To The Moon Play-Along – Act 3

And so, here we are at Act 3 of To The Moon, aka No Wonder the Mom Went Cuckoo and Artificial Drama For the Sake of It.

As predicted in Act 2, we see the last memory from his childhood that was previously blocked and find out the reason for doing so.

While I did not quite consciously pick up on the visual clue of the bunk bed, Eva’s continual pointing out that we missed something at least alerted me to the fact that there was something to miss. By the time it was highlighted that there were too many images of “Johnny” existing in the memory, there being twins had already established itself in my mind. Hearing one of the NPCs say “boys” in plural fashion confirmed it.

The accident itself was… slightly hard to watch, even in pixel form, so that’s probably one of those shared emotional triggers. Mostly I was thinking, “ah, no wonder the mom went nuts, poor woman.”

After that though, the story swerved into the slightly sappy (the Carnival meeting of River and Johnny) and the downright pointless artificial conflict for the sake of the extending the storyline just a little more (the whole Neil-Zombie-Eva sequence). The latter I found utterly excessive, and truly annoying, given the janky controls. More on that later, when we get to the questions.

Then finally, we are asked to watch a big wrap up conclusion sequence that pretty much tied up everything neatly just how the authors planned it, and The End… until the next time (cue spooky red screen flash of pain foreshadowing.)

“Yeah, okay. Glad I got through the game, with the help of the play-along” is mostly my final reaction.

I dunno. I don’t feel like I could relate to any of the characters much, which probably explains the emotional distance. There wasn’t enough time or good player interaction allowed to get into the headspace of any character and immerse and pretend to be viewing things from their perspective.

It mostly felt like a game where one played the camera, watching a whole bunch of external characters interact with each other, in a mundane soap opera (which is also not exactly a genre that sings to me.)

As for games that strive to make you feel unusual emotions, I was already sold on the concept since Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit (back in 2005) and we’ve had plenty of those since.

Heck, Secret of Monkey Island in 1990 was already doing sappy sweet comedy between Elaine and Guybrush (not to mention, I had a big crush on Carla the Swordmaster at the time.)

Grim Fandango in 1998 is probably the only video game in recent memory that actually got tears out of me in a genuine way (the demise of some of the side characters was both noble and sad; and needing to leave friends to move on to something new at the end is bittersweet.)

Things like the Walking Dead’s Season 1 ending with Lee and Clementine don’t count. Those are artificial deliberate manipulations. Little girl. Little girl cries. Little girl faces death and loss. => immediate mirror neurons trigger.

To the Moon, I feel, edges more close to the latter style of game. The plot manipulation is more obvious and clumsy. I mean, the whole musical soundtrack is one big “have feels now” cuecard. The author had a one-track story to tell, we were railroaded as ostensible players through the whole thing with very little input and definitely no say as to how it progressed, your only job is to consume the story as put forth before you, and hopefully, like it.

Still, it’s an indie game, written by one person, made by only a small team (if that) and it patently works for a large subset of people (of which, my Venn diagram only overlaps a small amount)… so I guess we should cut it some slack. At least I don’t -loathe- it.

Onwards to the play-along questions!

1. Johnny… Joey… Twins. It seems after the accident Johnny lost his identity to his mother, and became a replacement-Joey. Does it change how you feel about Johnny as compared to your Act 1 impressions?

Not really, I was already feeling a little sorry for him from the get go. Now he just gets to deal with a crackpot mom on top of everything else.

Mind you, it doesn’t seem like it would have that much of an impact per se. If we take the story at face value that the beta-blockers wiped out his memory of the accident, all he would know is that his mum calls him Joey as a nickname and that his mum is a little off her rocker. (No wonder he’s drawn to caregiving anything strange or weird.)

He does seem to have subconsciously taken on some of Joey’s characteristics post accident. He gets more creative (aka he actually paints and paints well), he liked pickled olives where he doesn’t before, etc.

Either that, or the more sinister explanation is that the mum actually offed Johnny in the accident and Joey became Johnny, but the mum still recognizes him as Joey. But nah, that wouldn’t work. When the little boy runs up to his dead brother, he calls him Joey; and we also see that Johnny had the meeting with River at the carnival, so the survivor must be Johnny.

2. Eva and Neil have a verbal sparring match on their differing views of contract vs. what they now know (or think they know) about what would make Johnny happier. Outcome of Eva’s actions notwithstanding; do you sympathise with one view over the other here?

Here’s where I started feeling like the whole disagreement was an artificial construct of the author to create conflict and dramatic tension, when the author knew very well what story ending he wanted to write in the first place.

