Five ways games can make you cry

GDC 2010: Ubisoft Montreal's Richard Rouse III explains how reminiscence, amplification through abstraction, transformation, loss, and nostalgia can make games emotionally poignant.


(SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers about the endings of Fallout 3, BioShock, Portal, and several films and television shows. Proceed at your own risk.)

Who Was There: Richard Rouse III, narrative director of Assassin's Creed II developer Ubisoft Montreal.


What They Talked About: Rouse began his 2010 Game Developers Conference presentation by saying that the debate on whether or not games can make you cry isn't new. In fact, Steve Meretzky, creator of the 1984 text game based on the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, told him "That topic is so 1993." However, with games becoming more and more accepted as an art form, Rouse laid out some approaches used in other media that he thinks can make games more emotionally resonant.

First off, Rouse pointed out that many other kinds of media make people cry. (He himself opened up the waterworks at the end of the movie Titanic and during a Rush concert "because they are so damn awesome.") One of the ways this is done is through reminiscence, or the process of making the viewers or listeners look back at their life. As an example, he played the video for Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," which showed the aged singer--not long before his death--intercut with footage of him as a young man in the 1950s and 1960s. "That was your life," is how Rouse summarized it.

This common technique is used in films like Titanic and in games such as the Sims, which scrapbooks key moments in a sim's life and saves them for the player to watch later. The prime example he showed was the ending cinematic of Fallout 3, in which the "Lone Wanderer" protagonist is shown his accomplishments in the game via a sepia-toned photo montage.

Rouse found the father-son bond in Fallout 3 particularly moving.
Rouse found the father-son bond in Fallout 3 particularly moving.

In this particular instance, Rouse ran a clip of the ending associated with very high Karma, in which the player is shown the faces of the people he has saved and is reminded of the values handed down to him by his in-game father. "It shows you what you've accomplished over 40 hours, and adds to the fact that the end of a game is a sad time, since you don't get to play anymore," said Rouse. (He did not mention the five Fallout 3 expansion packs that would follow in the coming months.)

The second method of narrative tearjerking is "amplification through abstraction." To illustrate this point, he showed a clip from the anime drama Grave of the Fireflies, which chronicles the struggles of a young boy and his younger sister in Japan at the end of World War II.

Orphaned and shunned by extended family members, the starving pair take refuge in a mine shaft before the boy goes out to seek food. When he returns, he finds his delusional sister dying, having eaten dirt clumps and marbles thinking they were rice balls and candies.

Rouse said that if the scene had featured real actors, it might have been unbearable or cheesy. However, since it was an anime, the young girl is abstracted. She is a template for viewers to project images of young girls in their lives onto the experience, making the emotional punch more powerful.

Players would miss Portal's GLaDOS AI if it were gone, says Rouse.
Players would miss Portal's GLaDOS AI if it were gone, says Rouse.

For Rouse, games that have done this include the text-only Planetfall, in which the character Floyd sacrifices himself to save the player, and the very anime-like ICO. He showed a clip from the "art game" Passage, in which two tiny characters walk down a passageway, not knowing what lies ahead.

Method three for evoking eye-sopping emotion in games is transformation. "The weak shall inherit [the Earth]," says Rouse, before showing the film paradigm of this concept, It's a Wonderful Life. The Frank Capra classic centers on George Bailey, who stays at an unprofitable small-town savings and loan because he feels the need to help others buy homes. Discouraged, he ponders suicide and is then shown that his life touched others. Showing the film's finale, Rouse said this is the classic example of people crying at a narrative's happiest part, not its saddest.

BioShock's Little Sisters are an example of game characters evoking emotion through transformation.
BioShock's Little Sisters are an example of game characters evoking emotion through transformation.

In games, the example Rouse offered was the finale of BioShock--if you chose to rescue rather than harvest the Little Sisters. He showed a clip that has the game's penultimate scene, when an ADAM-mutated Frank Fontaine is bum-rushed by all the Little Sisters the player has saved. As the freakish hulk collapses while being pierced by dozens of viciously long hypodermic needles, Rouse deadpans it wasn't quite It's a Wonderful Life.

Rouse's fourth method for evoking tears in games is the concept of loss, or "you don't know what you've got until it's gone." His filmic example of that was a scene from director F.W. Murnau's silent film Sunrise, in which an alluring woman from the city convinces a small-town local to kill his wife. When it comes time to do the deed on his rowboat, he finds he can't go through with it. Later, though, his wife is knocked overboard and presumed lost. Furious, he goes to kill the city woman--only to learn his wife is still alive, making for a happy, but tear-filled, ending.

