The Games Of Christmas ’11: Day 19

By RPS on December 19th, 2011 at 2:02 pm.

As we gather ’round the open fire, roasting our chestnuts if we sit a little too close, it’s not unusual for conversation to turn to Christmases past. Remember the time when that bike-shaped parcel underneath the tree wasn’t for you at all but actually contained Uncle Marty’s new Zimmer frame and a couple of oversized hubcaps for his Robin Reliant? How we laughed! You enjoyed those new socks in the end though, once the crying had stopped. Ah, memories.

It’s… To The Moon!

Adam: I’m not going to talk about the sadness of rabbits or lunatic dreams, instead I’m going to (mostly) avoid any further mention of the specific feelings that To The Moon picks away at. I think it would be a shame if people who hadn’t played it thought of it as “the game that made some people cry”. Pretty much anything in a minor key can make me cry in the wee small hours of the morning when I’ve got a few drinks in me, so it’s hardly a criteria by which I can recommend something as intriguing or emotionally astute.

The device which powers the plot, a piece of technological magic, is a fascinating invention, allowing its users to explore and influence the memories of a subject, planting ideas and rewriting the life they lived. In some hands, it would be little more than a handy narrative conceit, but the effort with which writer/designer Kan Gao creates and adheres to the rules of its use make it strangely believable proposition.

That’s in no small part thanks to the characterisation of the two doctors, Eva and Neil, whose job it is to mould their clients’ memories to fit a requested life goal. Something never achieved but desired. The doctors are never amazed by the power at their disposal and nor is anyone else, and the acceptance that this ability is something that can be bought and sold, rather than a gift handed down from on high, allows it to fit comfortably into a recognisable world, populated with people who sound (or at least read) like actual people.

As the story develops and problems arise in the procedure, Eva and Neil don’t overreact and leap into heroic mode. What they are doing isn’t a mission, it’s a job, not necessarily even a vocation, and this is a particularly troublesome day at the office. Naturally, the first response is to complain and look for shortcuts. Apart from the client himself, who will never be able to share his thoughts, nobody is seeking an experience worth telling; they’re just trying to get on with things.

And when things become more complicated, the doctors don’t immediately rise to the challenge and recognise that they are on the verge of a potentially transcendental experience. They complain, they bicker, they goof off, they fuck things up.

While it’s Johnny and the reasons behind his desire to go to the moon that form the central mystery, that puzzle and its several emotional payoffs wouldn’t be as convincing or effective without the doctors, and it’s their story as much as his. Their interplay, both comedically amiable and furiously opposed, takes centre stage for large portions of the game, and even though you have some control over them, it would be more true to say that the player accompanies them, an onlooker to their relationship rather than a participant in it.

But that’s not say it’s just a case of watching. There are places and thoughts to wander through, and there is the occasional decision to make. It’s as interactive as it needs to be in order to involve the player in a story that’s told brilliantly through hunting and gathering, finely-tuned writing, beautiful music, and impressively subtle visual design. To The Moon is sad, very sad indeed, but it’s far more than a large serving of grief.

John: Well, I am going to go on about the emotions, because – well – it says I have to in this contract I have with God. As Adam says, in the right state a poorly timed advert can make you cry, so it’s not the measure by which quality should be understood. However, To The Moon is a game that made me sob. Three times. Not, “Aw, a little tear ran down my cheek,” but rather weep, like the time my gerbil died. And it did that not through cynical manipulation, but rather a combination of writing of such mature precision as to ask enormous questions of yourself and your understanding of love, and by a degree of agonising inevitability, made possible through the game’s masterful reverse-chronology narrative.

I’m still determined to avoid spoilers here, and not even say the word the game perhaps never utters (I really remember it saying it, but so many say it did not, and I’m not quite ready to play it through again (not because I’m afraid I’ll get all emotional again, but rather because I expect I won’t, and the magic will be broken)), which we’ll call the A-word. But in dealing with such an enormous subject, albeit in a mostly simplistic way, is a huge deal. Because name the other game that did. Exactly.

