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Video games that will make you cry

Games are more than just rescuing princesses, solving puzzles, and shooting everything that moves. Sometimes, a game can deliver a deeply moving emotional experience, too. As the medium grows up, the number of truly affecting stories told via games and other forms of interactive software is skyrocketing. Sometimes, those stories are funny. Often, they're exciting. And, every once in a while, they're unbearably sad.

If you can't find a good heartbreaker at the local cineplex or bookstore, the games listed below are almost certain to get the waterworks flowing. Just beware of spoilers. Most of these games work best if you don't know what you're getting into, so you might want to play them first, and then come back to see what we've got to say. Don't worry. We'll still be here.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Who would've thought that simply pressing a button could make your eyes well up with tears? Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons director Josef Fares, that's who. In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, players control the two titular siblings at the same time. The exact same time. The left side of the controller—including the analog stick and the trigger button—guides one, while the right side moves the other. Each brother has different abilities (the older one can pull levers, carry his brother, and swim, while the younger one can shimmy through narrow spaces). Together, the two boys work together to retrieve water from the Tree of Life, which is the only way to rescue their dying father.

But the quest doesn't go according to plan. While players spend the bulk of the game using the brothers' abilities in tandem to overcome bosses and enemies, the final boss—a giant spider—proves too much to handle. During the fight, the older brother is stabbed and dies. The Tree of Life can't save him. He's gone.

And so, in order to proceed, the younger brother must draw on the lessons that his sibling taught him and take his older brother's place. In order to cross the water, or surmount Brothers' final challenges, players need to use the older brother's buttons to make the younger one take over his deceased sibling's responsibilities.

It's simple, effective, and, quite frankly, genius. The controller—and, by extension, the player—serves as the conduit between the younger brother and the older brother's memory. The physical connection between the characters and the controller drives the boys' bond home. Once you realize what's going on, it's hard not to tear up. You'll never hold a gamepad quite the same way again.

The Last of Us

Most games save the emotional gut punches for the end, when you've already grown attached to the characters. The Last of Us brings out the big guns at the very beginning. When The Last of Us begins, everything seems normal. You play as Joel, a regular, single father approaching his 30s. You have one daughter, Sarah. It's your birthday. Life is good.

And then the outbreak hits. Regular human beings transform into rampaging monsters. Joel and Sarah pile in a car and try to escape, but the surrounding area is chaos. Cars crash. Infected attack. Military officers swarm the area. It's utter chaos. After a series of wild escapes and near-death experiences, Joel's luck runs out. Sarah takes a bullet from a wild, panicking soldier and dies in Joel's arms.

Naturally, Sarah's death destroys Joel emotionally. Reportedly, many players didn't get off much easier. Still, all the doom and gloom isn't sadism—it's pivotal character development, and goes a long way to explain why Joel is so protective of Ellie, his teenage charge for most of The Last of Us. Sarah's death is the definitive piece of Joel's backstory, and letting the audience live through the most painful moment of the hero's life goes a long way towards making The Last of Us a modern classic. Still, it's awfully hard to sit through.

To the Moon

To the Moon isn't a typical role-playing game. There's no combat, aside from a one-off battle near the very beginning that's played for laughs, not challenge. It has no party, no inventory system, and no world-threatening big bad that needs to be defeated to save the day.

Instead, To The Moon is personal. In To The Moon, scientists Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts dive into the mind of a dying man, Johnny, in order to alter his memories Inception-style so that he fulfills his lifelong dream of visiting the Moon. But there's a twist: Johnny has no idea why he wants to visit the Moon, and Rosalene and Watts must unravel that mystery before their procedure can be successful.

By finding important objects from Johnny's past, Rosalene, Watts, and the player can change Johnny's mind (literally), and eventually uncover his history. His marriage to a woman named River (who, possibly, suffers from Asperger's syndrome) is rocky. His twin brother, Joey, died in an accident. It's not a happy story.

And then, finally, Watts and Rosalene crack the case. As a child, Johnny meets River at a carnival. The two hit it off instantly, and promise to reunite on the Moon—which is at the center of a rabbit-shaped constellation they make up together—if one of them forgets to return the next year. Shortly thereafter, Joey dies, and Johnny's mother gives him medicine that blocks his memory. He forgets all about both Joey and River, and while Johnny starts dating River in high school, he can't recall their first meeting. He never does. River does her best to get Johnny to remember. She cuts her hair and makes him paper rabbits. It doesn't work, and she dies before Johnny remembers a thing.

