When one is preparing to embark on a long week, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is some mindless self-indulgence. As a gaming journalist, that can mean looking at all the video games you’ve played over the years and having a good think about the ones that made you really feel something. But whether you’re an old-fashioned fan or a developer, sometimes what gets to you can be strange and surprising. Feeling the need for a good dose of vulnerability and camaraderie today, let’s talk about the video games that made me, Steph Roehler, break down and cry.
To The Moon
No video game has ever emotionally destroyed me the way that To The Moon did. As a fun activity one day, my spouse and I sat down and played the entire thing in a single sitting. He may not be much of an emotional person, but we both were weeping by the end. The story perfectly blends the pain of loss and the beauty of love. It’s no surprise that this game is considered such an emotional ride and an indie darling.
Between 9S and 2B and their heartbreaking adventure, anyone could cry at this game. It’s a beautiful story about fighting to carve out your own version of humanity and love. While I cried at all the expected moments in the game, there were also a few that caught me by surprise; seeing the robot village, the reveal of the opera singer Simone’s heartbreaking story, your final farewell to Pascal, and other little scenes. There’s something horribly beautiful about wanting to be human and not quite getting it right, and I’m someone who understands and relates to that on a pretty profound level.
A Space for The Unbound
After a tough adolescence punctuated by painful loss, a young woman finally finds the will to live when she tries to destroy the world. Raya/Nirmala’s journey tugged at my heartstrings, and while the game was not perfect (even frustrating at times), there was something untouchable about the gentle way A Space for The Unbound tackled her mental health. I cried watching Alma wait for Raya to sort through her feelings, waiting for her to talk. I cried knowing how hard it is to get out of bed when you can feel tension and discomfort in the rooms below your floorboards. I cried empathizing with those spaces where you’re expected to be someone else, someone well. And I cried when he slowly walked her back to the real world, knowing she’d be losing the comfort of her childhood friend. Knowing she’d have to work so much harder to keep living.
But she did. She survived. Other heartbroken, unwell little girls can, too.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
The reason for my tears for Dragon Age: Inquisition are simple: “The Dawn Will Come” ruined me, alright? The entire Inquisition stood on the snowy hills, facing their darkest night. But instead of despairing, they came together to be hopeful for a better tomorrow. The second Mother Giselle sang her first note, I was cooked. I didn’t care I was playing an elf who didn’t believe in Andraste. I also didn’t care that, as a scene, it was cheesy and very Ferelden-centric. Yet it was beautiful. Among a ruined army, my Inquisitor was moved by so many people witnessing true destruction and still choosing to believe in her.
Final Fantasy X
After Tidus’ terrible laughter, weeping at Final Fantasy X all comes down to the absurd compulsions of love. And considering I played this game one month into dating my now-spouse and he called it his favorite childhood game, love is the only excuse I have. As we watched every scene between Tidus and Yuna, my very-not-romantic boyfriend told me that he wanted to find someone amazing who he could support and help grow strong. I thought the story a bit silly, and Seymour Guado was an offensively dressed blight upon this world. But by the end, when Tidus had to say goodbye, I was crying, too.
The first time I played Undertale, I was sitting in my childhood kitchen on winter break, clueless about what I was getting into. So clueless, in fact, I killed a handful of monsters before I got the gimmick of not having to kill them. Tragically, my list of dead included the lovely monster mom, Toriel. But I thought “It’s alright, I’ll play the game through.” When I reached King Asgore, heartbroken over his lost family, I sat there, panicked, desperate for a way to save him. I spent an hour fighting him, not wanting to land a single blow. But it was too late. Too many monsters were already dead.
With the thundering lullaby of Fox News taunting me in the other room, I shut down the game and vowed to restart from the beginning, because I couldn’t bear killing him. I couldn’t hurt him when he’d already been hurt so much.
A few weeks later I started everything over again so Asgore, Toriel, and little Fiske could have a chance for the family they deserved.
I’ve cried more times while playing Civilization games than I have playing almost any other video game. Not because there is anything at all reasonable to weep about in Civ (other than the fact that it’s a video game that takes eons to beat). No, instead it’s because I have this compulsion to play Civ with my spouse, and my spouse is much better at the game and takes much longer turns than me. After a few hours, I inevitably grow tired, frustrated, and possibly even cry if he starts a war with me. For years, I struggled with this situation. Why couldn’t I get over it and just let it be a game?