To present love without unrealistic romanticisation is a fascinating experience. It feels almost cruel, just because we’re so used to our media giving us the nonsense floaty-perfect version. To see a version of love that survives deep unhappiness, clings on despite deep trauma, is peculiar and wonderful. And tragic and heartbreaking.

We’ve already mentioned that it’s a shame the game thought it necessary to include the silly between-level puzzles, and that entirely out of sorts zombie scene, but there’s something I don’t think we’ve yet properly celebrated: the utter uncertainty throughout the final sequence. I really had no idea which way it was going to turn, who was doing good or ill, where the twists and turns were heading. In fact, I changed my mind about five times, completely sure each time of which way things were heading. What a rare and special treat that is – to genuinely not know which way a story is going in a game. In fact, it rather brutally highlights the endemic poverty in game writing, not just that there was an emotional engagement with which way it might be turning, but that you’d even give it any thought at all. When was the last time that happened?

I’ve never been so contacted by people about a game. Tweets, emails and comments from many, sharing their experience of playing, and expressing their delight that they did. I’ve replied “Did you cry?” to every single one, and it’s been a 100% hit rate so far.

__________________

« | »

, , .

49 Comments »

  1. Nemon says:

    I cried when watching the Dead Island CGI trailer, guess this is worth a try.

    • mouton says:

      The one with the kid? Pfft. I am fairly resistant to tear jerkers unless the game/film/book creator first establishes why should I care.

    • rei says:

      I’ll cry at anything but I hate kids so that didn’t work on me.

    • outoffeelinsobad says:

      I cried at this comment thread.

    • Nemon says:

      Finally gave this one a go, played a few hours last night and – cried. Brilliant game. Emotional and entertaining.

  2. Tusque D'Ivoire says:

    I did not cry, but got as close to it as I ever got with a game.

    But laugh, I did, out loud and lots of times. You mentioned it in the other articles about the game, but not this one: The game is also hilarious at times.

  3. Will Tomas says:

    The best written story I’ve seen in any medium this year. It’s joyous, tragic, beautiful, funny, and heartbreaking. I cried too, and I don’t cry at much these days. Beside Skyrim (which is an experience more than a story), this is my favourite game of the year.

    • McDan says:

      Pretty much exactly what I was going to say, except way better. What a game. What an emotional ride. Excellence.

    • Wulf says:

      I’ve said so many times that I value a good story, and I’ve said before that I value a writer who can manipulate me and make me their intellectual bitch. Some people seem to be afraid of this as a concept, perhaps because they can’t handle the thought of someone being as intelligent or more so than they are, but I see it as being no different than a good Disney film.

      The best writers can just screw around with your head and heart so badly, they can have you heartbroken in one moment, and then welling up with joy the next. I find only the most sadistic and hateful writers leave you on a downer, though. Not so much of a fan of those, really. I’m not really all that interested in stories that embrace despair – but this one doesn’t. It has its ups and its downs, and overall there’s a sense of hope which is threaded through it from the very first moment to the last line of dialogue. And it’s clever. It’s so clever. You come away with a great deal of respect for it.

      Oh, Kan Gao, you magnificent bastard you.

      And it’s even cleverer than that, because not only does Kan play me like a violin, but it’s a topic that would certainly take people out of their comfort zones, and it’s a topic that I personally relate with. It’s about neurodiversity. A while back I discovered that I had a very specific kind of brain damage, that I’ve had all my life, and due to that I’m never going to see the world in the way that most people do. Everything is going to be a bit slanted for me, but I’ve embraced that, it’s part of who I am.

      To the Moon hit very close to home for me. Very, very close to home. So perhaps it had more of an effect on me than it would have on most people. Though I see this also as raising awareness, and even going so far as to promote awareness of neurodiversity. Which goes from me respecting Kan as a writer, to wanting to shake Kan’s hand in person. This is exactly what the gaming industry needs more of.

      There’s so much… anti-intellectuality in the games industry, it’s sometimes like the games industry hates smart people. I’ve been using Skyrim as my beating horse about this lately because it’s a great example. The thing is is that I kind of enjoyed Skyrim, I liked a lot of what I was doing, but all the while I felt I was being punished for ever trying to be intelligent. “You’re a stupid Nord, you’re not supposed to be trying to solve things with reason or without killing.” I felt like Skyrim’s Vash the Stampede.

