Once upon a time, games were really simple. Lights on a screen, dots and simple shapes shifting around in response to the player's machinations. Now, developers can construct worlds for us to subsist in, entire cinematic experiences that can hit us just as hard as any film (perhaps more so, given that we are directly invested in some manner). Just like movies, though, the increasing focus on the cinematic doesn't mean that all cinematics are good. Here are some of the best and worst, in my mind.
A Man Chooses (BioShock)
"Would you kindly" may be the most iconic phrase tied to the original BioShock, but it isn't until the player's character finally confronts Rapture's progenitor, Andrew Ryan, that those three words truly gain power. He presents you with a golf club and then, in a chillingly calm voice, asks you to kill him. The code words "would you kindly" ensure that there's nothing you, as the player, can do to resist, and so you watch as swing after swing lands on his increasingly bruised, deformed face, Ryan stating between blows that, "A man chooses, a slave obeys," until the club finally pierces his skull and, with a spurt of blood, he slumps over in silence.
Aeris' Swansong (Final Fantasy VII)
Aeris' death is brilliant if only because it's so wholly unexpected. When has a main character, present from near the beginning of the game, a playable member of the party, with stat progression and multiple equipable weapons, been sacrificed so readily at the midway point of the plot? It's especially gut-wrenching because the player knows how Cloud and Aeris feel about one another (it's stated explicitly in an earlier sequence), and because the big bad does the deed himself. That she was attempting to save the planet in her last moments? It only makes the sequence more significant and poignant.
Poseidon's End (God of War III)
This one qualifies on sheer squick factor. Yes, it was nasty having Andrew Ryan's head partially caved in by a golf club, but the God of War series is one founded on brutality. It's a series in which Kratos has wrenched off harpies' wings and crushed a man's head between a door and its frame (repeatedly), but the moment that many couldn't stop talking about arose in God of War III, at the end of an epic sequence spent traversing the moving terrain of a titan's flesh, in which Kratos battles Poseidon. He manages to defeat the god of the ocean and, in a quick time event that will forever stick in players' minds, gouges out his eyes. I don't know if it's the fact that one is pressing the analog sticks in, mimicking the motion, or the fact that it is done from Poseidon's perspective that makes it so affecting, but it definitely works.
Restoring Elaine Marley (Curse of Monkey Island)
We need some lighter fare on this list. Let's look at one of the funniest games ever made, courtesy of Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert. Curse of Monkey Island was the third in the series, picking up soon after the second game left off, with Guybrush Threepwood adrift at sea (in a bumper car). He stumbles upon a battle between the object of his affections, Elaine Marley, and recurring villain LeChuck (still in zombie form from the second game). After a comical end to the battle, Guybrush presents Elaine with a ring he found on LeChuck's ship. It's cursed and turns her to gold, but not before she winds up for a punch. Much later in the game, when one finally manages to restore Elaine to flesh and blood, she continues the blow uninterrupted. It's one of the best delayed payoffs for a slapstick moment I've ever seen.
Never Surrender (Wing Commander III)
Back to serious business. This isn't actually a main element of the Wing Commander III plotline, which, like the original Wing Commander and subsequent Wing Commander IV, had multiple plot branches with distinct endings. This is seen on the losing path, in which the Kilrathi manage to besiege Earth. You fight a hopeless battle against endless waves of their fighters in the hopes of holding them back, but it's all for naught when the TCS Victory collides with a Kilrathi capital ship in its final moments and player character Christopher Blair (Mark Hamill) is eventually forced to eject. He is tractored in by the Kilrathi, where he meets Prince Thrakhath personally. Here, if the player refuses to surrender after a brief conversation, Blair is disemboweled by Thrakhath in a scene mirroring the death of Blair's late lover, Jeanette "Angel" Devereaux, earlier in the game.