How many times have you been emotionally moved by a piece of entertainment? For me, that'd be hard to fathom. As an overly sentimental Irishman, I've watched myself - in amazement - be moved by films I wasn't even enjoying. In some cases, I wasn't even watching the damned thing! But suddenly I hear the roar of strings, I look up, I'm greeted by the sappy face of some sappy actor looking especially sappy and the chills run from my damned legs to the top of my head. It's ridiculous.
But I like to think I can separate the good from the bad. Granted, I'm lenient with great pieces of entertainment which dabble in the art of sentimental infusion — like any of Aaron Sorkin's work — but I like to think I'm accomplished at never letting these cheap tactics cloud my vision and determine the overall product's worth, even if my body surrenders almost immediately.
There's a little game from 2011 that knows the tricks of the trade really well, but holy shit is it brilliant.
Get Ready To Cry: 2011's Indie Masterpiece, To The Moon
While To The Moon may borrow some of cinema's most emotionally manipulative tactics it's inherently a video game; one that celebrates the art form's legacy. The creator of To The Moon, Kan Gao, consciously channels the Square RPGs of the 16-bit era, most notably Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana. But the game also challenges how we think about interactive medium. In fact, you barely even play To The Moon.
"The design philosophy was simple; to create a 'game' that takes the player through a story in the form of an an immersive interactive show."
- Kan Gao on the game's website
And what is this "immersive interactive show" about, you may ask? That's where the emotions come in.
A Little Context
Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts arrive at the coastal villa of the dying Johnny Wyle. They work for a company by the name of Sigmund Corp., which uses a technology that can create artificial memories. This service is used for those on their death bed in order to grant them their dying wish.
For example, If you were about to die and wished that you'd gone on a really successful date with Rihanna, doctors like Eva and Neil could insert themselves into an interactive compilation of your memories and create a new memory which features you and Rihanna on an awesome date. Well, John doesn't want to go on a date with Rihanna. He wants to go to the moon. The only problem is he doesn't know why.
Thus, Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts are tasked with traveling further and further back into this man's memories in order to uncover the reason as to why this is his dying wish and then fulfill it. On an average playthrough this journey lasts about 4 hours, during which time you'll see a video game broach the topics of mental health, the infallible nature of memory and the complex and sometimes painful relationships we humans form with one another. There are no alternative endings, there's no fighting system and no character progression - just the story of John and his late wife River, who suffered from Asperger's Syndrome.
Should Video Games Make Us Cry?
I'll keep my discussion of To The Moon spoiler free - we can talk about the plot in another space. But it's important that games like Kan Gao's are recognized and examined.
Current video games are more often that not emotionally barren. Lore is frequently disinteresting, cinematics are disengaging, characters and dialogue are stilted and often fail to discuss anything even remotely relatable. Such was my general understanding of video games (and I still loved them) that experiences like To The Moon represented a kind of awakening. I sought out other similar video games and desired to play those that challenged the status quo that pervades AAA game development.
What you come to realize is that video games have been touching our hearts for decades, you just need to know where to look.
To The Moon examines the isolating, meaningful and potentially toxic marriage between John and River, who you can see above. Very early on in the game we realize how unhappy this marriage was in its latest years and we're forced to travel back through it knowing of the heartbreak that ultimately envelopes it.
We see the couple's hopeful youth, times where they overcame adversity and eventually how they first met. All of it feels tainted because of what we know. Memory becomes a character in To The Moon; one that causes pain and distrust. You'll start to dislike that you remember what happens to River and John and it's one the game's greatest strengths.
Even though you don't really play To The Moon, Gao balances lengthy conversations, short moments of control and a few gameplay sections where you'll be required to collect items from the environment.
The gameplay is almost a narrative pause. While you play you can digest everything you've uncovered, take in the environments and wonder about what the next memory holds in store. It never feels intrusive, difficult or poorly designed. It simply tries to make you actively engaged with the story, so that this eventually happens.
It's blindingly obvious that Kan Gao wants to make us cry with To The Moon, the music consistently reinforces this point. I mean, just listen to this overtly cheesy soundtrack!
But it all comes back to my original discussion.
Is To The Moon undeservedly manipulating us into caring for its characters with emotional dialogue, music and other tricks? I in no way believe that it is. It's a carefully directed work that explores something we can all relate to. It challenges the conventions of video game narratives and design, and it's a special little indie title that celebrates the medium's ability to connect and move us in truly unique ways.
If you've yet to play To The Moon, it's a wonderful treat that you'll no doubt enjoy revisiting throughout your life. Just get ready for those tears.