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19-12-2011, 09:16 PM #1
To The Moon rant [BIG OLE SPOILERS]
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)
19-12-2011, 09:38 PM #2
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19-12-2011, 09:41 PM #3
19-12-2011, 10:14 PM #4
Good post. Agree with bits (that nobody told him about his brother was daft) but apart from where it falls apart somewhat at the end I was less bothered by the way the narrative unfolds.
I felt the pace of the gradual reveals and unravelling of the past was fairly well judged and kept me intruiged throughout, without every feeling that the writer was bombarding me with loads of information in an attempt to confuse me into not realising the eventual outcome of the narrative (for me the film Seven Pounds is a prime example of this being done horribly badly, the first 20 monutes seemed for me to be an exercise purely in confusing the viewer to obfuscate the outcome of the film and preserve the intended emoptional impact of the film. I figured it out half an hour before the end and was then interminably bored while waiting for the pay off, making the whole thing just not worth it. I can totally understand if you have similar feelings towards To the Moon, but for me the early part of it worked perfectly, not so much the end section after the rabbit reveal, but i was prepared to forgive that as I really enjoyed the game).
and yet they got married and lived together and never once sought counselling or help.
So yeah it has got its flaws and you do a good job of pointing out some of them and yes we should ask for better. However, there's not neccesarily anything wrong with going for the emotional response, not enough games try it and this game (for me) succeeds. For that and the well written characters and the music and the art and the fact I found it a thoroughly intriguing experience I'm willing to look past it's flaws and put it up there as one of my games of the year.
To end on a negative note the very end was bollocks wasn't it? Red screen flash, the whole "is this a trip altering Neil's memories?" implication. Didn't like it at all, the concept was strong enough on it's own without having to introduce what is essentially a hackneyed "is it just a dream?" moment. If they do a sequel and expand on that there going to have to do something special to impress me! Hopefully they do, I'd quite happily go on another trip through someone's memories with Neil and Eva, especially if the gameplay is refined (whether by feeling more detective like or paring it down further, I'm not sure i'm entirely averse to the interactive movie way of doing things for something like this).
Apologies if this is rambly, I'm pretty tired right now and way too lazy to proof read!
19-12-2011, 10:15 PM #5
19-12-2011, 10:35 PM #6
19-12-2011, 10:38 PM #7
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Does this game rely on fancy music to get you all emotional at story-appropriate moments?
19-12-2011, 10:46 PM #8
19-12-2011, 10:46 PM #9
I woudln't say it relies on it but gosh darn it does use it! It uses it fairly well, changing throughout according to mood and it does go for the strings at the heartwrenching moments . . . but I only ever found it overly cloying with the sung bit (it was a nice enough song but perhaps a bit too much). The main theme is charming in its simplicity.
i would hasten to add that I tend to be pretty immune to the whole backing music for emotional impact thing, I'm much more prone to getting shivers down my spine when I'm actually concentrating on the music.
19-12-2011, 10:50 PM #10
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Try playing it with the sound muted. Games like this tend to lose all their charm without music.
20-12-2011, 02:56 PM #11
this while reading your posts Wizardry.
I haven't been at To the Moon because it looked a bit game-lite. I also don't mind spoilers since I value how a story is told over what its twists are. My question is thus: Does it just load on the sudden twists as you've described? It sounds like a soap opera.
"A victory so bitter it would be better we had not won," --General Transh
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20-12-2011, 03:25 PM #12
I didn't find the twists to just be so 'sudden'. A lot is hinted and set up before the twist is explictly given and I found it possible to see where it was going. I very much enjoyed the storyline and found it to be quite moving but only really at one point. This was, admitedly, where the music kicked in but I will hold that it would've impacted me the same regardless of soundtrack. I don't feel it played me for cheap tricks, it caused me to reflect inwardly for awhile afterward on that scene which is more than any other game has achieved, ever.
The problem is, I don't think it's fair to call it a game. Mechanically it's probably the worst game I've ever played. It was definately a one-play as well.
But I don't think I wasted my money.
