Gamers who came up in different decades each have their own Bambi's mother. Emotional benchmarks for a generation. In the eighties, it was the game Planetfall and the robot Floyd's sacrifice. In the nineties, it was, what else, Final Fantasy VII and Aeris. For the 00s, it was when Kirkland died in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter.
Which one of those moments was the saddest? While we're at it, which euthanising of a video game character -- the little sister or the companion cube -- caused the most distress? Think carefully, because emotional responses aren't strictly private and personal anymore. They're another way of saying that a game is good.
What does it mean when people say it was harder to burn Portal's inanimate object than it was to harvest Bioshock's little monster girls? Probably not that players finding the latter more troubling are better-adjusted. Compare the two: in a sterile and lonely plaster-white environment, the companion cube is a surprising and welcome curiosity. By the time the player is given the option of killing their first little sister, they've already seen and shot more than enough hideous antagonists. Little sisters fit in, and are already familiar: the moral dilemma which accompanies them is a major focus of the game, the player's seen them before, he knows he'll see more of them. There is, however, only one companion cube. And Portal forces the player's hand where Bioshock does not -- for some, being made to kill a little sister would have been disgusting. If you equate Valve and 2K's design goals with these characters, then this is an argument you can make for the superiority of Valve's approach. You could say all that, you could say that Valve has a better understanding of the player and a better execution of the concept, or you could just say "I cried."
To some extent you can't argue an honest reaction, which is why it makes for a good defense. Given context -- two high-profile games with similar moments -- it becomes a contest, because that's the dialogue we're used to. It's a culture of competitive enthusiasm. We can't help compare these things, to try and objectively judge one game as the best of the year or simply better than another (not to mention the Xbox 360 as better than the PS3 version, or vice versa.) The aesthetics of the little sister are clearly designed to provoke sympathy, and if it doesn't do that, or if it is outdone by a box, then doesn't that say something about the storytelling prowess of these two games relative to one another? You can distill, if all else fails, emotional reactions into objective pros and cons. Which game made you sad? Which one made you laugh? That's the winner.
It's the same situation when anyone asks the general question of can/has a game ever made you cry. The answers are always the same: Aeris Gainsborough, '97, Tommy Angelo, '02, and so on. What's happening in this case is that medium is being ranked against all other entertainment. Again, it's a contest: do games, as literature, have the same artistic potential as fiction or film? If the answer is no, then isn't this all a waste of time? No gamer wants to lose that comparison, and will often overcompensate with hyperbole. Video games have always been under siege as juvenile or corrupting so it's hard to blame gamers on that one. Maybe that's why so many communities care so much on sales figures, the great equaliser.
In that same far-off wonderland where graphics technology plateaus and developers can make games all about art direction instead of keeping pace with polygon counts, maybe gamer self-confidence will level out too. One day gamers will be able to like the things they like without having to justify them; to react emotionally without having to convert it into debate ammunition. Because isn't it weird that all these guys are talking about crying so much. Let's get back to repressing those feelings. Wait, which one of these these idealistic futures was supposed to be the good one?