In games, Rouse held up Portal as an example of the "you don't know what you've got until it's gone" technique. He said even though the GLaDOS computer spends much of the game trying to kill the player, the deranged AI is the player's only companion throughout the game. So when it comes time to destroy its computer core, players are left somewhat saddened since they effectively lost a friend. That feeling diminishes, though, when the player discovers that GLaDOS is still alive. He joked, "Oh, that's great! She's back and can try and kill you some more!"

When Rouse's Nintendog disappeared, he went through the five stages of grief.
When Rouse's Nintendog disappeared, he went through the five stages of grief.

That said, Rouse said the only time he personally cried was because of a game one might not expect. He then showed pictures of himself and his young daughter playing Nintendogs on a DS. Due to his daughter's tender age, Rouse had spent hours showing her how to care for their Nintendog. Confident she could handle caring for the virtual pet on her own, he left for a weeklong business trip--only to be told via phone by his wife that the dog had disappeared.

Distraught, he came home and discovered the dog was indeed gone. Despondent, he said he actually went through the five phases of grief--until, one day, the dog reappeared with a gift in its mouth. Rouse explained that Nintendo had put a mechanic into the game that made a dog vanish if it wasn't cared for properly but that made the dog eventually return to give the player a second chance. He said that was a perfect--and powerful--example of a game maker using the loss technique.

Rouse's fifth and final method to make gamers cry is nostalgia. To illustrate this point, he showed a scene from the season finale of the first episode of the television series Mad Men. In the scene, the philandering advertising executive Don Draper makes a powerful pitch for a campaign for Kodak's then-new slide projector. While showing photos of his own family during happier times, he talks about how "in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound." He names the slide projector the Carousel, since it "lets us see the world as a child sees it."

Rouse repeatedly referred to ICO as one of the most emotionally evocative games in recent memory.
Rouse repeatedly referred to ICO as one of the most emotionally evocative games in recent memory.

In Rouse's opinion, games do the same thing as the Carousel. Whereas kids like to play dress-up, games let teens and adults don a different guise and enter a similar fantasy world. This can have a powerful effect in single-player, he explained, again holding up ICO as an example of emotionally poignant game-making.

Rouse concluded by saying that massively multiplayer online games can also bring about a sense of nostalgia the same way real life does. That's because increasingly, people are making friends while playing MMOGs. Online play also helps sustain friendships between friends separated by distance when one friend moves away.

Quote: "What do you mean, 'Fu-Fu's gone'!?" --A distraught Rouse, upon being informed by his wife that his favorite Nintendog had disappeared.

Takeaway: "Games let people live lives we never had and lets us think about our lives in a new way," said Rouse.

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Avatar image for CocaColaNinja

Final Fantasy brings me to tears

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After playing halo 3 when master chief was supposedly 'gone' I was on the brink of tears... good thing for waiting after credits =D I can admit that Fallout 3 pulled at a few heartstrings but I didn't feel the need to cry over it. Along with GTA 4 either ending sucked pretty bad for the main character, I felt really bad for him wanting to literally say sorry to the guy.

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i was sad when my friend told me Zack from crisis core ff VII died :(

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I cried at most metal gear games and ff games.

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When Gaz dyed in mw1, i cryed.

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I didn't cry,but I do think Carlos' death in Saints Row 2 was actually pretty sad. Tenenbaum's monologue in the good ending of BioShock is really emotional,too.

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I played through Bioshock and Portal but having a mute protagonist throughout the game took away from my immersion with the story. Red Dead Redemption on the other hand was perfect. You slowly get to know John, then you start sympathizing with his plight and the way the story ends is just memorable. I hope it comes out on PC so more people can enjoy it.

Avatar image for GenoForPrez

ICO was one of the most emotionally powerful games I ever played, but it didn't make me cry. I was mostly surprised at the strong feeling of companionship for Yorda, so much so that I genuinely could not bear the thought of losing her or letting the shadow creatures touch her. ICO accomplished that very well. One of the most touching video game moments I remember from my childhood was the ending of Gunstar Heroes on the Genesis (spoiler alert), when your brother, Green, sacrifices himself to stop the final boss. (An example of character transformation.) But the one moment I can remember where a game literally made me feel sad and choked up was toward the very end of Shadow of the Colossus (spoiler alert) when your horse slips and falls to its death. An extremely powerful "don't know what you've got til it's gone" moment.

