do your choices really matter if the outcome is always the same? That question is still a topic for debate among both fans and critics of Telltale’s TWD adaptation, but one thing is certain: Lee’s final death is one of the most intense in recent gaming memory. Trying to explain to a very small child why she must A) shoot her recently-bitten father figure or B) run away and leave said father figure to die a lonely, painful death…is not a pleasant experience.
The creative minds over at Telltale have done an excellent job at infusing their games with a wide range of real human emotion. Where Tales of the Borderlands is remarkably clever and witty, The Walking Dead is overwhelmingly oppressive and bleak. Watching the final exchange between our beloved Lee and Clem, his almost-daughter, was just way too real.
1. Aerith Gainsborough (Final Fantasy VII)
So we really have to talk about it? Can we just…not?
Did we leave off the biggest tear-jerking video game death in your life? Let us know in the comments section.