There’s something unique about how a game can hook you; you become so invested in a story, playing as the hero, experiencing conflict and tribulation from their firsthand perspective. And because of their intimate nature, it’s not surprising that some of the most awe-inspiring moments in entertainment stem from games.
These are ten moments in gaming that have stuck with me through the years, reminding me of just how powerful a well-delivered moment can be.
WARNING…some story spoilers.
#1: Choosing Between Carly and Doug in The Walking Dead
Telltale’s The Walking Dead completely caught me by surprise with its hard-hitting narrative and painfully difficult choices that lead you to question your own morality. And while it wasn’t the first time I had to make a tough decision in a game, the moment where you have to choose whether to save Carly or Doug is one that hit me hard.
Rotting arms reach in through the broken windows, clutching both characters as they struggle and call out for help. A timer shows up at the bottom, and suddenly, I realize that I can’t save both of them; I have to choose. But how do I choose? Do I go with Carly, the girl with a gun? Or is Doug a better pick? Doug hadn’t offered me anything helpful before this moment, but Carly also couldn’t manage to install batteries right on a radio. Still, this is the end of the world, and I figured the armed character would be more essential to the survival of my team. I chose to save Carly that day, leaving a man to meet his death at the hands of the undead. Sure, Doug’s not real, but I still feel a sort of guilt for letting him meet his death that day. That was one of the first times I encountered such a painful choice in a game, and it’s one I’ll never forget.
#2: Killing Your First Dragon in Skyrim
There are many moments in Skyrim that make it an amazing and engrossing game. But the one moment that really made the game something special to me was my first dragon kill.
When it lands on the ground, you’re suddenly faced with this massive enemy, one that attests to the size and scope of the game itself. The dragon wasn’t easily killed, either; rather, I had to run up the stairs of the tower, passing by frantic guards and searching for a good vantage point from which I could fire arrows at the beast. I finally found a window, but arrows weren’t much better than throwing rocks at it, really. So instead, I drew a sword and ran down to meet it, hacking away at the dragon as I tried to avoid being burned alive. Once it finally died and I absorbed its soul, I remember being so amazed at how powerful that moment felt. First, I’d defeated this massive beast, then second, had this mystical moment take place that I didn’t fully understand. Being a literature nerd, I couldn’t help but feel like the moment was ripped straight out of a fantasy novel, making it one of the most epic moments I’ve ever experienced in a game.
#3: Escaping the Vault in Fallout 3
While Fallout 3 has moments that could fill up this entire list, the time you finally escape the vault and walk outside is still a uniquely amazing one for me. You’ve just killed the leader, taken a weapon, evaded guards, and then you reach the controls for that massive door, the entryway out to that awful, dangerous world you’ve been warned about your whole life. Then suddenly, you reach the door and walk outside for the first time in your life.
You’re blinded by the light of the sun, and it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the brightness. Once they do, you catch sigh of the haunting scene that defines Fallout: a barren, desolate wasteland stretching as far as the eye can see. Then you move forward, taking your first steps out into the unknown, barely armed and completely alone.
This moment was a particularly powerful one because it made the world feel so real and alive, I couldn’t help but feel the same fear and uncertainty my own character felt, forging a unique connection the likes of which I haven’t encountered since.
#4: Defeating the Pokemon League in Pokemon Crystal
I’ll admit it; Pokemon ate my childhood, leaving me holed up in my room during the summer and after school with my Game Boy Color as I randomly battled creatures and took on gyms all over the land. I played a lot of the big Pokemon titles; Blue, Red, Silver, Yellow, Fire Red…but nothing compares to how I felt when I officially beat Pokemon Crystal.
After scraping together money from babysitting and doing odd jobs around the house, I finally persuaded my mom to drive me to Blockbuster Video and purchased a used copy of Pokemon Crystal. After that, I did nothing but sit and play for weeks, investing well over sixty hours in the game by the end of it. And what an end it was, once I finally got through and defeated the Pokemon League using only a level 104 Typhlosion and a limited supply of HP potions. Once that last trainer’s pokemon passed out and he forfeited, I remember laying down and breathing a sigh of relief. It was over. I had beaten the entire game, solved its mysteries, and defeated the League. For 13 year old me, that was an accomplishment without equal.
#5: The Ending of Both Portal 1 and 2
The Portal series is one of my all-time favorites, simply because I love story-driven games, and they have proven to be a master course in storytelling within a game.
But it was the ending of Portal 1 that not only wowed me, but proved that games could be just as hard-hitting in their narrative as books or film. The moment I saw the cake, only to have candles snuffed out by a robotic arm and the screen fade to black, I remember staring at my laptop screen, at a loss for words over how powerful that moment was.
And the ending of Portal 2 did not disappoint, either. When Wheatley booby-traps the conflict resolution button, and Chell manages to drag herself to the portal gun, you turn around to see the roof falling around you, and a full moon staring back at you from its place in the sky. I remember having a moment of hesitation at that instant; is that what I was supposed to do? Could I really shoot a portal at the moon? But it worked, and seeing Wheatley release into space while GLaDOS rescued me was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever encountered in a game.
#6: Deaths of Crew Members in Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 made me feel like a failure worse than all the Intermediate Algebra teachers I had during my high school and college years. I thought I had done everything right throughout the game to make sure my crew members were happy and protected. But instead, I found myself watching character after character meet their unfortunate end. And it was strangely personal; when they died, I felt wholly responsible for it, feeling guilt for a sequence of code in a way that I shouldn’t. But it was still powerful and moving, and a moment I’ll never forget.
#7: The First Time You See Rapture
“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?” The first time Andrew Ryan asks this in BioShock marks one of the most impressive moments in a game for me. Cruising along in the dark, listening to him talk about entitlement and opportunity, when suddenly visibility returns, and you’re greeted with the incredible view of Rapture, a city built under the sea, home to its insane citizens driven mad by power and science. It was an eerily beautiful moment that set up for one of my favorite games.
#8: Seeing My First Mortal Kombat Fatality
My friend had Mortal Kombat for the SNES. Being all of eight years old, I couldn’t tell you for sure what title it was, or even if it was any good, but I do remember watching my first fatality and being blown away by how violent seeing someone explode into a pile of bones was. It was a striking moment, and one of the first times I ever experienced extreme violence in its form back in the late 90′s. Of course, today I’ve played games with deaths that would make early MK blush, but there was something pivotal about that moment that I’ll never forget.
#9: Seeing Donkey Kong Country
It was also at my SNES-owning friend’s house that I saw Donkey Kong Country for the first time and couldn’t help but be amazed at how good the graphics were. I was used to sprites and pixels that roughly resembled the characters they meant to portray, but the first time I saw DK was simply amazing to my young brain. I mean, it had shading! And the animations looked so real! Okay, again, it’s not that impressive by today’s standards, but I still remember being captivated by the look of it.
#10: Super Smash Bros. For the N64
There was this weird, sickly kid that lived in my neighborhood that nobody really liked. Except my brother, for some reason, who would head over to the kid’s house every day to hang out with him, no matter how weird the kid was. I could not for the life of me figure out why he would hang out with the kid so much until the day I had to go to this kid’s house to get my brother to come home for dinner. I walked in their family room and found them both sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, N64 controllers in their hands as they played this crazy game with characters beating each other up and flying around the screen. That was my first exposure to Super Smash Bros., a game I would then go on to put hours into as I hung out with the sickly kid and my brother, beating them both up with Link and laughing at the absurd power ups and items used within the game. Turns out, the sickly kid wasn’t too bad at all, and we actually became friends after that. And it was all thanks to the crazy, frantic fighting game that is Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64.