As with many of my list pieces, this article contains a few spoilers. You have been warned.
Sometimes, life sucks. Everything that can go wrong; does: you're doing terrible at work and/or school, your friends all hate you, and your whole life feels totally unfulfilling. No matter how deep you sink – no matter how low you go – you still won't have it as bad as some of the characters on this list. These are some of the most tragic, hard-luck characters in gaming. Whether through some fatal flaw of their own (or just a general grudge against them on behalf of the universe) their lives are so deep in the gutter that it's actually difficult not to pity them.
Marcus Fenix (Gears of War):
Believe it or not, Marcus of the Gears of War franchise is more than just a sentient lump of testosterone wearing power armor: he's actually got a pretty terrible life if you happen to take a look at the details (the fact that he's living through an apocalypse notwithstanding). By the end of the franchise, he's lost almost everyone close to him, save for Anya.
He starts the game out incarcerated on charges of treason for trying to save his father's life – which ended up causing the death of an entire brigade of gears. Over the course of the ensuing war, he lost several of his closest friends (including Dom, who committed suicide by ramming a truck into a pipe for some reason), as well as his father (who died before his own eyes a second time).
Then he shed manly tears and watched the sunrise, because it seemed like the right thing to do.
Kratos (God of War):
Okay, yeah; our first entry on the list is seriously a dick. He's a murderous sociopath with severe anger management issues who kills almost everything that looks at him the wrong way, but he's got a very good reason for being the way he is – namely, the fact that the Greek Gods (Zeus in particular) have actively conspired to ruin his life at every opportunity. They treated him and his family as little more than game pieces. Over the course of the franchise, they:
Kidnapped his brother
Had him swear servitude to Ares, who then tricked him into slaughtering his wife and daughter
Imprisoned him for the crime Areas made him commit
Made him a god then stole his divinity
Killed him on more than one occasion.
Acted like complete and utter cock-waffles.
So, yeah....Kratos might've been a brutal, abrasive asshole, but the gods kinda had it coming.
Scott Shelby (Heavy Rain):
When he's first introduced, players are lead to believe that Heavy Rain's Scott Shelby is a detective investigating the Origami Killer. The truth is far more sinister in nature: after his brother ended up drowning because his no-good drunk of a father couldn't be asked to come and pull the boy out from a flooding pipe; Shelby decided that he would begin searching for a man who could truly go above and beyond to save his son – a father like the one he never had.
If that's not tragic, I don't know what is.
Max Payne was, at one point, a good cop, and a great detective. He had a wife and daughter he loved more than life itself, and was, quite literally, "living the American Dream." That is, until he returns home one day just in time to watch his wife and infant daughter murdered by drug addicts. Naturally, the first game details his avenging rampage which leads to him killing everyone responsible. Vengeance doesn't let him set the memories to rest, however: a new woman eventually enters his life (she dies), he makes a number of friends in the police force (they die), and ultimately the past catches up to him: he winds up addicted to alcohol and painkillers. But hey, at least he manages to eventually find himself a happy ending: he spends the rest of his days on a beautiful tropical beach, finally at peace with himself.
Had a hell of a time getting to that point, though.
Jackie Estacado (The Darkness):
It's pretty obvious right from the start of The Darkness that Jackie Estacado isn't exactly a good person. He was an ex contract killer for the mob and a borderline sociopath: basically, not the kind of guy you'd want to bring home to mom and dad. The thing is, The Darkness – the eldritch abomination that inhabits him – is far, far worse. Towards the end of the first game, The Darkness forces Jackie to watch as Jenny – the love of his life –is killed by Paulie Franchetti; the first game's antagonist. It gets worse: depending on the player's choices in The Darkness II; Jenny becomes The Angelus(essentially, the polar opposite of The Darkness) and leaves Jackie stranded in hell after he traveled there for the express purpose of rescuing her.
John Marston (Red Dead Redemption):
Marston's only fault, come the beginning of Red Dead Redemption; is that he has a criminal past – a fact which the corrupt Edgar Ross is all too willing to twist to his advantage by kidnapping the man's wife and son, turning him into a pawn and forcing him to hunt down his former brothers in arms.
