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.