A while back I finished Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and it was a wonderful experience. There were several moments where I was so enraptured with what was happening on-screen that I was overcome with emotion, and I knew that I would remember that moment for a long time. It’s rare that things like that happen and I think they’re very special, and sort of unique to video games. Of course films and books have the power to be memorable, as well, but with videogames you have a hand in the action more than any other art form. This allows you to form a connection to not only the characters, but the action happening on screen. It’s why horror videogames are so effective; it puts you right there where the scary stuff is happening. I wanted to talk about some of my favorite moments in games, moments that have stuck with me over the years. Spoiler warnings, obviously.
Entering the Deserts of Mexico (Red Dead Redemption, 2010)
I’m going to start off with a hard-hitter. I know a lot of people who consider Red Dead Redemption to be one of the best games they have ever played, and I count myself among them. There was one moment in particular that sealed RDR as something more than a GTA clone in the Wild Wild West. You play as John Marston, an ex criminal turned bounty hunter who has to hunt down members of his old gang in order to save his family. The game has you hoof it all over the Western United States, but things take a turn and you end up stranded in Mexico for a while.
You mount your horse on the bank of the river that marks the border between the US and Mexico and ride inland. As you ride a song begins to play, out of nowhere:
It is a brilliant soundtrack moment. The game changes tones drastically in the space of a few seconds. The song is somber but modern, not quite of the time the game is set in, but it fits the moment so perfectly that it doesn’t even matter. A song inserted randomly, especially by a well-known artist (in this case the incredibly talented Jose Gonzales) can take you right out of the moment. But this fits tonally and is so beautifully pulled off that it adds to the game hugely.
Not only that, but the player is given free movement through Mexico, changing what could have been a scripted cutscene into an experience that John Marston and, by proxy, the player are experiencing. The scenery is beautiful and foreign. You are suddenly far, so far away, and the game couldn’t have captured that feeling any better.
Riding Through the Citadel (Half-Life 2, 2004)
Half-Life 2 has many memorable moments, but one sticks out to me in particular. It’s an odd choice because, unlike my previous moment, it actually takes control away from the player. Normally that would be a bad thing, but Half-Life 2 spends an entire game setting the moment up to be as powerful as possible.
You spend the entire game in the shadow of the Combine, an evil and mysterious alien collective that have taken control of the Earth and enslaved humanity in the hero’s absence, even going so far as to limit their ability to breed (that’s right, folks; no hanky panky in the Combine’s world.) At the very center of their empire the Citadel looms a mile high, cutting into the sky like a knife. It is a massive structure and you can see it from very far away. Towards the end of the game you go to confront the alien offensive and reclaim the city that the Citadel has (literally) taken root in. You get inside and fight off some Combine troops, but you come to a point where the only way forward is to get into one of the cage-like contraptions that carry humans through the Citadel, like a factory line, to G-Man knows where.
What ensues is a ride through the inner workings of the enemy’s stronghold, like a macabre Disney ride. You can see first hand the scale of their operation, how utterly small the resistance is in comparison to the multi-dimensional forces of the Combine. And, most importantly in terms of gameplay, it is one of the first times since the game begins where the player has no control over where they are going. It generates a deep sense of helplessness and it truly feels like there is no way to win against such an overwhelmingly oppressive force.
Playing as Ellie (The Last of Us, 2013)
The Last of Us is, in its entirety, one of my favorite videogame moments. But, since I have to choose just one moment (a rule I totally just made up), I’ll go with the moment where you get to take control of Ellie.
In The Last of us you play as Joel, a broken and angry man who has to escort a young and relatively naive girl, Ellie, across the United States to find a cure for the fungus that has torn apart society and turned everybody into zombies. About two-thirds into the game Joel gets gravely injured. Time passes, and the scene opens in the dead of winter:
The player is given control of the sidekick, Ellie. It’s a remarkable change of pace from the previous action-packed segment, but it also serves to illustrate Ellie’s growth, how she has learned from her experiences with Joel and can now hold her own. She now moves similar to Joel and, since the player already knows the control sceme by now, it is clear that she is very resourceful. It is a beautiful and slow sequence, peaceful and surrounded by nature, playing deeper into the game’s themes of nature vs mankind. It gives the player a chance to live in Ellie’s shoes for a while, really showing how beautiful and scary the world is.
Would You Kindly? (Bioshock, 2007)
In videogames we almost always do what we are told to do. We are given objectives by some voice and we do them, because that’s how it plays out. Bioshock played with that notion, turning it from a fact into a revalatory and now very famous plot twist.
