In many, if not most, video games the narrative is one of hope. Hope that the protagonist and his allies will make it through the challenges that lay before them and achieve their ultimate goal. Often this goal is a kind of self-actualization or a long denied validation. When achieved it gives meaning to all the struggles that the protagonist has gone through; changing them in the minds of the audience from unpleasant obstacles to necessary stepping stones. But as we all know, or will come to know, life doesn’t always work this way.
An appraisal of your life, as well as the lives of the people around you, will reveal that many people are living with loss. The pain of an unfulfilled dream, the regret of past wrongdoings, and the loss of treasured persons are just some of the difficult realities that the average person has to face every day. This isn’t to say that they are living without hope or happiness, just that those things exist alongside some deep hurts.
One game that got this was Tales of Xillia for the PS3. In that game there was a constant undercurrent of sadness. Yes, there was the heroic tale of good versus evil; yes, the protagonists succeeded in changing the known world; and yes, their beliefs were vindicated in the end; but, at every step of the way there is a reminder of the bitterer aspects of life. A little girl’s childhood of abuse and isolation, an old man’s lifelong yearning for his lost love, and a woman so traumatized by her youth that she resorts to unspeakable acts in adulthood are just a few of the tragic plotlines in Tales of Xillia.
This isn’t to say Tales of Xillia was a morose game, it wasn’t. In fact, it was very cheerful and optimistic, and not in spite of all the sad stuff, but rather because of it. The sadness that runs like a ribbon throughout the game serves to make the good things stand out. The triumphs, when achieved, are sweeter for the grief the protagonists still have to endure as well as the memories of those that never made it.
Hopefully, in the future more games will take this approach when crafting their narratives and include a healthy dose of grief alongside the excitement. After all, in the real world we’re all just smiling through our tears.
What were the games that you thought dealt well with the themes of loss and grief? Let me know in the comments.