Of course, Johnny gets a "good" ending thanks to the two scientists, who alter his memories so that he's a NASA scientist who visits the Moon with River at his side. But it's a bittersweet ending. While Johnny dies happy, it's far too late for the real River, who passed away while the love of her life remained in the dark.  

That Dragon, Cancer

If you think that video games need to be fun, That Dragon, Cancer will change your mind. It's a beautifully made and incredibly effective game. It's also absolutely brutal. Unlike other games that play with history—say, Assassin's Creed or CivilizationThat Dragon, Cancer is a true story, detailing two parents' lives as they watch their son slowly succumb to cancer.

Ryan Green began developing That Dragon, Cancer in 2012, three years after his son, Joel, was diagnosed with deadly brain cancer. In 2010, doctors told Green and his wife Amy that Joel only had a few months to live. He survived much, much longer. After a particularly harrowing experience in the hospital, during which Green couldn't get Joel to stop crying despite using all of the usual tricks, he decided to make a game about the experience. That night, Green says, "made me think, 'This is like a game where the mechanics are subverted and don't work.'" Green teamed up with a programmer named Josh Larson and made a demo, and work began on That Dragon, Cancer.

Joel died in 2014, and That Dragon, Cancer chronicles the Greens' full journey. It begins with Joel's initial diagnosis, and details all of the small triumphs and devastating losses that the family suffered along the way. In addition to the base game, That Dragon, Cancer contains voice-overs from both Green and his wife Amy, voicemails recorded during Joel's long illness, and get-well cards from family, friends, and fans. Even the title is a tearjerker: in order to explain Joel's struggles to their other kids, Ryan and Amy told them a story about a brave knight fighting an unstoppable dragon.

The Walking Dead: Season 1

Telltale Games' unique line-up of narrative-driven adventure games is hit or miss—early efforts like Back to the Future don't feel exactly like finished, polished products, Game of Thrones feels a little formulaic, and the company's proprietary game engine is beginning to show its age—but the company's big breakthrough title, The Walking Dead: Season 1 remains an absolute triumph. While the plot isn't quite as dynamic as it seems at first, the overall storyline captures the slow, impending dread of Robert Kirkman's original comic book series perfectly—and all of its eventual heartbreak.

As Lee, a newly minted convict, players quickly befriend a young girl named Clementine, whose parents went on a trip right before the zombie outbreak began. Lee vows to help Clementine find her parents, and together, they team up with a band of other survivors in order to find safety and escape the quickly growing zombie hordes. While they travel, Clementine becomes Lee's surrogate daughter. Eventually, those feelings are reciprocated.

And then Lee gets bitten by one of the walkers. If you know anything about zombie fiction, you know what that means. As The Walking Dead: Season 1 draws to a close, Lee (and the player) must make a difficult choice. He can tell Clementine to shoot him in the head. He can tell Clementine to walk away and to let him transform into a monster. Or, he can let Clementine make the decision for herself, which she bases on the choices that the player made during The Walking Dead's previous four episodes. That's something that no child should have to go through, and no matter what you choose, the game ends with Clementine alone, forced to survive the post-apocalyptic wasteland all by herself.

Mother 3

It takes a little bit of effort to play Mother 3. Nintendo never officially translated the game into English, and if you want to try the cult-classic Game Boy Advance title, you'll need to fuss around with emulators and a fan-made translation.

But if you're looking for a good cry, Mother 3 is worth the effort. Mother 3's predecessor, Earthbound, dabbled in darkness, but ultimately presented a whimsical, twisted, and fun perspective on American culture. Mother 3 takes everything that Earthbound did and turns it on its head. Earthbound opens by asking players to name the game's four main characters, who become reliable companies for the rest of the game. Mother 3 begins the same way, and then promptly kills one of the characters off in hard-rending fashion.

