NOTE: Since sacrificing yourself tends to be a bit of a showstopper, many of the entries on this list talk about the endings of the games concerned. If that sort of thing fills you with dread, consider yourself warned.
1. Fallout 3 (2008)
A few months ago, we looked at games that reward self-destruction, but few of those games give the player much of a choice in the matter. The works on this list all offer you a choice of making the ultimate sacrifice—either giving your own life or saying goodbye a loved one. One thread running through many of the examples here is that while the games let you decide whether to die or not, the moral scale tends to be heavily weighted toward the “kill yourself” end of things. That’s especially true in Fallout 3, whose climactic final quest, “Take It Back!” invites you to step into the control chamber of a huge water-purification mechanism and interrupt a self-destruct sequence. Unfortunately, entering the chamber means that you’ll receive a lethal dose of radiation, so cowards can let a goodie-two-shoes member of the local militia take the hit instead. The ending sequence looks unkindly on those who opt for self-preservation. The Broken Steel expansion, released a few months after the main game, complicates this decision somewhat: With the add-on installed, the radiation in the chamber is survivable, and furthermore, you can send a radiation-resistant buddy to do the dirty work, meaning that nobody even gets hurt. Seems sensible, but still, that choice means you don’t get the warm fuzzies of being the hero—not to mention the warm fuzzies of a zillion gamma rays coursing through your marrow.
2. Dark Souls (2011)
At the end of a long and merciless game, one that involves dying thousands of times amid inch-by-inch progress, your character is faced with one last death, and a choice. For years, Lord Gwyn has kept the fire burning deep inside the sinister role-playing game Dark Souls—a fire that has kept humanity at bay, but maintained a delicate balance between gods and monsters. When Gwyn is defeated, a bonfire is placed at your feet, one of many bonfires you’ve discovered on your travels, and you’re faced with a choice. Do you give yourself to the bonfire, burning up and ensuring that the flames keep burning? Or do you let the fire go out, ushering in a new era of darkness with you as its master? Like most things in Dark Souls, it’s not as cut-and-dry as it might seem. The darkness would allow mankind to live, albeit not forever, and the fire would ensure its imminent demise. Plus, the choice to burn up pleases most of the characters in the game, but turning things dark only pleases a row of giant snakes who bow to you in appreciation. And even though we’re only talking about a one-minute cutscene either way, the choice weighs heavily because up to this point, the game has given gravity to these moments. It autosaves every three seconds, meaning if you’ve accidentally killed an ally, they stay dead and you can’t go back. It’s only a choice, one of thousands, but this is the one that truly matters.
3. inFamous 2 (2011)
Seeing as the premise of the game centered around choices between good and evil, the first inFamous was a major disappointment. It didn’t matter how righteous or wicked your version of Cole McGrath was, the game ended the same way, with the same characters left living or deceased and the same lessons learned either way. This eccentric statement on futility was reversed in inFamous 2 with two divergent paths for the endgame. Noble and good-natured players would activate a bomb that wiped out a plague and killed all super-powered carriers in the process, including Cole, who would be revered as a Saint by the survivors. Less altruistic players would murder their best friend, become all powerful, and enslave the human race as mankind’s new leader. Bad guys get to have so much more fun.
4. Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
On the eve of the game’s final battle, your hero learns that the only way to really defeat the archdemon who leads the rampaging horde of evil darkspawn is for its slayer to die in the fight. The game still gives you plenty of options to avoid taking this burden on yourself. You could have an ally take the blow, which is a tough decision if it’s the sweet Alistair, but feels like just desserts if you’re traveling with the traitor Loghain. Sexy witch Morrigan offers another option: You could get her pregnant with a god baby so that no one has to die. But if you don’t trust Morrigan’s dark magic and can’t stand to let anyone take your place, you get the honor of dying to save the world and then watching your character’s touching funeral. Awkwardly, though, if you play the Awakening add-on, you can still use your sacrificed character, and it’s just never mentioned that you’ve come back from the dead.
5. Fable II (2008)
The Fable games are all about choice, but none has so much impact as the end of Fable II. Sure, earlier in the game you’re asked if you want to give up your youth and beauty so a stranger doesn’t have to lose hers, but if make the sacrifice there, you get the consolation of looking like a badass. In the course of the events leading up to the game’s finale, your sister, family, and dog all die, along with a building full of people. Then you get to make one of three wishes: get a ton of money, resurrect everyone who was in the building, or just resurrect your loved ones. It’s easy to turn down the cash payoff, but putting the life of a handful above many more is tougher. You can go on wrapping up side quests and just exploring even after you’ve completed the plot, so if you do choose to essentially sacrifice your family and loyal pooch, the impact is dramatic. Your character might still be alive, and unlike many of the entries on this list, this isn’t an exercise in self-martyrdom, but the absence of your best friend romping beside you is a constant and tragic reminder of your choice.
