Many have written about the form of To the Moon, specifically wondering why it’s composed as an RPG, when it could have been a film, graphic novel, television series, or any number of other storytelling media. I have no doubt the creators of To the Moon considered their genre carefully, but more than that, I think they’ve pushed the boundaries and conventions of RPGs.
Early on, To the Moon acknowledges its RPGs. It explicitly invokes role-playing early on in Act 1, when the kids tell Dr. Rosalene (or whomever the player chooses to play) that they role-play to overcome their fears in the dark. Eager to play along with them, Dr. Rosalene initiates a combat scene with a squirrel. The music changes, and health bars pop up for each of the characters on screen. Then there’s an awkward moment. The kids say, Um, we don’t do that. It’s just a squirrel, they explain. In an instant, the game establishes the nature of its particular genre: it’s not a combat-based RPG system, but rather a game where role-playing takes on the kids’ story-based definition of the term. This was the moment that signaled to players that the game sought to create different conventions for the RPG genre.
On the blog and in class, many have commented that To the Moon had disappointing game mechanics and relatively meaningless interactivity – meaning the few choices players can make throughout the game do not have significant consequences or lead to changes in the storyline. But can we say that conventional RPGs provide more meaningful interactivity? I should note that the only experience I’ve had with other RPGs comes from the Pokemon games, and the overview from the in-class presentation. From them, it seems RPGs are often characterized by third-person, turn-based combat, and fairly linear narratives. Players often have to level-grind, a tedious exercise that only feels meaningful because of the win-lose stakes built into the game. Though players may choose where to go, who to train, and who to fight for them, the story moves forward on its pre-coded path. In fact, the players take part in combat in order to make their way through the story. To the Moon, on the other hand, replaces these combat sequences with memory links. There’s less customization, to be sure. They feel a little gimmicky, and the science behind the game never seems fully convincing. You can never lose the game, but the stakes of losing or winning are replaced by the stakes of the story, and the stakes of altering Johnny’s memories. To the Moon purposefully removes layers of interactivity to fully engage players with its intricate plot, setting them on a linear path much like those common among conventional RPGs.
That said, To the Moon doesn’t simply attempt to remove gameplay as a key element of its composition; it uses a minimalized form of gameplay to better tell the story. I appreciate @gusmosse‘s interpretation of the gameplay’s function: that its repetitive, mundane nature gestures towards the equally repetitive and mundane elements of Johnny’s real life. I think gameplay also serves another function – spatial representation. By embedding Johnny’s memories in a series of walled rooms or buildings, we receive a spatial representation of his memories, and more broadly, of memory itself. The RPG genre serves this purpose wonderfully, giving us an aerial view of various spaces. This effect is most powerful when Dr. Watts and Dr. Rosalene are severed from Johnny’s earlier memories, before the death of his twin brother. More than just placing players within a space, the game forces players to navigate these spaces. In almost every “level,” players must explore the space of the entire memory to recover all the links and move on to the next memory. In that sense, the game calls into question how memory is constructed, and how we construct spaces around critical memories.
To the Moon’s genre is one I would love to explore more, and am still baffled by in many ways. How did others interpret the importance of fairly limited gameplay? How did others see the game mechanics contributing to the story or to the concept of memory?