Everyone, whether or not they know it, loves a good gut punch moment. Not a literal gut punch- because if you ask Houdini, they suck- but a moment where the world flips around and is changed forever. From movies to literature, we love a good earth-shattering moment, even if it hurts our feelings- perhaps, especially if it hurts our feelings. And video games are no different! Here I’ve scrabbled up a few of my favorite iconic moments from video games, circa 2000 and beyond! Chronological order is only logical path, so let’s begin!
*** THIS IS STRAIGHT-UP SPOILER TERRITORY. SPOILERS EVERYWHERE. IN ALL THE THINGS. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED. ***
Yuna’s dance - Final Fantasy X
The year is 2001. A young, voracious Mel is sitting in her room, playing a little-known game called Final Fantasy X. A terrible being named Sin has just torn the town of Kilika to shrapnel, and fated summoner Yuna and her guardians have just arrived. And it’s the unfortunate duty of the summoner to send the departed to the Farplane:
I sat in awe of this cutscene eighteen years ago, and five minutes ago. I made everyone in my family re-watch it in the Luca Sphere Theater. It was beautiful and fascinating, and painful, the main character Tidus becoming aware of the great burden Yuna- and other summoners- carried. Even witnessing this, he had no idea of the full price summoners would pay to stay the wrath of Sin…
We hadn’t seen cutscenes of that caliber at the time, and with the HD Remasters that have been released, it’s still just as gorgeous and haunting now.
Two Betrayals - Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo: Combat Evolved thrusted the development and trajectory of gaming to new horizons: it brought Sci-Fi action to the forefront, and heralded the arrival of the modern shooter as we know it. Another 2001 release, gaming companies were happily exploring new frontiers, and pushing the boundaries of technology and storytelling narrative in games.
In this tense moment, we learn that Master Chief’s quest to activate the Halo isn’t to wipe out the Flood- it’s to destroy all other life in the galaxy… which is an awfully roundabout way to destroy the Flood.
If it weren’t for Cortana’s quick (okay, 12 hour) calculations and sassy attitude, we would have destroyed the whole dang system.
Two Betrayals was just the beginning of our flips and turns in the Halo universe, throughout the series’ nearly two decade life. And with Microsoft’s Project Scarlett touting Halo: Infinite for holiday 2020 season, I’ll bet we’re in for even more.
Finding Krauser - Resident Evil 4
Another title that changed the entire mechanics of its series, Resident Evil 4 brought us updated controls, prettier graphics, and enough quick time action sequences to cause a twitch.
Also, Leon’s great hair. *swoon*
With intelligent enemies, instakills (sorry for Leon’s constant decapitation), and ambience meant for heart attacks, RE4 introduced us to a new realm of third-person shooters. But for all its horror scenes, menacing bosses and gruesome deaths, one of the most jarring scenes in the game is finding- and ultimately killing- longtime series bro Jack Krauser.
Leon and Jack have a history, having previously been partners for Operation Javier. A double agent if there ever was one (I’m staring at you hard, Ada Wong) Krauser was assumed dead before the start of 4, so it’s apt to say Leon was surprised by his arrival. Having ingested a Las Plagas into his own body, Krauser kind of (majorly) turns into a monster. Many folks were pissed at his demise at the hands of Leon, but if you cut up my dude’s face, you gettin’ cut.
Dom’s Death - Gears of War 3
All of Gears of War is full of badass moments: in the Epic (not sorry) fight between humanity and the Locust, Lambent, and Swarm hordes, our COG heroes have chainsawed, hacked and slashed their way underground and beyond in order to reign in unsavory foes. While it’s a fight-focused series, Gears isn’t always lacking in the feels department, especially after out characters are developed and we’ve grown quite attached…
See: the death of Dom Santiago.
Realizing that the battle is overrun and futile, Dom makes a quick judgement: one that, he understands, will spell his comrade’s safety, but his own end. Marcus’ reaction to his friend’s death makes the event even more painful, and seriously, I had an Xbox Live party full of quietly sobbing grown ups when it happened. Marcus- and those surviving members of his team- are never the same afterwards.
Figuring out that you’re the bad guy - Spec Ops: the Line
Okay, that’s a loaded title, but a very real possibility in Spec Ops: The Line. A Spec Ops reboot that is definitely underappreciated, The Line blurs reality and the gruesome horrors of war in a way that blindsides the player. Making your way through war-torn Dubai as Captain Martin Walker, you and your Delta Force squad attempt to suss out remaining survivors and extract whomever possible after chaos leaves a U.S. Infantry Battalion and numerous civilians stranded. You are led on a cat-and-mouse chase through the city, always spurred on by “the enemy,” who constantly questions your morality and the actions of the player.
And yeah, you’ve got some wildly terrible choices to make.
