When it comes to tragic characters or sad moments in games, they can be classified into two main categories. One way is to develop ideas over time, perhaps through multiple games, creating fully fleshed out characters with motivations, failures and successes, and backstories, all that which haunt or torment their psyche. This way is to provide a long term and deep experience with sadness, loss, and melancholy.
The other way is to shock the player through an unexpected piece of drama, using a singular moment to smack the player across the face with a surprising turn of events. Specifically placing a traumatizing moment can allow the story to emotionally expand in what would otherwise be a mostly undramatic experience.
Here, we’re looking at the most tragic video game characters, and this list will start off with more substantial characters that are well developed and finish up with a few short but effective instances where characters bear their sorrow to the player, if only for a moment. Whether it’s nuanced complexity or shocking trauma, these simple bits of pixels and code still manage to stir up so many emotions in us.
This list will also cheat a little, lumping some pairs or groups of characters together in their respective doomed fates and destined misery.
Bear in mind, spoilers be afoot.
1. John Marston, Red Dead Redemption
Likely one of the most famous tragic video game characters, John Marston was once an orphan who was taken in and taught the ways of the west by the gang leader and gunslinger Dutch van der Linde. Having led a life full of crime, murder, and sin, Marston seeks redemption, thus the game’s title.
Throughout the game, Marston’s general good nature, despite his history, shines through his gruff and impatient demeanor. It’s through the bond of Marston and his family, as well as his begrudgingly tolerant approach toward the colorful and crazy folk he crosses paths with, that we get to see that he is indeed a man worthy of redemption.
But as these sorts of things turn out, Marston’s past and current connections to evil men on both sides of the law lead to his ultimate demise. In a clear moment of self-awareness, rather than fleeing with his family and possibly further endangering them, John chooses to walk through the barn doors, making him a tragic hero in his acceptance of his inevitable fate. That doesn’t mean he won’t try to take a few more corrupt lawman down with him though.
2. Lee Everett & Clementine, The Walking Dead: Season One
The tragedy with this pair isn’t just that one person dies and another survives, but that the close father-daughter bond between them is severed forever. Lee’s post-apocalyptic adoption of Clementine gave him a chance at redemption from his past and provided Clementine with a parental figure whose intention to protect her always stayed true.
Having murdered a senator for having an affair with his wife before the zombie outbreak, Lee would have otherwise been sitting in jail. So when he shows tender affection and care toward “sweet pea” Clementine, it really tears at your heart when he has to let her go.
The two characters have already gone through the meat-grinder of deadly decisions and shocking revelations, so when Lee is finally bitten by a Walker himself, it makes the separation for Clementine both heartbreaking and a clear turning point for her character’s growth in the series. The brutal and necessary decision for little Clem to either leave Lee behind or shoot him to spare him from becoming a Walker touches on the very real world horror of having to let a loved one die, a moment that changes us all so permanently.
3. Noble Team, Halo: Reach
Noble Team was a Spartan fireteam consisting of one Spartan-II, Jorge, and the Spartan-IIIs, Carter, Kat, Jun, Emile, and the nameless protagonist: Spartan-B312 aka Noble-6. All but Jun would not survive the conflict on Reach.
Anyone with any knowledge of the Halo lore likely knows that the fall of Reach was one of the most devastatingly critical losses for the human side during the war with the Covenant. Since Reach was a military stronghold and the birthplace of the various Spartan programs, it’s clear that the Spartans left behind would be doomed.
What makes the loss of Noble so impactful is that it functions as a greater symbol for all the Spartans that would perish on Reach in the battles for its defense. Each death is like that of a super hero or a mythological demigod. Like the Master Chief, the Spartans’ stoic and disciplined outlook toward the war makes their selfless sacrifices all the more moving, as they accept each challenge or defeat with a sense of honorable fatalism. The somber score, one of Martin O’Donnell’s best, helps tease out the emotions the Spartans perhaps feel but won’t show.
4. Samara & her daughters, Mass Effect 2 & 3
Commander Shephard first meets the near-thousand-year-old Asari Justicar Samara in Mass Effect 2, where you’ll eventually have to decide whether to spare her or her daughter Morinth in Samara’s loyalty mission.
Samara’s daughters, all three of them, are classified by the race of Asari as “Ardat-Yakshi,” or according the Mass Effect wiki, “Demon of the Night Winds,” a name for holders of a rare genetic condition that essentially makes the carrier a sex-crazed succubus. Each time an Ardat-Yakshi mates, the partner dies and the Asari is able to absorb some of their power. This makes these uncommon anomalies not only a danger to galactic society but a negative stigma on the Asari name.
The fact that all three of Samara’s daughters possess this condition is what drives her to become a Justicar: a disciplined servant of justice within the Asari realm. As mentioned, she is driven to kill her daughter Morinth (assuming you side with Samara) after centuries of hunting due to Morinth’s reckless abuse of her powers across the galaxy. One daughter’s death is enough but depending on your choices as the player, all three and Samara may die, making for one of the worst family reunions ever.