20-12-2011, 03:27 PM #13
There are a couple of twists. From what I remember at least one of them requires you to remember how important origami rabbits were. That was the one that made me lose my shit right then and there. I guess I tend to lavish praise on something that evokes emotion from me since I mostly play emotionless strategy games or only feel rage during man-shooters. So when a game makes this heartless kitten-drowning conservative Christian feel any emotion at all, it's a miracle.
I think that's probably why I think the laughing scene from FFX was GOOD. It was a moment of goofiness and hope in the middle of a serious bunch of revelations. I'm sappy though so I totally understand if someone thinks To The Moon is hamfisted and cheesy. I still cried three times and my wife thinks its an amazing game. We're both anxiously awaiting the next episode.
20-12-2011, 03:37 PM #14
Avert your ears, mortals. - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5FTJxfV3pc
[Sorry dude, don't hate me but your disclosure broke a part of my brain. To each their own I suppose! ;D]
20-12-2011, 04:11 PM #15
What I mainly had a problem with was that the story was being told in reverse chronological order. The plot develops by travelling ever further back through Johnny's memories. That's a great setup, but it means the nature of the twists are different to, well, the stereotypical soap opera "Oh Sandra left Tony! Why? Because...she's pregnant! And now wait, there's something about this baby, what is it? It's that...he's got red hair! Is Paddy O'Shea the father?!" nonsense.
Imagine trying to tell that story the other way around, from the end->beginning. It wouldn't be compelling, it wouldn't work. It's artificial.
To The Moon's got to be praised for its setup. It's a great idea to tell a story the way it does. But its big flaw is its failing to properly deal with its own setup, i.e. that its twists are set in the past, not the future. Twists must have a consequence on the future in order to be valuable. If the soap-opera above sent the baby away and saw Tony forgive Sandra within the episode, that's cheap and meaningless and absurd.
But To The Moon's consequences on the future are actually consequences on its own storytelling past.
You can't show us a married couple, and have a scene set years earlier where the wife is ill, and then travel even further back and declare the 'illness' to be, in fact, a diganosis of autism, and not be forced to rewrite the nature of that first scenario. This twist happened earlier in time, of course the future was affected by this! Right?
You can't show us a man as an only child, and travel back to the time his twin brother died, and not have to rewrite his entire character to align with that reveal. This happened in his formative years, how was he not formed by it? (Oh, and explaining it by "He was drugged to forget what happened"? There's a term for filling plot holes that way; it's not complimentary.)
The means by which the plot retains interest is soap-opera-ish. It's artificial and too dependent on how the information is revealed to us.
And the consequences of the twists, instead of informing the subsequent events (those set in plot-past but time-future), instead undermines them.
But we've gotta call story-based games out on their shortcomings if we want to see more and better ones in future (I think).
Last edited by Keep; 20-12-2011 at 04:14 PM.
20-12-2011, 04:50 PM #16
I have never cried at a platypus before, and probably never will ever again.
Completely agree that mechanics-wise, the game is not very interesting. However, story-telling-wise, any game/story that can make me cry at a platypus means that I will buy the guy's next game unseen, immediately, on release.
Definitely not money wasted, for me.
20-12-2011, 04:51 PM #17
I think I'm a lot more forgiving (or perhaps have a different perspective) of the plotholes than you are I suppose. The game doesn't really make the ages explicit but I can only say I really remember very little from my early childhood and I can buy into the character not remembering the death due to trauma/drugs at such an age.
The game is essentially about him being aware on a subconscious level that something is wrong/missing in his life and your journey in the game is to figure out what that is. Also, I feel that it isn't weird that nobody mentions the death. Sure, around the time you'll have people saying 'sorry for your loss' etc. but who's really gonna dwell on that with a kid who doesn't even appear to understand the concept of death at the time it happens? Who's going to remind a kid about his dead brother years into the future? Okay, the mother goes a bit (conveniently) mad but it's believable within the context.
These weren't the things that really concerned me though - they were just dressing for the central question over whether sacrificing a life with his wife was viable to give him a life with his brother instead (and made all the more tragic in that he didn't appear to understand her love for him).
