If Steam Community were a box of tissues, it’d better be a huge one, as it would have to wipe away tears of at least 20010 gamers. To the Moon receives a 10 on Steam, and 20010 positive reviews against 599 negative ones. Its primary focus is the narrative: two doctors rebuild Johnny’s fragmatic and sad memory about him and his late wife, River, and make Johnny believe that he lives happily with River, and goes to the moon together. Most of the Steam reviewers mention how great the narrative is and how the plot and music make them cry (a lot and over and over again). “One of the most emotional games you’ll ever play,” the most “helpful” reviews on Steam says so. Why To the Moon is so touching and empathetic?
When I played To the Moon, it evoked a strong sense of familiarity. The themes and motifs of To the Moon seem rather common, if not cliche: a special piece of memory that never comes back to you, a late wife whose life wish is never realized, a twin brother who has died young and whose death has a pathetic impact on you, a broken childhood promise, re-encountering the woman you met once at 7 years old and marrying her, animal toys as a symbol, Asperger syndrome, and (seriously) a memory-rebuilding company called Sigmund.
A melodramatic fiction, film or video game often piles up rare motifs. In To the Moon, it involves car accident, weird medicine that hurts Johnny’s memory, childhood experience, extreme obsession with a small and overly romantic promise made in childhood at a carnival. In other words, all the pathetic dramas fall upon one single person. He suffers from something unreal. His suffering is a fantasy in disguise.
When I say “familiarity,” I mean the similarity between the narrative in To the Moon and those in a great number of Korean melodramas. I grew up in China hearing people around talk about Korean melodramas all the time since K-Pop was/is very dominant in China. Plot devices, such as memory loss, diseases, car accident and twin sister/brother, are often adopted in those tear-jerking soap operas. Here are some classic examples:
Autumn in My Heart: touching childhood memory; female protagonist suffering from Leukemia.
Stairway to Heaven: childhood sweethearts; amnesia caused by car accident.
Who Are You: School 2015: twin sisters as protagonists; amnesia caused by a suicide attempt.
Good Doctor: Asperger syndrome; photographic memory.
Most reviewers are attracted to the narrative in To the Moon, and they empasize the fact they cry for the story.
“I cried. And you’ll cry.” Reviews like this one is not unusual. From the online community, It seems that whoever plays To the Moon should cry; otherwise, you are a cruel, and coldhearted human being. One of the negative reviews address such concern:
Not only on Steam, players who posted walkthrough videos on YouTube also cry on the screen, and “cry” even appear in the titles of such walkthroughs.
In this walkthrough, a man plays and comments on the game, and a woman is crying. Kind of strengthening a stereotype that women are more sensitive and more drawn to melodramas.
It seems crying for a melodrama becomes an obligation for the players, and those who have cried are superior to those who have not. Sharing such emotional status online makes crying a collective action.
Back to the “memory loss” in To the Moon. In this quarter, we have played a number of games related to memory, such as Her Story, Gone Home, and Braid. “Memory” seems to become not only a trope in literature and film, but also video games. However, the challenge for game developers is how to be creative when you talk about memory or memory loss? Even the very possibility of doing anything creative and original with memory in cinema, literature, and video games.