      This is kind of why I praise Obsidian so much, and I’ll praise Freebird in the same breath.

      I can understand why there’s so much anti-intellectual stuff out there, it’s because people like shutting their minds off and becoming idiots in their games, and that’s fine. But I wish that most of gaming wasn’t like that. Slowly, however, over time gaming is become more intelligent and respectable, but it still has a hell of a long way to go yet. Still, stuff like To the Moon is always a step in a very right direction.

      It’s nice to have a stupid game which you just do stuff in, but there are so many of those, so many incredibly stupid games which encourage you not to think about anything, which urge you turn off your imagination and your passions, which would just have you vegetate in front of your screen. You may be ‘entertained,’ but with too much of this I don’t feel particularly stimulated. And I feel that I can be stimulated by games. To the Moon is a proof-of-concept, like Obsidian games, that games can be truly intelligent endeavours.

      In regards to To the Moon… I’d like to see more of this.

  4. stahlwerk says:

    Dear RPS, will you add the tags of the respective games to the calendar entries after a few days or so?

    Also, “to the moon” would be an instabuy, if they only added Mac support. This would be an ideal game for when visiting my parents later in the week, and thats a mac-only household, as is my laptop.

    • Wulf says:

      This isn’t meant as being nasty but an honest suggestion… for some reason, people sometimes take this the wrong way. :|

      Couldn’t you run this in Crossover Office/Wine? Back when I spent a lot of time in Linux, I ran plenty of games like this in wine, and the success rate was surprisingly high.

    • tremulant says:

      Wine is fine when you’re just pirating the thing, but if it’s a game that you’d really like an excuse to pay money for, it just doesn’t feel quite right, somehow. It’s nice when the developers jump through some hoops so we don’t have to, and indies seem to be getting the hang of such things, albeit gradually.
      From a post on their forums it sounds like mac and linux support could turn up at some point next year.

  5. MasterBoo says:

    I absolutely loved To The Moon (and even shed a tear or two), but I don’t consider it as a game (and this is why I find it hard to recommend to it to my friends). I know some people claim that To The Moon could only work as a game, and maybe it’s true, but still, it lacked being a “game” for me.

    Anyway, 5 days to go, what’s left? Magicka, Trine 2, SpaceChem, Deus Ex: HR, Skyrim, Bastion.

    One of them is not going to be chosen (SpaceChem because of the release date confusion, Trine 2 because it was only released 2 weeks ago or Magicka because of its technical problems early on). Personally, I’d neglect Skyrim because of the console-first design.

    Beyond my personal preferences, the RPS GOTY is obviously either Bastion or Skyrim, but I tend to (and want to) believe it’s Bastion.

    • 4026 says:

      Other outside bets: Rock of ages? Bulletstorm? Frozen Synapse?

    • MasterBoo says:

      ARGH!
      I totally forgot Frozen Synapse (50 hours in my Steam). Damnit.
      I bought Rock of Ages out of all the hype, and besides the (sometimes) hilarious cutscenes, the game was bad in my opinion.
      and wasn’t Bulletstorm last year?

    • Oozo says:

      Bulletstorm definitely was this year. And I agree with you re: Rock of Ages: Nice premise, some nice ideas, some laughs.

      But sadly, not very convincing as a game. (I always hoped that they would patch it into more of a challenge… the fundament is there, it just feels unfinished.)

    • Hodge says:

      Here’s the list I’ve been posting/updating each day – it’s pretty much the same as Boo’s at this point. I’m now rooting for Bastion or Frozen Synapse to score #24, even though I still think Skyrim’s infinite dragons will claim the title.

      Most likely:
      Skyrim
      To The Moon
      SpaceChem
      Frozen Synapse
      Bastion
      Human Revolution

      Outside chance:
      Magicka
      The Stanley Parable
      Trine 2
      Gemini Rue
      Rock Of Ages
      Limbo (gotcha – the PC release was this year, I’d forgotten about that)

      Rock Of Ages, was really broken in parts, not to mention the awful boss battles, yet my memories of it are almost all positive ones. I’m hoping it gets a sequel which is basically the same thing but done properly (a la Trine 2?).