That's probably a question which will be more personal for some than others.
The arguments surrounding this point from the doctors at that point of the plot are quite thought provoking (even if Eva appears, briefly, to be coldly corporate in her statements). I'd have been amazed if the game had ended there on such a bleak note but I won't hold it against it that it went for warm and fuzzy even if it became a bit contrived at that stage. There's also the meta question over whether any of that REALLY matters, residing entirely in the mind of dying man?
I will agree with your points on how the narrative mechanics for how the story is told, though. Unfortunately the nature of the way it unfolds is only really going to work the once for me. As much as I enjoyed it I can't say that I'm clamouring for another installment and the 'epilogue' bit of the ending was a cheap shot that didn't pay off.
Last edited by FuriKuri!; 20-12-2011 at 04:53 PM.
20-12-2011, 04:59 PM #18
FuriKuri -that's pretty much how I feel about it, if you'd posted first it would have saved me some rambling.
20-12-2011, 05:47 PM #19
I can't disagree with "Would a child that small remember it?" "Would people talk to him about it anyway?"
But we're talking about a story here. In real life, lots of things go unmentioned and unresolved. But in a story, if something goes unmentioned, it's something that just won't come up. Equally, if something is to come up, it needs to get mentioned first.
I feel my problem with stories that do otherwise is a tricky point to elucidate. Let me start off a bit abstract and hope it makes sense:
"Absence" is not the opposite of "presence" in a story. If it's absent, then it doesn't exist. At all. There are no unspoken things in stories. If you want to make something unspoken, then you have to speak about it. You mention how it's not discussed, or you have a character express a desire for they-know-not-what. Or you have significant imagery or plays-within-plays or...
There has to be some mechanism within the story to make the absent present. Otherwise it's not just absent, it's plain non-existent.
That was what really bugged me about the twin. He didn't exist, he didn't exist, he wasn't mentioned, he didn't exist...suddenly Johnny has a twin brother!
I felt like a chessplayer watching someone move a castle diagonally. "You can't do that!"
If it was about him being aware that his life is somehow wrong and trying to figure out why, then why was the brother so non-existent (not just absent) until the end?
Or if the question was "What is the nature of love when based on selfish premises?" -as the early (in time, late in game) confession regards his wife revealed - then why invoke a dead twin brother in order to deal with that?
The real bugbear though is, why did it allow itself to get painted into such a corner? Why did it want to tell that story, and then accept it and end things that way?
20-12-2011, 07:21 PM #20
Honestly I don't think the game was really 'about' the whole autism angle although it was obviously the defining aspect of their relationship (as much as the game went out of its way to hide that). What I got out of it was that the 'to the moon' bit was a desire to return to that perfect time (not place) at the carnival with his mother and brother somewhere in the background and a nice girl he had met.
Ultimately I think the autism angle was to frame the question in a tougher manner, i.e. we are aware from the outside that as broken as it may have seemed the relationship 'worked' and that the greater tragedy was that he didn't seem to see that. Would he have wanted to go to the moon if he was more aware of his wife's feelings?
I'm basically fine with the idea that the death casts a shadow over his life even if he isn't directly aware of it. A man's life is a lot of time to cover and it seems natural to me that there wouldn't be anything around in his later life to link to that event. I've had family members die and outside of what's in my head there's nothing in my house to link me to them at all any more, although that wasn't the case in the past. Perhaps it could've been a bit better signposted but it was ok for me, absence may not be the issue here but overt obliqueness. There are subtle hints throughout the story as to the existence of the brother although granted you're not going to see any of that in the two hours or so of play. Although, I think the mechanics of the game are made pretty clear at the start and hints at childhood trauma right off the bat (which was fine the once but hence why I said I'm somewhat cold to the idea of a sequel).
Outside of all that for a moment, I think the fact that we are even having this discussion reflects quite strongly and favourably on the game. Even if it didn't quite work for you when was the last time you ever discussed a game's storyline at such length? Even if the flaws weren't that bad for me it's good to read well argued discourse on this so thanks for that!