A few weeks ago, we played Civ again, and I cried. Again. Then got myself even more upset that I cried at all. My spouse came over to my desk and we talked. I felt so frustrated that he grew up playing these games and knew so much more and I didn’t know what to do with that. That gap in knowledge — it felt like I missed out on something. I felt helpless.
At the same time, while we talked, something clicked for both of us. There doesn’t have to be a gap. I said, “let’s end the game now, and I’m going to practice.” So, over the next few weeks, I practiced Civilization. Dozens of freshly started games, testing out religion and military tactics, learning new things about Civ strategy with each save. A week later, when we tried again, he won. But it didn’t hurt so much. Actually, I was happy and proud of the game, even if I lost, because now I understood what was even happening. In future games, I could figure out and fix what I did wrong.
The things I lacked didn’t mean I was less than. They just meant I had more to learn. All my life I’d been practicing how to teach myself everything; how to protect myself. But it took hundreds of hours in Civ to realize there’s always more to learn, and it’s okay if I didn’t parent and teach myself perfectly. I just have to keep trying.
I don’t cry anymore at Civ, but I have added a few dozen more hours into the game, learning.
We need to talk about Sen’s Fortress. But first, some context on how Dark Souls made it to this list, despite my tears having nothing to do with the story. I have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and one thing that I deeply struggle with is spatial awareness/depth perception. If something is fairly straight on, I can roughly figure out where things are. But if objects are moving on a more 3D plane and I have to comprehend left, right, forward, backward, and diagonal movement all at once? My brain exhausts fast and, in some cases, snaps in half. It’s why I’m 27 and still don’t have a driver’s license. Why I’ve cracked more dinnerware than I’d like to admit and can’t catch a ball to save my life. And when I first tried to play Dark Souls, I couldn’t get past the Taurus demon for over 20 hours.
Sometime last year, I tried to play through Dark Souls to practice my spatial awareness and prepare myself for hopefully driving one day. It was actually going pretty well. I was learning, getting better at my rolls, and dodging hits sometimes. Then I came to Sen’s Fortress. The fighting wasn’t too bad, and the traps were tolerable, but the platforming nearly killed me. Worst of all, the last line of platforms across the top of the fortress nearly broke my brain incomprehensibly. Eventually, I broke down into exhausted tears and had to ask my spouse for assistance. I kept playing the game for a while longer — I even got all the way the Ornstein and Smough. Then a similar thing happened. I deeply struggled to track two targets moving at me at once, and I had a bittersweet cry about it.
I’m still uncertain whether or not I can ever practice enough to be able to drive. It was glaringly clear from my time in Dark Souls that I don’t know if spatial awareness will ever be a skill I can force myself to learn. Ultimately, with the support of people who love me, it’s been bearable to learn that for all my love of learning, it’s okay that I might fail. I certainly couldn’t comprehend that for most of my life.
Putt-Putt Saves The Zoo
I can explain this one, I swear. So, as a child, I spent a lot of time alone reading books or, fittingly, playing video games. I can’t properly measure how many hours I spent inside education adventures or cutesy kid point-and-clicks. My go-to game, though, was Putt-Putt Saves The Zoo. It was my comfort space. I played it over and over, saving every single baby animal from the predicaments they got themselves in, reuniting them with their worried, loving parents. It filled the void of any warmth I was missing.
Many years later, on a whim, I bought the game on Steam for my 21st birthday and played it all the way through again.
The way I sobbed at the end was something I never expected. My childhood was deeply complicated and flawed, but Putt-Putt was a safe space for my poor little brain. And experiencing it again, from repainting Putt-Putt several different colors or creaming the penguins in hockey, woke something profoundly sad and sweet inside me. So yes, I’ve cried my eyes out to Putt-Putt Saves The Zoo, and I’d happily do it again. Video games are beautiful at that. Not only do they let you experience different worlds and adventures, but sometimes you can process feelings you didn’t know you were holding in. And I hold a lot of guilt, bittersweetness, and wistful feelings inside me that sometimes just need to be let out.
I’m grateful that these video games helped me do that.