Yeah, Ross is a real nice guy.
Eventually, Ross decides that he doesn't really care to let Marston live, even though the gunslinger upheld his end of the bargain: he leads an attack on Marston's ranch along with the Bureau and the U.S. Army. Family friend Uncle is killed almost immediately, and Marston ends up sacrificing himself to save the life of his wife and child. The cost of redemption is a high one, indeed.
Nier's your classic Papa Wolf character: after his daughter Yonah is kidnapped by The Shadowlord, he sets out on a roaring rampage of revenge; desperately trying to track her down and rescue her from the monstrosity. Pretty standard stuff; right?
This is where things get weird. Itt turns out that the Shadowlord IS him: he's the soul of the original Nier(called a gestalt); his daughter is the soul of original Yonah. He needs the body of the current Yonah to ensure his daughter's survival, as he's unwilling to live in a world without her. Naturally, it goes downhill from there: After defeating The Shadowlord, he realizes that he's basically caused an extinction event – everybody who has a 'gestalt'(basically, everybody in the world) starts dying of the same disease that was killing Nier's daughter. At this point, he has two choices: sacrifice himself to prevent mankind from going extinct (in which case everyone forgets he ever existed) or live out the his final, disease-ridden days with his beloved daughter.
Yeah...not exactly a great choice, is it?
Big Boss (Metal Gear):
A legendary soldier, founder of FOXHOUND, and the genetic template for Solid Snake; Big Boss was everything a soldier should be. He was skilled, loyal, and unfathomably deadly – more or less a living weapon. Unfortunately, he would end up being turned against his beloved country and organization through the events of something known as Operation Snake Eater: long story short, Big Boss (Naked Snake at the time) ended up being betrayed by The Boss (his mentor/lover), and almost accused of treason. Eventually, he was pardoned of the charges...with the condition that he hunt down and kill The Boss and her men.
He did so, only to find out that the whole thing was just a ruse set up by his government to avoid taking the blame for a nuclear attack it launched. Can you really blame him for defecting after that?
James (Silent Hill):
A lot of people consider James Sunderland to be dumb as a sack of rocks – though most of them would give the edge to the sack in a pinch. In actuality; he's probably wracked by the guilt that came with murdering his wife, Mary, even if he's not entirely aware of it. He has no regard for personal safety, cares little about survival, and pursues the goal of discovering her fate with a dumb, single-minded perseverance. The scene in which he discovers what really happened to Mary is absolutely heart-breaking; it causes the rest of the game to make near-perfect sense given a bit of thought.
I'm pretty sure the universe hates Ark. That's the only explanation I can come up with for the series of painful, convoluted events he's forced to suffer through over the course of Terranigma.
The world of Terranigma is separated into two locales: The Overworld and Underworld. This is important.
Right at the beginning of Terranigma, he ends up opening Pandora's Box and turning his whole village to stone. In order to reverse this, Ark must naturally embark on an epic quest at the behest of the village Elder, who he looks up to as though the man is his own grandfather. Naturally, he loses a number of close friends and loved ones along the way, only to find out that the grandfather is actually working for the big bad of the game – at which point Ark is sent to revive his lightside self in order to combat the Elder.
Reviving his lightside self kills him. Sort of. The two selves end up merging together, and he's reborn as a baby. Scores of friends end up dying on his behalf, including his former lover (who killed herself rather than have him force her to murder him), and finally returns to the Underworld...only to find that everyone he ever loved and cared about from that realm considers him their enemy. After slaughtering all his friends and family, he finally faces off against and defeats the elder, and is rewarded...
With one final perfect day in his village: with the caveat that once he goes to sleep, it and everyone within will cease to exist.
So...yeah. He must've pissed off a few gods in a past life.
Honorable Mentions: Ezio Auditore Da Firenze, Tirion Fordring, Cyan, Zack, Ammon Jerro