Ah'm a curmudgeonly old bastard. I read today's Game of Christmas and John's last sentence made me grumble.
Let me lay out my stance: I did not like To The Moon.
And it's gotten to the stage where I have to vent because I don't think this is good storytelling and it depresses me to see it so lauded (On the other hand, it is better at story than a lot of other games at, especially with its real, get-to-know-able main characters. But 'better' =/= 'good'.)
Here's what annoyed me:
1. The Story
It was twee. It was shallow. It wasn't knowingly cynical, but by God was it manipulative. The story had no purpose beyond tugging at your emotional heart strings.
The writer wanted you to feel sad at how sad the sad story was (it was sad).
And that's fine - a good blub is often a sign of a good story - except that this wasn't a good story. There was no ingenious plotting or meaningful developments. There was no reflection on love or old age or any of the topics it ventured into. There was no insight, no carrying around the thoughts of the game afterward with your perspective affected by it.
It was just a push for an auld cry. No significance, no depth. And because of that focus (or lack of it), it didn't make me teary at all. It felt childish, like a kid at a fire-camp thinking his story is scary because he keeps pointing out how impossible a mundane explanation must be.
Let me try and get into some details to explain myself: the plot depended a lot on its withholding certain information from you in order to unfold. It didn't do so in an organic way, by having new characters or scenarios come to reveal some further insight. No, it was deliberately obtuse, unhelpful, avoidant. Characters talking archly about River's "problem" for example, or Eva announcing she now "gets" what's going on, but refusing to reveal what "it" is, the script perpetually picked its path in a way that determinedly ensured your frustrated curiosity was prolonged...but it was all artificial and needless. There was no in-universe reason for why things came to light as they did; only the dictatorial hand of the writer contriving to mask some bits, misrepresent others.
What could have been fascinating - travelling back through memories to understand the significance of various trinkets and relationships - became an exercise in controlling impatience. It was obvious what you needed to know; it was obvious what you needed to do in order to learn it. But you did not have the opportunity as a player to find this out on your terms. You were hamstrung by the game's desire to control the pacing.
Consider the meeting with the doctor - more oblique references to a "condition" were made, but there absolutely no need for the situation to be obscure from the player's point of view. We could tickle a memory from five minutes earlier! Or pick up the case files on the desk! Or do any one of a number of actions in order to figure it out yourself, instead of listening to obscure phrasings and a crowing Eva figure it out.
After a while, the whole game started to collpase under the weight of such contrivances. I wasn't witnessing the regression of a man to a boy to a child, as each interaction that had changed him came undone. I was listening to a forced explanation of how things got to be this way, a particular type of blinkered logic that shut out all notions of alternate developments, realism or common sense be damned.
Nowhere was this more apparent than the shocking twist! when Johnny's brother was introduced. What a backfire of an attempt at storytelling.
Now see, I've heard a good rule - mainly in the context of murder mysteries - but I think it holds for story-telling generally: 'Never introduce a hitherto-secret twin'.
Oh you can have twins, that's fine. But not secret ones. Never. Because that gambit doesn't reveal a new story to the reader, but only rob him of the old one.
That's exactly the bombshell To The Moon drops though. And not only that, but it piles on tragedy, for see the twin died while only a child! Ah, alas alack! And Johnny was forced to forget all this, all his life, oh my tears!
No! Look: the consequences of that can't have been what the game told us they were. The consequences should've been enormous, impossibly weighty, on Johnny's life. His mother musta been commitably lunatic to react as she did! His whole town must've formed a conspiracy to keep it all hush hush from him. His friends, his girlfriend, everyone he regarded as close, must've been continually consciously hiding it from him, and for no discernable reason either. And there's no way he wouldn't have found himself haunted by the trauma, beta-blockers be damned.
But no. All that, casually dismissed. Because it's not where our attention is wanted.
Similar logic-implosions happen with the reveal of River's condition. The implications are huge, and deeply troubling: that Johnny dated her, that he - there's no other word for it - abused her as he did, that she was so shut off from him that she never mentioned their true first meeting and yet they got married and lived together and never once sought counselling or help.
That is some twisted dark shit!
But the world that we first entered, and all along as we travelled back through it, never seemed to recognise its true state of affairs, even though it bloody well should've because it was made clear from its chronologically earliest moment that this is how things were.
Here's another example of some frightening truths lying underneath the surface: River is simultaneously portrayed as different and an outcast and in need of care and medical attention, and yet also as pretty and marriageable and loveable.
I don't mean to say autism means you aren't marriagable or lovable. Don't read that into me, hey. What I'm pointing out is, when a story sets a character up as being caught between two identities like that, well that's something that's got to be explored. But it isn't.
And the unspoken implications are really really dark, and running completely counter to the story the game is trying to tell you.
That's the core of what I disliked. The story continually reframed what the situation was, but never acknowledged this, being so focussed on piling on pathos and emotion that it didn't recognise the consequence of what it was saying in the first place.
It became obvious that River's autism, Johnny's twin brother, the characters and situations and developments, were all only in the story as devices, not things unto themselves. They were mere onion under those tear ducts.
I really disliked that. I didn't like how the story unfolded so artificially, unfairly; I didn't like how its plot twists had no genuine ramifications for the actual plot; I didn't like how there was no meaning to the world except to set you up for one particular story that could only be viewed from one particular angle; I didn't like how it then played up a saccharine, meaning-void ending that's purpose is to elicit no deeper a thought than "D'awwww".
It toyed with its own concepts, with its players emotions, with real world ideas and touchstones...just to make you go "D'awww".
That is not good writing.
2. The Gameplay
There were absurd, contextless, between-level puzzles. There was pointless (utterly pointless) item-finding. 'Item-clicking' really, my mistake. There was the nonsense challenge of the memory implantation game (being 1. not a challenge at all, and 2. devoid of any semblance of logic).
And that was all there was to it insofar as being a game went. You weren't a detective, figuring out clues. You weren't an investigator, or a problem solver, or in any meaningful way a participant at all in this game. You weren't ever taxed or puzzled. I clicked through it without even needing to engage. For all the effect my actions were significant to the world, there may as well have just been a "Continue" button.
So I cannot understand how people could've liked this game, except that our diet of story is so deprived that even something as clunky and overwrought as this can be considered nourishing. For Christ's sake though, we can do better! We can do a lot better.
(Although, I will gladly admit: yes, the two main characters are very well written. It gets a bit urrr toward the end, but just to have two people such as them - a human relationship, unique and alive - was, yes, very good indeed)