To the Moon and Interactivity

I talked in one of the last blog posts I wrote about making interactive stories and a few of my thoughts on how they work. I mentioned, in that post, about the game ‘To the Moon’, which is one of my favourite games, along with its sequel, ‘Finding Paradise’.

Side note, it’s not going to be something I go into deeply, but ‘To the Moon’ and ‘Finding Paradise’ are among a category of games, and media in general, but mostly I find games fall into this category, of ‘could talk all day about how they did things wrong, but would fight anyone who suggested they were bad experiences’. RiME also falls into this category for me, for reference. Often the problem is pacing – I thought that ‘To the Moon’ in particular had very clunky pacing towards the end, along with some other minor things. It’s not even that I think the rest of the game balances out these grips, I think I just have a real soft spot for little games with big hearts that almost but not quite got it right. Maybe I’ll write a dissection post on that later. But now that we’ve got that out of the way – back to the actual point of this game.

To the Moon’ is the sort of game that gets a lot of people using the phrase “it’s barely a game” – in the sense of ‘the gameplay is trivial’. For those who haven’t played it, and no spoilers here, the actual gameplay is basically a hidden object game – you find certain items in the environment of each ‘level’ (although I feel more natural referring to them as ‘scenes’ and will do so for the rest of the post), and you use them all on a specific other item that you find, and by doing so you progress to the next area/cutscene. The objects are not difficult to find – most of the time, the biggest danger you’ll face in terms of not finding things is if you didn’t realise there was another area in the scene to explore. There’s also a very basic puzzle when you’ve found all of the items; they don’t take long to solve or much effort (and I’m a person who sucks at puzzles so that’s saying something).

Of course, if you’re playing a game like ‘To The Moon’, you’re not really playing it for the gameplay. Old RPGs had a similar thing – people put up with clunky mechanics, especially strange fighting interfaces, so that they could get to the plot. It’s not new to have a game with either strange interface and mechanics or trivial difficulty and still get people to play it because they liked the plot.

But it also means the gameplay isn’t so rewarding. It’s not like a AAA game with cutscenes and a strong plot (say, the ‘Uncharted’ series, for argument’s sake), where the plot might be what you remember most from the game, but there was still a sense of accomplishment to finishing the fighting and parkour sequences. You still had the feeling of solving a puzzle or executing on a strategy well. ‘To the Moon’ isn’t like that – there’s no sense of accomplishment when you find all the objects – you’re mostly just glad that you’re going to be able to get to more plot.

Nor do you have much control over that plot. There are a couple of scenes where you’re able to make dialogue choices, but they largely don’t impact the progression of the plot at all – they might affect a line or two afterwards, but they aren’t exactly meaningful choices.

Good news is, we’ve already got a medium that is all cutscene and plot, with no trivial mechanical or gameplay aspects! It’s called ‘film’ and we’ve been making them for way longer than we’ve been making video games. If ‘To the Moon’s (I regret using the formal inverted commas for the title now because possessives are extremely clunky but soldiering on) gameplay doesn’t add to the story and really just delays the part that the player actually wants, then why not cut it out entirely? Surely the story would be better if there were no gameplay, then?

Eehhhh … well, you can already tell from the way I’ve set this up that I’m going to say ‘no’ so I’ll just do that and not go through the whole performance of pretending you didn’t see this coming.

I tried thinking about whether I’d watch ‘To the Moon’ as a film. The game itself, according to the Internet, should run for about four hours, maybe four and a half. I can’t remember exactly how much of that is spent looking around areas and finding objects and solving slide puzzles – it’s been a while since I played the game. But my instincts say that if it were a film, you’d definitely be able to cut more than half that runtime. It’d probably even be a short film, not feature-length.

Actually, when writing that paragraph, I was going to make an estimate of how many cutscenes there are versus how much time spent with the player in control of the characters, and I actually didn’t know how to split it up. Main cutscenes versus gameplay, sure, but what about the little cutscenes when you interact with the environment? Sure, most of them are a line at most, and probably don’t count – you click on the jar of olives and the character expresses disgust for olives, for example – but there are some slightly longer ones where you could arguably include them as ‘proper’ cutscenes – rooms in particular areas that you don’t technically have to enter to progress the plot but have some content in them, that sort of thing. Do you include that in the movie or not?