Best case scenario, two of the three daughters die, and Samara and Falere survive. No matter the choices, Samara’s tragic genetics lead to truly sad outcomes regardless. It’s through Samara’s strict dedication to her code that we get to see how truly strong of a character she is, willing to kill her daughter or even herself to achieve justice and balance.
5. Thane Krios, Mass Effect 2 & 3
Thane Krios is a Drell assassin whose past killings haunt him day by day, due especially to the Drell’s evolved near-perfect memory, with each kill as vidid as the last. When you meet him in Mass Effect 2, he’s desperately trying to come to terms with his actions as a deadly servant to the Hanar and reconcile with his son who is wrongly following in his footsteps. By the time we get to Mass Effect 3, Thane is slowly dying due to a terminal illness called “Kepral’s Syndrome,” so he’s sidelined for most of the game.
However, when the Citadel comes under attack by a Cerberus-led attempted coup, Thane heroically battles with the assassin Kai Leng, getting fatally injured in the process. It’s in his final moments at the hospital that we get to see him finally rest in peace after reciting a Drell prayer dedicated not to him, but us, as Commander Shephard.
Like the victims of Reach, Thane was so close to the end of the greater conflict with the Reapers, so it would have been nice to see him meet its end. But at least there’s solace in that he died on his own terms with his close friend and son beside him.
6. Mordin Solus, Mass Effect 2 & 3
A brilliant Salarian scientist with speech patterns akin to a cross between Captain Kirk and Yoda, Mordin Solus is a character whose story comes full circle. Back when the galaxy was at war with itself before the Reapers came into play, Mordin and the Salarians made the hard decision to sterilize the Krogan race to prevent their further domination of the galaxy. Though a necessary action to prevent further war, the decision clearly weighs heavy on Mordin’s mind. It is by his sacrifice to distribute a cure to the sterilizing “genophage” on the Krogan home world of Tuchanka that Mordin finally redeems himself from his guilt.
Being a fan favorite and often providing comic relief, hearing Mordin recite his famous song from Mass Effect 2 makes his death even more bittersweet. Like many characters on this list, Mordin not only meets his death with honor but walks headlong into it knowing his doom. His impersonal logic led him to create his torment via the genophage, and it also relieved him from it. As he says, “had to be me, someone else might have gotten it wrong.”
7. Dom Santiago, Gears of War 2 & 3
Since the game is mostly comprised of cursing at failed reloads and hurling expletives at the rock-skinned Locust Horde, the inclusion of Dom’s tragic storyline in Gears of War 2 & 3 does feel a bit shoehorned in for the sake of “drama” but it does nevertheless prove effective at least in the moment.
After finding his wife tortured and emaciated in Gears 2, Dom reluctantly carries himself through the story of Gears 3, mostly out of loyalty for his friends and comrades. But when the time comes that he sees a chance to save his friends at the cost of his own life, he takes it. Having lost his wife and children, Dom is more than ready to meet his end. Adding in the instrumental rendition of Gary Jules’s “Mad World,” used in the original Gears trailer, studio Epic Games manages to create some real emotion and complexity in an otherwise fairly cut and dry good guys vs. bad guys story scenario.
8. Sarah, The Last of Us
Though Sarah only briefly makes an appearance in The Last of Us, her unexpected death helps set up the brutal realities of the game’s apocalyptic world. Much like Clementine from The Walking Dead, Sarah is kind, selfless, and funny, so seeing her father agonize over her sudden death makes it believable and touching. They had a true bond that Joel, the protagonist, will only come to recreate with Ellie, another young girl central to the story, much later on.
9. Eli Vance, Half Life 2
Eli Vance is the father and father figure to both Alyx and Gordon Freeman, respectively. His calm and caring demeanor provides an element of warmth in an otherwise war-torn, monster-infested Earth. So when Eli’s research facility is attacked at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode Two, his sudden death tears apart any chance the three characters had at forming some sort of a family. Alyx having already lost her mother, the loss of her second parent makes for a brutal cliffhanger ending to the game, one that still hasn’t been continued for over a decade, as Half-Life 3 has yet to be completed.
10. Uncle Leo, Fallout 3
Finishing up this list is one of the few characters who survive their ordeals. However, for Uncle Leo, death may seem like a welcome change. Wandering the Wasteland since being banished from his kind, the super-mutants, Uncle Leo ponders life and existence, meeting one of few friends: the Lone Wanderer. It’s too bad he can’t be recruited as a companion, as seeing him interact with the other more intelligent and self-aware super-mutant Fawkes would have been entertaining.
After giving you some dirty clothes as an offering, he muses, “have you ever watched the moon rise over the Wasteland? I wish I could have given you something as wonderful as that.” Uncle Leo’s story is tragic as much as it is lonely, sad, and pitiful.