Aesthetic choices in video games end up, for obvious reasons, provoking strong opinions. Not that it is always healthy to compare these two mediums, but this is another area where literature and digital media part ways. Interface plays a big part in user experience in video games, many of which take up more than ten of hours of a player’s time, and lead to extensive interaction with an interface. Unpleasant interfaces mean unpleasant user experience means decreased attention span means less interest in the story that it being told. Yes, certain games operate on unpleasant interfaces, such as problem attic, and promote meaning by way of frustration or anger induced in the consumer by way of the unpleasant interface. But the tricky part is how do you simultaneously make the player angry at the game, yet interested enough in the game to continue to play long enough to understand the authorial intent in making the player angry in the first place. For a game like problem attic, it is one thing to have a class of students who are required to defeat this game get the larger message, but for the independent gamer – the audience that game designers are probably trying to gain access to – this negotiation between unpleasant interface and artistic meaning becomes a tricky one.
So we come to this game reviewer’s critique of To The Moon. He complains that it’s too simple, and why settle for simple aesthetic choices, right? Wrong. Although certain players might be turned off by the simple graphics, anyone who is playing To The Moon for the story (which is probably the majority of players, considering it is a game with exactly zero in terms of challenging gameplay) should not care all that much that the graphics are not on the level of COD or Assassin’s Creed, and if anything should be looking at these graphics as another symbolic gesture on the part of the designer. Considering the scale of this digital narrative, To The Moon’s designers were probably pretty limited in what they could do with graphics anyways. This game is supposed to be set in the future, and developing an interface that looks futuristic and not cheesy would be tricky, especially if the developers wish to make a game with any sort of longevity. This same premise of surface-level simplicity with under-the-hood complexity has allowed Dwarf Fortress to stay looking more or less the same for the last ten years. In To The Moon, the pixelated graphics allow the designers to skimp on detailed designs for the technologically advanced mind-travel machine, the vehicles of the future, and the tricky facial isometrics that can pop the balloon of realism in low budget story based games. We are given a single dose of manga style, more detailed graphics, when River and Johnny sit and look at the moon after they first meet each other at a carnival. This unexpected dose of smooth animation drives home this snippet as a central plot point, and gives another rationalization for the pervasive pixelated style.