That's just the start, so don't let the simple graphics fool you. Mother 3 tackles complex emotional issues like guilt, rage, and loss. It's got moments of humor, sure—but its tragic ones end up being much, much more memorable.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange seems like a standard sci-fi coming-of-age story: a schoolgirl discovers that she can rewind time, and uses that ability to help her friends and find her place in the world. Play a little bit longer, however, and you'll discover that Life is Strange is much, much weirder than its first impression implies. For one, the game's writers aren't scared to dive head-first into thorny issues like sexual abuse, drug addiction, and teenage suicide. For another, it's clear from the very beginning that the game's hero, Max, is in over her head. While she can change the past, it's not always clear that she should, and her decisions often have dark and unexpected consequences.

Life is Strange's heart, however, lies in the relationship between its two leads: Max and the first person that she saves, Chloe. Before long, it's clear that Max and Chloe might become more than just friends (that depends on the choices the players make), and whether they remain besties or take their relationship to the next level, they both love each other dearly. When the game forces Max to choose between Chloe and her city, Arcadia Bay, it's pretty much an impossible decision. Either way, you're going to cry.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Valiant Hearts is a love story set during World War I. If you don't go in expecting to shed a few tears, there's something wrong with you. Even so, Valiant Hearts exceeds all expectations with its clever, unorthodox approach to detailing war's infinite horrors.

Unlike most other war games, Valiant Hearts isn't a military shooter. It's a point-and-click adventure game. Occasionally, you'll need to deal with enemy soldiers in order to proceed. You don't kill them. You scare them, distract them, knock them unconscious, or simply sneak around them. Every once in a while, you'll need to dodge enemy gunfire. Each one of Valiant Hearts' four main characters is distinct and memorable, and if their backstories don't tug at your heartstrings, the inevitable demise of at least one main character (c'mon, it's a war story—you know that's coming) will. At the very least, the dog is safe.

Just in case that's not enough, Valiant Hearts: The Great War peppers the in-game narrative with photos and letters from real-life World War I soldiers. It's both educational and provides a concrete link to the men (and women) who gave their lives in battle close to 100 years ago. Above everything else, Valiant Hearts truly conveys war's human cost. It's not easy to sit through, but it's a must-play regardless.

Firewatch

Firewatch is a lot like Pixar's Up: the whole thing is good, but the first ten minutes pack the biggest emotional wallop. Most of the game takes place in the Shoshone National Forest where the hero, Henry, forges a relationship with his overseer, Delilah, over a hand-held radio while trying to solve a murder-mystery. Firewatch's opening moments, however, explain why Henry decided to spend a summer out in the middle of the woods, where the only people he sees are a group of rowdy, ornery skinny dippers.

It's not a happy story. Through sound effects and a series of text prompts, you follow Henry as he meets and eventually marries his wife, Julia. It's not an easy relationship. When Julia gets offered her dream job, Henry must decide between talking her out of it or moving to a place he doesn't want to live. Things get worse. When she's just 41, Julia is diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Henry must decide whether to take care of her on his own, or to check her into an assisted care facility, where she'll get the help she needs—but live apart from her husband.

There aren't any right or wrong choices, and there's no way to emerge from Firewatch's opening unscathed. It also, ultimately, doesn't matter what you choose. All roads lead to the forest. The intro isn't just fluff, however. By letting you take part in Henry's life, you quickly understand why he might want to retreat to the middle of nowhere. After all, it's a lot less emotionally taxing than staying where he is.

Last Day of June

If you've made it this far, you've probably noticed a trend: a lot of games make you cry by taking away the main characters' loved ones. Add Last Day of June to the list. While many of Last Day of June's tropes feel familiar, that's no reason to discount this beautiful, compelling, and heartbreaking game. Tropes become tropes for a reason. When they're done well, they work. Last Day of June is no exception.

After a date goes horribly wrong, Carl's wife, June, dies in a car accident. Carl loses the use of his legs, and is stuck in a wheelchair. But with the tragedy, Carl also receives a gift: he can travel through time by touching June's paintings. You can probably guess where this is going. Carl uses his newfound powers to explore the time around June's accident, interacting with villagers and trying to change the future in order to save his wife.

That's easier said than done. While the solutions to Last Day of June's puzzles look simple, most outcomes carry unexpected consequences, and preventing tragedy requires a lot of experimentation (and a fair amount of patience). It's not just June's demise that'll make your eyes wet, either: along the way, you'll learn about Carl, June, and the rest of the characters' histories, and they not exactly uplifting stories. If you want a good cry, check out Last Day of June. It's that kind of game.