Always a beacon of controversy and innovation, the gaming industry has thrown surprise after surprise at their audience in recent years. Let’s take a look at our five top picks for the shocking moments that surprised us the most.
5) Sarah’s Death (The Last of Us)
After escaping the initial outbreak of the cordyceps infection in his hometown, Joel and his daughter Sarah (now with a broken leg) find themselves emerging at the edge of the danger zone. Still being pursued by a pair of blood-hungry infected, it looks like it’s all over when suddenly rescue appears in the form of an armed and gas-masked soldier. The immediate danger now passed, Joel steps forward to try and find help for his injured daughter. However, it appears that the people in charge of the quarantine have other plans, and the soldier instead guns them both down, leaving Sarah to die in the arms of her father.
This sets the tone for the rest of the game. Loss, betrayal, and death are all common features of the post-apocalyptic future, and Joel is hardened from the very beginning by the loss of his daughter. While certainly not the first nor the last example of a father watching his child die in gaming, it is certainly one of the most emotionally fraught and sudden ones in recent memory.
4) No Russian (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2)
Makarov, the vicious leader of the ultranationalist Inner Circle, will do anything to achieve his goals; including the mass killing of an entire airport full of unarmed civilians in the attempt to spark a war between Russia and the USA. This would be a horrific enough act merely as part of the game’s lore, but developers Infinity Ward decided to go one step further: To force the player to take part. As the newest member of Makarov’s cell (though secretly an undercover CIA agent), gamers were expected to participate in the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of screaming civilians.
This one mission created an enormous amount of controversy. While the killing of civilians has been a part of game series such as Grand Theft Auto before, this was one of the shocking first depictions of a player-focused civilian-dense terrorist attack. As a result, developers Infinity Ward gave players the option of skipping the mission entirely, while some countries outright banned it. Players are given no rewards nor punishments for their actions, whatever they were, but it still presents one of the most shocking (and some even say brave) decisions from this AAA studio.
3) Would You Kindly? (Bioshock)
Bioshock was designed as a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, and as a result, it tries to deal with some pretty dense political and philosophical themes. One such example is voiced by Andrew Ryan, the enigmatic founder of the sub nautical Rapture: When is a man free, and when is he a slave? While some might try to answer that query through rigorous debate, Andrew Ryan decides that a more tangible demonstration is in order, and delivers it not by a podium, but via golf club.
After revealing that the player character has been nothing but a slave following orders after the utterance of a “Would you kindly?”, Andrew makes his point by forcing the player to kill him with a putter – there is no choice here. This was a particularly shocking moment because not only is it a violent, unexpected twist that makes you look at the plotline completely differently, but it also acts as a commentary on gaming as a hobby itself. Why do we simply follow the orders of the characters we meet in game? Because we have no choice – to advance the plot, we need to do as we are asked. We are merely slaves, just like Jack in Bioshock.
2) The Betrayal of John Marston (Red Dead Redemption)
Red Dead Redemption was filled with righteous, dangerous and downright wacky characters, but none quite made so much of an impression as that of John Marston himself: A man seeking redemption after a long career as a bandit, rustler, murderer and all-around no-good wild west bad guy. After a long time making good on his promises to the federal lawman in helping bring the members of his old gang to justice, it appears that there is one last life that needs to be taken for the lawmakers to be happy: John’s own. As a result, the US Army turns up at the Marston ranch, surrounding John in his barn. Realising his death was inevitable, Marston steps out to meet his maker – but not before taking out a fair number of the soldiers sent to kill him using his infamous Deadeye ability.
Ultimately, however, John is killed, and there is no way that players are able to save him. It’s a brutal ending to John’s life, and while you can take revenge as Jack, John’s son, it is a bittersweet moment. Nothing can bring back the original John Marston; the redemption that the player tried to help him find did nothing but put him in his grave.
1) White Phosphorus (Spec Ops: The Line)
Anyone who has played Spec Ops: The Line knew this was going to take the number one shocking spot. Starting off as what appears to be just another run-of-the-mill shooter, Spec Ops quickly devolves into a mind-breaking, sanity-questioning free-for-all where there are no heroes, no villains – just survival.
While other games might have a half-hearted attempt at trying to show the protagonist the real cost of war, this scene involving the judicious use of white phosphorus to clear out what is revealed to be something akin to a refugee camp quickly demonstrates what Spec Ops: The Line is all about. It also heralds the descent of Captain Walker, the player character, into guilt, madness and, ultimately, the truth of what happened in Dubai. Other entries in this list have plot twists, innocent casualties, mass murder and failed redemption; but this scene manages to meld them all together into one single amalgamated ball of shock and despair.
What were your most shocking moments from modern video games? Think we’ve missed one off our list? Let us know in the comment section below, and make sure you stay tuned to The Nerd Stash for all your gaming, movie, and comic book news!
A serial hobbyist, Jack loves everything from blacksmithing to brewing – and, of course, the occasional video game.