Because let’s face it, while exploration is certainly not a huge part of the game – there are very few true ‘Easter eggs’ in the game, no collectibles, no secret rooms or anything like that. You don’t get a different ending if you find certain hidden items, elements or cutscenes, nor does completing exploration change the story. But the exploration is one of the most engaging parts of it.

After all, ‘To The Moon’ is a game about getting to see another person’s life through their own eyes and experiences, and coming to understand a person through the sum of what they have been. There might not be a lot of tangible benefit to exploring, but the experiential one is crucial. And that’s why the gameplay is crucial to the experience – not because the gameplay itself adds to the story, but because it facilitates the story.

Finding objects indicates to the player, before they get into the story itself, that exploring the area is going to be a good idea. Then, when they get involved in the story, exploring for the hidden objects becomes secondary to exploring just to see what you find. At the beginning of the game, they also set you up with a chance to explore the house, which unlocks some fun interactions with the kids and also lets you examine some things around the house that will give you atmosphere and clues for later. It signals to the player that there may not be a lot of mechanical benefit to exploring, but they’ll enjoy exploring for the fun things they’ll find and the extra story they’ll uncover.

If you tried to include all the details about the Johnny’s life that are in the environment and the exploration of ‘To the Moon’, or about Colin in ‘Finding Paradise’ in a movie, you’d probably be making a movie that was hard to enjoy. If you broke it up into a miniseries, you’d have a more manageable expectation for length, but you’d also have something without any sense of progression to the action and the plot. Not saying that you couldn’t make it into a rambly miniseries or arthouse film, but not many people would watch and enjoy it. And it would be extremely difficult to do so that you still had a sense of structure and pacing. Again, not saying it couldn’t be done, just that you wouldn’t be making a film in the traditional model.

But in a game, players are much more willing to kill multiple extra hours on top of the core plot to explore, especially players for whom a game like ‘To the Moon’ is an appealing concept. If you’re already into playing the game for the plot’s sake, and you already know you don’t care about the minimalistic gameplay, generally you’re also the sort of player that’s interested in spending a bit more time trying to get the most story out of the game possible, so you’re probably willing to spend the time to explore. Even if you’re not the kind of person that’s generally into ‘arty’ games – we all know that big RPGs often have twice to three times the number of hours in side quests as there are in the main plot. Players of games are, generally, willing to forego strict adherence to even a linear plot in order to get the most out of the world of the game, if they’re invested in it.

And of course, the sense of agency that a game gives adds an extra layer to the Big Twist at the end. No spoilers, but it’s two completely different things to watch a movie where a character makes a hard choice and affects someone else’s life, and to be playing a game where you make a hard choice and affect someone else’s life. Not saying that either of those is less powerful, or that movies don’t have emotional impact. Just saying that there are very different emotions associated with those two things, and I think ‘To the Moon’ is a stronger experience because it has that sense of ‘I am doing this’.

I think the strength of the experience in ‘To the Moon’ would be very difficult to translate to a film or miniseries rather than a game. I think it would work – but you’d have to change the focus. The sense of exploring a person that you get from the game wouldn’t translate well, and you’d end up with a movie that focused on the decisions the doctors made, rather than a story that uses the doctors as a vehicle to explore the experience of their patient.

I also think that’s why the cutscenes of a game should not be interchangeable with a movie. I think games are very much steering away from that model, as the medium grows, but I think ‘To the Moon’ is an excellent example of how the presence of gameplay can change the focus and effect of a story, even if the gameplay isn’t mechanically integrated with the story, as seems to be the Golden Wisdom of game development at the moment.

And I definitely think it’s better that ‘To the Moon’ is a game.

Oh, and yes, I’ve seen the release announcement for Impostor Factory and yes, I am Intrigued.

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