    • Just Endless says:

      surprised there’s so many of you who’ve played rock of ages. Played it at PAX, decided it was broken and never touched it again, is it worth a look?

      Also, playing Bastion for the first time right now, and it may well be my game of the year. Beautiful.

    • psycho7005 says:

      ^^ Heres the thing i’ve been saying in almost every one of these, why no Minecraft?

    • Oozo says:

      Because Minecraft was the game of 2010 on RPS, I guess?

    • LuNatic says:

      No love for SPEHS MAHREN? It would certainly make my list.

    • Hodge says:

      Minecraft topped the list last year and I doubt that they’d include it again (but I wouldn’t rule it out entirely).

      Recommend Rock Of Ages? If your initial reaction was negative I’d say skip it, or wait until it’s in a crazy sale/indie bundle. There’s plenty of things wrong with it, so if you’re not sold on the basic premise then you probably won’t have a great time with it.

    • Xocrates says:

      @LuNatic: Given the 2011 crop, SPESS MAHREN was in no way shape or form a contender to GOTY.

      At its best it was a fun Ork stomper, but it never really rose above that.

    • Wulf says:

      I don’t think console-first should be a good reason to discount something, as it’s a realistic design ethos, and frankly I could actually play Skyrim, unlike The Witcher 2, which puts it above The Witcher 2 in my personal list of RPGs. I mean, Skyrim had loads of faults and you’ll hear me complaining about them all the time. One of its biggest is that it expects me to kill 80% of Skyrim to save Skyrim, and that makes me a bad healer. It’s not the way I work. But that it’s a console conversion actually allows me to play it due to it having a reasonably sized UI.

      Usually, this PC Master Race stuff leads to UIs that you need to be some kind of bionic eagle to read, as was true with The Witcher 2. I’m not a fan of that, as a person with accessibility needs. At the very least, if you’re going to do the PC Master Race UI thing, at least make your UI easily modifiable. Well, Skyrim not only didn’t do the PC Master Race UI thing, but it also had a modifiable UI. So it wins on both fronts.

      It can win for everyone, really. SkyUI perfectly fits the role of the PC Master Race UI, so it’s there for people who hate their eyes.

    • psycho7005 says:

      @Oozo and Hodge,

      It was? Ah, i have really shoddy memory, my bad. Tbf i played much more Minecraft before it was actually released than after, which sounds a bit weird. But boy is my face red lol.

      OT: a few people are umm-ing and ahh-ing about Skyrim, but it’s still my favourite for GOTY. For all of its flaws, it still manages to be something special. At least it does for me,

    • KenTWOu says:

      @Wulf
      Well, Skyrim not only didn’t do the PC Master Race UI thing, but it also had a modifiable UI. So it wins on both fronts.

      Witcher Nexus » The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings » User Interfaces
      http://www.witchernexus.com/downloads/cat.php?id=8

  6. JackShandy says:

    Fine, you win, but how do I buy it? The order form thing has paypal logos all over, but I can’t find the button to actually make a paypal transfer whatever.

    Edit: Ok, pootled around the order form a bunch. I don’t have a credit card, I live in australia, I’m definitely not sending the money to America by phone or fax or wire transfer, it seems like there’s no good way for me to get this. Considered just donating money, but there’s no way to do that either. Sorry, Freebird.

    • Tusque D'Ivoire says:

      Desura?

    • Hodge says:

      Gamers Gate have it too, and they have “Credit Card via Paypal” and also an “Australian Payment” option (which sounds intriguing to say the least).

      Failing that, you could try asking on the forums. Some people who’ve mentioned problems with purchasing have received help from the devs.

      Or if you like I could just gift you a copy from Gamersgate.

    • JackShandy says:

      Oh, great, didn’t realise it was available on other sites. Thanks for the offer, Hodge, but I think I want to give these guys some money.

  7. jp0249107 says:

    This game has been a surprise of the year for me. I didn’t even hear about it til this summer bored-ly surfing the web looking for SOMETHING to interest me. The music rocks, the story is amazing and touching, and it deserves a GOTY award in SOME kind of category. If not music then certainly storytelling.