In the end (of which there are four different ones), it turns out that the enemy harassing you is… you. The man you’ve been speaking with is dead, his cronies and others that have contacted you via radio are dead. Every terrible thing you did was acted upon by a voice inside your own head.
“There is a line men like us have to cross, and if we’re lucky, we do what’s necessary… and then we die.”
I still think of this game all the time. The chilling repercussions, how the story starts to unfold and you question your character’s sanity, it’s a brilliant title that more people need to get their hands on. In fact, voice actor Nolan North, who plays Captain Walker in the title, says that if all his fans would play another game of his that wasn’t Uncharted, he’d beg them to play this.
Tiny Tina’s breakdown - Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep
A moment I’ve written about before, I absolutely cannot make this list without including Tiny Tina’s breakdown following the death of Roland in Borderlands 2.
During a session of Bunkers & Badasses (the Pandoran equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons), Tina perpetually makes Roland the hero, saving the day at any turn possible. When finally confronted about it, she breaks down, begging the others to let her live her happily ever after, just one time. The Vault Hunters soften, allowing her to finish the campaign with Roland- and our favorite killer bird, Bloodwing- as the saviors of the day. I was a Roland main in Borderlands 1, so it hurt my feelings when he died in 2, but nothing hurt as much as seeing this kid grieve the loss of her hero.
Jack’s speech - Tales from the Borderlands
Yep, here we are with back-to-back Borderlands goodness.
Hey, don’t blame my favoritism, they just released one year after the other.
One of Telltale Games’ strongest entries, Tales from the Borderlands gave us a whole new set of characters to learn about, love, grow with, and possibly hate. Oh, and if you haven’t played it, well… you need to hurry, before it disappears; many TTG titles are being removed from stores after the closing of the company. I dunno about TftB specifically, but I’d move fast. Plus, it’s canon to the story leading in to Borderlands 3, so it’s not optional!
The moment I picked from Tales is near the finale of the game; the final(?) death of Handsome Jack. Rhys has given up a lot in pursuit of a higher spot on the totem pole, ever looking up to his hero, Jack. But by the end, he concedes that yeah, Jack’s a freaking psychopath and he ignored all the signs, too busy being enamored with the legacy Jack left. While choices in the narrative make some changes to the end result, Jack’s speech here stands the same.
Jack’s a terror we both love and despise.
Creating the Inquisition - Dragon Age: Inquisition
There are a ton of great moments from BioWare, but one of my favorites is how amazing the creation of the Inquisition feels in 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. Expanding on the series’ previous titles, Inquisition brings together so many pieces of the puzzle, and tiles them together expertly.
The moment of becoming Inquisitor is awe-inspiring, seeing those who have fought beside you, both familiar faces and new, raise their swords in accordance with yours. Your destiny is a strenuous burden, but those around you help carry it. This isn’t my cutscene, mind you; I was a Qunari Mage badass, but the journey’s the same. DA:I was a major winner in every facet of its life, and I have high hopes for what we see in the world of Thedas next time.
Max’s Choice with Chloe: Life is Strange
If you ever want to feel emotionally ransacked, look no further than Square Enix’s Life is Strange series. While many bits of the games are real-life nothingness, the choices you make come to a roaring end. Max Caulfield has a power; she can rewind time, only by so much, to change the outcome of situations. You can fail so many people. You can save so few. But one of the most pivotal- and upsetting- moments in the final choice with your lifelong best friend, Chloe. There are two variations, one obviously more wrecking than the other:
You can choose to save your best friend’s life, thus damning all of Arcadia Bay to death and destruction, or you can sacrifice her and save the town. The most hurtful part of this is that neither ending has been set as canon; there’s a comic series that illustrates life after one ending, but Square Enix has indicated that we shouldn’t take that as gospel. So make your choice, and live with it.
Atreus’ Secret - God of War
2018’s God of War was a beautiful game with tons of new landscapes, actions, and a whole new pantheon for Kratos to bugger on. With his son, Atreus, in tow, the duo weaves its way through the Norse worlds, seeking to spread Atreus’ mother’s ashes from the highest peak in all the realms. Even the voice actors are precious together; at last year’s The Game Awards, the two shared a couple of excellent moments that left the crowd cheering. But during its finale, we learn a lot of things:
While the entire ending is amazing, one part in particular sticks out, especially to fans of Norse mythology: Atreus’ true name is revealed to be Loki. Which means we might be IN FOR SOME SHENANIGANS WITH THE (assumed) FOLLOW-UP TITLE. Who knows where this revelation will lead? Will Atreus become his historical namesake, wreaking havoc and possibly becoming Kratos’ enemy?
That’d be a gut punch, too.
Now obviously this list isn’t exhaustive and complete- just a sampling of some of my favorite modern game moments. I C O N I C, as they say. Next time, I’ll spill on my favorites, pre-2000! What are some of your favorites?