Avatar image for Vishant

Ghost getting shot in MW2, that made me angry, I usually feel the hurt, but put it aside to complete the mission. Even with Gaz in MW1, having his voice there for the Mile High Club mission was in my opinion a good send off cos you never see him, so its like the dead are never truly gone, you carry them with you.

Avatar image for Tidal_Abyss

I don't cry over games (or usually anything else really) but some have been moving, and I think that's one of the signs of a great game.

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i cry at any end of a game no lie ESPALLY FO3 (Fallout3)

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I cryed at the end of Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare, no joke I really did.

Avatar image for sikozushanu

When Duncan dies in DAO. I loved that guy. Although, there is a distinct possibility that they were tears of rage at the betrayal. It's a bit surprising to me that I don't cry often while playing games. I'm uber-sensitive and cry at the drop of a hat. Hallmark commercials leave me incapacitated. Yet, while I'm certainly passionate about gaming, crying while playing is extremely rare. Perhaps something worth a little introspection... or maybe I'm just not playing the right games.

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I think ICO was the most emotional game i ever played. I just hope they make a PS3 version with HD to the small guys can finally play a great game.

Avatar image for Loulwa4V

I've teared up frequently in the Bioshock series games, MGS4, and God of War (Kratos's scenes with his daughter Calliope). However, the only games that pushed me over the edge to actually crying were Dragon Age Origins and Heavy Rain, which I believe gave you opportunities to actually be EMOTIONALLY invested into the game. The more emotionally invested the game makes you, the better.

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I've never cried from a game but some games were touching like Metal Gear Solid 4, it tells me not to waste my life. Some games can get sad and I like sad games, it makes it better.

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@killa9180 I also loved Halo 3, but that's not how the story ended on any of the difficulties. At any rate, yes, Fallout 3 did make me cry at times. I don't remember if I wept for the death of one central character, but I did weep for the good ending. It was wonderful to see the victory of idealism and compassion in a fallen (pardon my pun) world of cynicism and selfishness.

Avatar image for nefphlegm

Idk if you guys remember this game from the Sega Genesis. Phantasy Star IV when Alys is taking her final breaths after Zio had hit her with the black wave. The music and the little cut scenes made me get pretty sad. Especially since I was probably 10 years old. Now I want to go play that game again.

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I remember the original MGS...playing through it for the very first time, I cried through the Sniper Wolf death scene. Hearing the story of a youth lost to war, coupled with Otacon's confession that he loved her...and the crying and howling of the wolf-dogs in the background was haunting. I sometimes get choked up just thinking about it. And to think I was about 14 or 15 at the time, where I just wanted to kill and complete the mission...that's saying something.

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@Zerabp Not until you finish Nintendogs on legendary

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@Franzkill I did not say anything that most people that play Final Fantasy don't already know and I in no way mentioned how it happened or got to that point so play the game and see for yourself.

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Killa9180 you need to beat the game on legendary

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@ sircyrus I agree with you completely concerning FFVII. It did not bring me to cry, but I remember sitting there thinking 'What the hell just happened. She was suppose to be the key to save the world." I was defiantly shocked and actually angry at Sephiroth. Cloud letting Aerith go could be the best and most emotional part of a game I have ever experienced.

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probably at the end of halo 3 When i watched the end it made me think of the other two and how i enjoyed them. seeing chief die shocked me

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i nearly cried during the end of MGS4. fighting liquid brought back all the years i had been playing this game. the journey the game took me on was ending and it really took me back to when i played MGS on psone for the first time when i was like 10. soooo epic and sad.

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Zelda twilight princess also made me feel that way after killing ganondorf

Avatar image for Caboose365

Kingdom hearts when Xion died i knew it was coming but it still made me sad when it happened

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For me it was Kingdom Hearts when Roxas learned he was just a "Nobody" and his life and friends were all virtual. Powerful stuff.

Avatar image for Franzkill

@DominiKing thanks so much for pretty much ruining the end of Crisis Core for me. To be honest its only ever been Final Fantasy X that has had a huge emotional impact on me.