  8. Lambchops says:

    This is a spoiler warning, i’ve put it in bold for all to see, I’ve made it quite long so it doesn’t show up in the sidebar.

    Spoilers

    Spoilers

    And now to quote John

    “We’ve already mentioned that it’s a shame the game thought it necessary to include the silly between-level puzzles, and that entirely out of sorts zombie scene, but there’s something I don’t think we’ve yet properly celebrated: the utter uncertainty throughout the final sequence. I really had no idea which way it was going to turn, who was doing good or ill, where the twists and turns were heading. In fact, I changed my mind about five times, completely sure each time of which way things were heading. What a rare and special treat that is – to genuinely not know which way a story is going in a game.

    i loved the game but this is one area where I disagree with you John. I didn’t like the zombie bit not because it was an incogruous action sequence but because it was pretty much the only time I felt the game resorted to a cheap trick and this is tied in to the uncertainity thing. To this gamer at least the section seemed like a cheap magic trick style distraction. I was already seeing things from Neil’s viewpoint and thinking “I have t stop this, it doesn’t seem fair or right to replace River with Joey” to me that section was there to reinforce that viewpoint and also to distract the gamer from thinking about how else things might turn out by occupying their thoughts with menial tasks. About halfway through I suddenly realised how the game would end (so I wasn’t going through the same uncertainty as John) and that the whole sequence was a distraction and it kind of lessened the impact of the end of the game somewhat, particularly when compared to how well that excellent reveal that is the bit of the game that also made me tear up a bit was done.

    End of spoilers

    Still nitpicking about that section aside it was indeed a wonderful game. Funny, emotional a great tale well told with some fantastic music and suprisingly effective sprite art. Everyone should try it.

  9. Fetthesten says:

    Actually bought this yesterday and played a little over an hour, and while I like the atmosphere, the graphics, the music and the plot, there are a few things that bug me. First of all, the engine is pretty shoddy. Click across a room to make your characters walk there, and they stop dead because they walked across a couple of steps and suddenly forgot where they were going. I had to constantly take roundabouts to where I wanted my characters to go, because they inexplicably walked down dead ends and refused to move on to their destination. I clicked on hotspots a little distance away from the characters, and they responded as if I’d clicked on the hotspot they were standing right next to, needing some additional coaxing to explore what I wanted them to. Still, that’s just an annoyance and nothing major.

    Second gripe: The writing. Again, the plot intrigues me, and I appreciate the same things both John and Adam point to, but there are too many sloppy spelling errors. Also, while Kan Gao obviously has a good grasp of storytelling techniques and pacing, his formal language skills seem a little… unpolished, so to say. I’m referring to slang terms and alternate spellings like “ya” instead of “you”, terms that seems inappropriate for the characters who use them. It’s fine when little kids speak in juvenile slang terms, but I find it jarring when adult characters use them too. And seriously, what’s the deal with the quotation marks bookending every single line of speech? It’s not a novel.

    Still: The atmosphere, themes and plot structure seem unique and well-crafted enough that I’m going to play it to completion, it’s just that with the praise the writing especially received on RPS I wasn’t expecting the first impression I got.

    PS: Also, I’ve already cried at one point during my one hour of play. A beautiful piano melody like the one in To The Moon is pretty much guaranteed to make me well up.

    • Wulf says:

      You’re overlooking that it had a more storybook style to it rather than one based upon reality, so the dialogue style actually worked for it in that regard. I think that this is something you’ll either get, or you won’t, or something that will dawn on you later because of SPOILERS.

      Really though, I think it works. And entertainingly, I’ve seen this opinion before, and those with it change it after they’ve gotten so far into the game. I’m not saying that you’ll think it’s the greatest thing ever, I’m just saying that there are reasons that the game goes the way it does.

      And in the end, you’ll either like what it’s doing, or… you will not. And that’s up to you.

  10. Hodge says:

    I only got around to playing To The Moon last week, and it is indeed quite extraordinary. I don’t think it is quite as brilliant as others do, partly because the overall tone was a bit too saccharin for my tastes, and partly owing to those two abysmal action sequences (and pretty awful controls in general). Oddly, the square-flipping puzzles never bothered me.