In Bioshock you play as a man named Jack whose plane crashes in the ocean next to a futuristic and dystopean underwater city called Rapture. There he is politely instructed (would you kindly?) by a man who goes by Atlas to complete various tasks and bring down Andrew Ryan, the founder of Rapture. Towards the end of the game you come face to face with Ryan and he reveals that not all is as it seems (warning: this scene is particularly graphic. If you’re squeamish I wouldn’t watch):
It is a memorable moment in gaming that turns the very mechanism through which many games dole out instructions into a clever and interesting meta narrative. I was honestly never the biggest fan of the first Bioshock (although I understand why many are) but this moment still stands out as one of the smartest uses of a gaming mechanic to tell a story. It makes me all the more excited for the Bioshock remaster just around the corner.
Shock and Awe (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, 2007)
These days Call of Duty is a somewhat tired and repetitive franchise. It has become a tent pole blockbuster game, pumping out yearly releases of games which change the framing but from a gameplay perspective remain largely the same as they have been for over ten years. I lost interest in that gameplay loop long ago (Although Infinite Warfare does look like a refreshing change if setting, at least) even if I do understand the appeal.
This wasn’t always the case, though. The entire franchise as it is today was kicked off by one phenomenal game: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It’s easy to forget that CoD4 was a great enough game that it spawned a billion dollar franchise spanning decades. It changed the setting of the franchise radically, from World War 2 to a near future setting. It amped up the gameplay and made it exciting, visceral and satisfying. It packed an incredible and genre-defining multi-player mode. And on top of it all it told an excellent, well written story.
There’s too much going on in the story to fully summarize here, but basically in the then-near-future of 2011 a bunch of Russian and Middle-Eastern “ultranationalists” (note their avoidance of the word “terrorist”) have banded together under a few tyrants and potentially have nuclear weapons they could use against the West. You play as both British and American special forces who are tasked with taking them down and saving the West from nuclear disaster.
In one particular mission you play as Sgt. Paul Jackson of the UMSC. Your job is to find the leader of the Iraqi ultranationalists and take him out (forgive me if the plot is vague. It’s been a long time and there are many threads to this story). You fight your way through the city to find that he’s not there. Upon your escape by helicopter the unthinkable happens: the enemy detonates a nuclear device at the heart of the city.
This moment was absolutely shocking, and that’s not hyperbole. We are trained to assume that the good guys always win, that no matter what they find a way, especially in a story framed like this. To not only have one of the main action heroes fail an objective, but also die in the process, was incredibly bold. Not only that, it has you play as Sgt. Jackson during his final moments. You get to see the consequences firsthand of a nuclear device set off in a populated area. It’s a heart wrenching, powerful moment that has really stuck with me through the years. There are plenty if amazing levels in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but none had the punch of Shock and Awe.
The Entire Ending of Metal Gear Solid 3 (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, 2004)
I know I already gave a spoiler warning, but I need to reiterate a second time: if you haven’t played this game and you have even an inkling of a desire to do so, stop reading now. This ending moment is infinitely more effective if you have struggled and played through the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 3, a game that I consider to be one of the best stories ever told in the medium.
OK, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about a sequence of boss battles and cinematics that take your heart and soul and utterly destroys them. Seriously, after finishing the game I was not ok for a couple of hours. It’s gut wrenching, a tragic tale of a hero who is betrayed by everything he believes in.
In Metal Gear Solid 3 you play as Naked Snake, a war hero and famous soldier, who is sent on a mission to destroy a secret weapon capable of firing nuclear warheads from any runway or long, flat expanse of land. Along the way he is betrayed by his mentor, the Boss, who out maneuvers and overpowers Snake at every turn. The game’s plot is long and complex so I won’t get too into it, but after defeating the main baddy and destroying the secret weapon (called the Shagohod) Snake is confronted by the Boss one last time. She confesses a great deal of personal information for the first time, revealing that she gave up a child for her country. They fight in a field of lilies. It is a very difficult fight, and the player has to stay on their toes if they want to survive. Finally Snake bests his mentor, killing her, and the field of white flowers turns blood red.
Through a sequence too elegant and complex to describe here, it is then revealed that the Boss was playing for team USA all along. She had to give up everything, her dignity, her status as a national hero and in the end her life in order to carry out her mission. As Snake is being awarded for his heroism and retitled as Big Boss, we see his faith in his country begin to shatter, and he is set on the path that would eventually make him the main villain of the past and future Metal Gear Solid games. It is one of the best prequel setups for a villain in any medium, because you like Snake. He is charming, intelligent, resourceful. It puts you in his shoes and makes you sympathize with his cause, makes you understand why he became the idealistic terrorist he is in the other entries of the franchise. And on top of that his mentor, the Boss, is one of the most interesting characters in video games. She is a legendary soldier, an incredible mentor, a devastating fighter and, in the end, the true hero of this story. The end of Metal Gear Solid 3 is devastating. The soundtrack is incredible. I still think it is one of the best stories ever told in the medium, and my words here do it no justice.
So there it is, folks. My six favorite moments in video games. I’m sure there are some that I’ve glossed over or simply forgotten. Have your own favorite moments? Tell me in the comments below! I’m always looking for something remarkable in the world of gaming. In the meantime thanks for reading, and stay Optimistic.