Avatar image for BTroxell

When I was a kid it was pretty sad when I learned that my little kokiri girl-friend in Ocarina of time had died. The dream short story sequences in Lost odyssey were sad. Shadow hearts 1 had its moments too. Kingdom hearts also got to me when I was young because of the music, the storyline, and the intense nostalgia and loss of innocence those games represent. And.. lets not forget most of the Final Fantasy's have sad parts. But slight sadness and crying are two different things. I never cry during games, films, books, or comics. Especially since typically, if something is powerful enough to make me sad that means I'm enjoying it too much to cry about it. Not many games have that kind of impact, that's why half the posts on here are redundant, including mine. But I'm sure we all have different reasons though. Moreover, has anyone played a game with a loved one and had a great time doing that, and then when you lose or get disconnected with that person the experience you had is so memorable its impossible to play the game ever again? Like for instance, me and my father used to play link to the past constantly, and that was so memorable I can barely look at that game without getting sad.

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Crisis Core at the end so sad. My boy Zack (T-T)

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Shadow of the Colossus was quite bad but I didn't cry. I did however shed a tear at two seperate moments in Metal Gear Solid 4. The first was when Raiden is injured and he says "I have nothing" on the Nomad. The second was when snake gets screwed over by liquid on the river in europe. I think Harry-Gregson William's score had a lot to do with it though.

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A lot of games (or at least those I play) are heavily story based, so you expect emotional responses for the such games if they are well written and have really good characters. Half Life 2 Episode 2 is a good example with Eli's death, and Alex's close call definitely got a reaction. Which is probably why I'm still irritated that Valve is taking such a long time with Episode 3. A good book can do the same thing, Star Wars being a great example as I grew up with the characters and the series of novels. I was 2 years old when Star Wars came out in 1977, and now 32 years later I have a strong attachment to those characters. Chewies death in Vector Prime (R.A. Salvatore, New Jedi Order) definitely got an emotional response. Mara's death at the hands of Caedus and then his death a few books farther in. Can't really say the same about Anakin as by the end of the third Episode I was just happy he stopped moaning about everything. Ganner's sacrifice to help Jacen leave, and Anakin Solo's sacrifice to help the rest of the strike team to escape. Although, from what I am reading in the posts I can guess that most of those who are saying they do not get a reaction to such games are probably young, male, and stupid. While I am older, male, and stupid. You'll grow out of it sooner or later.....I hope. The stupid, just stays with all of us it seems. ~grin~

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Tor Thorsen. From what I can see you never played Half Life 2 series. Play it then rewrite this "Article"

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BS article as usual. Only time I cried is when I lost all my items in Diablo 1.

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iv never choked up during a game and i think its gay to ever cry during a game. ima shure u guys are all gonna give me thumbs down. BRING IT ON GAYWADS

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where is "thousand years of dream" from lost odyssey???

Avatar image for Joo_Phish

Half Life 2: Episode 2 when the black guy dies

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The only time I've ever gotten emotional duringa game was during Shadow of the Colossus and MGS4.

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Only time i've ever cried was at the end of Halo 3. I'll admit, i'm a huge halo fanboy (mainly for the story). goodbye MC, thank you for the memories

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The Longest Journey 2, -> Zoey's fate.

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I've never cried from a game or really had any emotional impact from game actions/story at all, except for one single case. Final Fantasy 7 with Aeris. When that happened it totally blew me away, was completely unexpected. Even now over 10 years later that scene (and as a result, the story) still brings about that same initial response. Not crying of course :P But the shock and impact of seeing what happened.

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I dont feel sad in games but I do feel bad about certain things, such as Mass Efect when that guyasks you for your autograph I made the dude cry and afterwards i felt really guilty so I went back and reloaded the savegame haha

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I think I don't cry during games, however i do feel a sense of guilt in alot of RPGs, for example in Dragon Age, alot of the morale choice, i wanted to do the evil option but I just couldn't, I guess thats more guilt orientated. Also shock, with Mass Effect 2s renegade action, i mean yeah, do something to stop him Sheperd, maybe just punch him, not shoot him in the face!!!

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I have to admit Final Fantasy 7 when Aerith goes by by that pissed me off i was emotional

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I cry when I all time when I run up behind snipers and knife them in the back of the head..... It is just so emotional

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right now the only moment i remember in gaming that made me cry was at the end of Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core. i just felt sad, and it made things worst that i knew that it would eventualy happen. i love that game, and i "hate" it at the smae time, i always had a stupid hope that what was gonna happen, could, somehow, not happen. whose of you who finish it kow what i mean :P R.I.P. SOLDIER

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"Rouse began his 2010 Game Developers Conference presentation by saying that the debate on whether or not games can make you cry isn't new." There's a debate? I would think it's quite obvious that games CAN make people cry.

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You want to cry you said? I've never cried in a game more than in Shadow Hearts 1 and 2, especially two... man, I was bawling so hard ;_;

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Fable got to me near the ending :)