    But the writing? Superb. You know how you’ve got a list of people whose work you’ll purchase sight unseen, based solely on the strength what they’ve done before? For game devs, Kan Gao just made my list.

    Just out of interest, I’m pretty sure the A-word was never mentioned in my play-through. Maybe its appearance depends on dialogue choices.

    • Wulf says:

      I kind of liked the square flipping puzzles… perhaps though it was because I’m good at them, and I never failed to get them in the required amount of moves, which meant that I quickly progressed past every puzzle in a matter of a few clicks.

      I used to play with sliding puzzles as a kid, loved the things back then, and this doesn’t work on an entirely different premise.

  11. Grape says:

    I liked Adam’s take on it. John’s made me roll my eyes and sigh, as allways.

    • Wulf says:

      John’s one of the few writers who doesn’t get that response from me.

      We seem to be exact opposites, we should probably never come in contact with each other or we’d make the Universe explode! Or something.

      (Though I do like Adam’s writing, I’ll admit. I just like John’s more.)

  12. Faldrath says:

    It’s my game of the year, and one of the few games I’ve been trying to get everyone I care about to play, gamers and non-gamers alike.

  13. TheWhippetLord says:

    Going through To The Moon was something that I found very moving, so much so that I ended up not caring whether it was a ‘proper’ game or not (and I’m normally the snooty kind of person who resents console ports etc. ) The portrayal of the effects of A-word on relationships is certainly the most true-feeling I’ve seen in any medium that I can think of. And as an A-wordie(?) this kind of thing has a resonance with me. It’s real enough that this is not a game to play when you feel sad.

    A-word isn’t mentioned as far as I can see but N-word is, which is only used in comparison with A-word and other-A-word.

    Now you’ve made me cry again, you heartless fiends. :P

    • Skabooga says:

      For those who haven’t yet played the game, the N-word referred to above isn’t the one you’re probably thinking of right now.

  14. japstersam says:

    I loved To The Moon, it really struck a chord with me. I thought it was excellent, I completely stopped caring what the graphics (or lack thereof) looked like after about 2 minutes and I was just enthralled with the story. I emplore everybody to play it!

    Also, I know it doesn’t have any bearing on the game, but a quick side note….I had a slight issue with the serial number when I bought my copy and had to write to Kan (the guy who made the game) asking for a new one, and not only did he reply within about 2 minutes, he sent a couple of emails back and forth and seems like a genuinely very nice bloke.

    Also, because this is my first ever post on RPS, even though I read it all the time, I want John or Adam somebody to say hello to me, it always makes me excited when I look through the comments and see the little pink parts.

  15. Meat Circus says:

    Whilst I (rather irrelevantly claim) this is barely game, it’s an extraordinarily moving narrative experience.

  16. bhlaab says:

    Just want to remind everybody that Modern Warfare 3 is an “un-game”

    • outoffeelinsobad says:

      I cried at MW3, and I didn’t even play it!

    • bhlaab says:

      I cried at an advertisement for the local grocery store, so I can confirm a Total Art happened there.

    • JackShandy says:

      A Total Art, this far from the summer equinox?! How did you survive tears of that magnitude?

  17. New Player says:

    Now I’ve played the one hour demo, and I think it was enough. The idea of course is nice, but the dialog is surprisingly weak, chatty and with shallow attempts at humour (with totally unfitting eyewinks to internet “memes”) and I found myself clicking through most of it (I read anything important at a glance). Overall, Chulhu Saves The World might still be better written (not structurally but mood-wise – altough it’s nothing special, of course). The music is well-intentioned (“classical” romantic JRPG) but simply not that good and ends up being annoying and overly sweet. But I don’t want to say it’s a bad project, it just didn’t strike me as talented enough, but merely a good idea by an average indie developer team. I wouldn’t pay 10€ for this, as I also wouldn’t buy a book or DVD that convinces me so little (a fair comparison that is completely forgotten in the cheap game sectors).
    Nevertheless, I’d wish there would be more games like this as it’s still a good storytelling vehicle and I find myself craving for this classical, elegant “console” atmosphere, instead of all these ironic, technical and simple games (and Hollywood blockbusters).