6. Chrono Trigger (1995)
The “to be or not to be?” moment seems to be a recent thematic development in video games—we’d like to hear some older examples in the comments—but one exception to that trend is a two-decade-old role-playing game. Chrono Trigger is beloved 17 years after its release because its story feels valid no matter what choices you make in its branching timelines. Unlike Mass Effect or other games fixated on some moral binary, Trigger’s choices are simply about what flavor you would like the tale to take on. Silent lead Crono does the noble thing no matter what you do: He and his posse of time-travelling good Samaritans will attempt to fight Lavos, a massive parasite destined to destroy the planet, and Crono will die trying. What’s unique about Trigger though is that it lets you choose the shape of his sacrifice. Bringing Crono back is just a matter of gathering a few powerful goods and fighting your way to the peak of a mountain infested with Lavos’ offspring. If you choose, though, you can challenge Lavos again and get revenge for your comrade first. If you do it that way, the game ends with the heroes diving back in time to save him, but their success isn’t guaranteed—potentially making Crono’s martyrdom permanent. Like all of Chrono Trigger, it’s a bittersweet moment, equal parts hopeful and a little sad.
7. Radiant Historia (2011)
Vainqueur, the setting for Radiant Historia, is a rough place literally held together by martyrdom. It’s comprised of two countries engaged in a perpetual war and troubled by magical desertification. Compounding the problem: The populace is turning into sand right alongside the land. Hero Stocke, his long-lost sister, and his villainous boss, Heiss, are intimately tied to the scourge that’s ruining their country. Turns out the royal family has kept the “Sand Plague” at bay by sacrificing one of the twin siblings born each generation. The previous sacrifice was supposed to be Heiss, but he escaped and broke the cycle, splitting the timeline in two. (Obviously.) Once you reconcile history, someone’s gotta die. There are many quests in the game that involve helping people in both timelines. Complete all of them and Heiss has a change of heart, sacrificing himself to save Stocke. Your good deeds inspire a man to martyr himself. If you fail to help enough of your fellow citizens, however, Stocke pays for it with his own life instead.
8. BioShock 2 (2010)
The BioShock series can be viewed as the full evolution of Seasonal Affective Disorder, with the underwater community of Rapture falling into death and madness. It’s a cautionary tale for Seattle, but also for the perils of forced genetic harvesting. You play Delta, who is the fourth iteration of the Big Daddy, a genetically altered human grafted to a giant Sladen suit. Eleanor, the Little Sister you’re charged with protecting, is the subject of experiments by her crazy-ass cult leader of a mother. Throughout the game, you have the option of either sparing the Little Sisters you encounter or absorbing their ADAM—super sea-slug stem cells introduced into humans. Your actions determine whether or not Eleanor drowns her mother, but also your own fate. If you’ve let some Little Sisters live, and harvested some others, you’ll be presented with a choice at the end of the game. Either way, your Big Daddy body dies, but you can beg Eleanor to allow you a dignified natural death, teaching her an important life lesson. Or you can agree to live on as she absorbs you into her own cellular structure and proceeds to enslave humanity (presumably). It’s a pyrrhic victory.
9. Dragon’s Dogma (2012)
The final scenes of Dragon’s Dogma offer a couple of opportunities for martyrdom, both offering the same moral: a noble death is better than a lonely existence. In one of the game’s possible endings, you meet the titular dragon itself and can choose to offer your lover as a sacrifice rather than fight. In return for this sacrifice, you become the ruler of all the land, and a cutscene shows you sitting alone in a vast, empty throne room, looking awfully bored. If you skip the sacrifice and press on past the dragon to win a fight with the being that steers the fate of the Dragon’s Dogma universe, you become the puppetmaster yourself. It turns out that being the puppetmaster is pretty dull, too. Sure, you’re invisible, and you can roam around the world spying on the populace undetected, but the citizens of Dogma lead highly ordinary, stultifying lives. We know what you’re thinking—you’ll never get an “I’ve seen everything!” moment. Best to exit this higher plane of existence and experience the game’s “true” ending, in which you kill yourself and free the land, once and for all, from meddling dragons and superbeings.