I mean, come on, what exactly is Eva’s view vs Neil’s view?

Eva’s view, as far as I can tell, is “I understand the whole story now. Let’s give Johnny what he has requested for in his contract. Let’s give Johnny the brother he’s missing. Let’s (hopefully) try to get River in there as much as we can, while achieving the above. Let’s give him the happiest ending we can, even if it’s built on fake memories. Let’s not bother to explain this all to Neil because I’m just going to go ahead and do it anyway while he screams ineffectually.”

Neil’s view, meanwhile is, “I understand the whole story now. Johnny didn’t know exactly why he requested for what he did in the contract, but now we do. We know what he wants better than he does, but I still don’t know what to do about it. Whatever we do, we shouldn’t erase River. I want to give him a happy ending, but the best plan I can come up with is cancelling the contract, potentially getting in trouble, while Johnny dies, still unfulfilled and possibly sad, with his original memories.”

Neil. Master of stating the obvious. Less good at coming up with solutions.

So Neil, tell me, exactly what do you think Johnny wants?

Does he want his brother back? Does he want to meet River on the moon, because that’s where they arranged to meet up if any of them lost their way? Does he want his original memories left the way they are? (if he did, why did he bother to contact Sigmund Corp in the first place?) Does he want to remember all his original memories (and thought that Sigmund Corp might be able to get past the beta-blockers that left a hole in his mind?)

Either way, you didn’t get very far on explaining any of the above to Eva, because mostly the role the author wanted you to play was to protest and scream “Noooooo, not River!” while the plot moved on.

Let’s face it. Eva’s the woman with a plan here. So let the woman (and the author) just do whatever the hell they wanted, in the first place.

That’s not to say that I -sympathize- with the outlook, because I don’t believe in fake memories and meddling with people’s brains to begin with. But hey, if Johnny asked for it, that’s his choice and he gets what he gets, ie. Eva

I mean, what can Neil achieve? Blubber to the dying man that you got it wrong, you don’t want to go to the moon, you want River back, and oops, you died while I was trying to explain this to you instead of constructing a fake memory that you asked and paid and contracted for, in which you got River back? (Then get fired and sued?)

You know what would have been a much cooler dilemma? If they posited the choice of brother vs River.

If the man actually said something like, “ok, let’s create a fake ending where River doesn’t die and they managed to save the house and lighthouse and die together holding hands in their deathbed, that’s what I want to do…” or “let’s make an ending where he actually travels to the moon and meets River”

…while Eva’s like, “Nooo. Johnny wants his brother back to be happy, not the girl. Let’s create all those fake memories and take out the girl, and get him to the moon as requested…”

Then I think we’d have a lot more and better debates on what would be the best ending for Johnny. Even more game points if they were all branching endings the player could choose.

As is, all we have is Neil not knowing what he wants to do, besides what he -doesn’t- want, and Eva knowing very well what the so-called best course of action is and doing it anyway… so… why even debate if one view is more right than the other, if both are pretty artificial?

3. Throughout that same exchange, Eva asks Neil to trust her. He clearly didn’t. Did you?

See above. The author wants to do what the author wants to do. Trust doesn’t even begin to fall into the picture here. You’re along for the ride. It’s not like the author even began to give you, the player, a real choice here.

Certainly Eva’s got the plan that the author wants to push forward, and Neil doesn’t. So yeah, let Eva work, man. None of you are playing God here. The author is.

4. “He can always find another ‘River’… But he’ll only have one brother.” Again, pretending for the moment you don’t know the outcome of Eva’s actions and what she (suspected) would happen… Do you agree? What about in this context of overwritten memories as opposed to life as it was?

Er, no? There’s only one “River” and there’s only one “Joey?” Every soul is unique?

Yes, he might still be quite happy with another girlfriend or wife. He might also mope till the end of time if he never found his soulmate. He might be quite happy growing up with the brother he never had. He might also be miserable and unhappy if the brother he never had turned out to be an annoying a-hole. How the heck do we begin to predict future happiness here?

As for the context of overwritten memories, well, you’re making fake memories, so go nuts. Make up anything you want. Tell him how happy he gets, I suppose.

I don’t really get the purpose of Eva’s statement as is. She patently intended to move River elsewhere, just far enough away to still get him physically to NASA and the moon, as stated by the literal letter of the contract.

It would have had more poignant meaning if it was a real choice between getting River and getting his brother instead, fake memory-wise.

(In which case, I’d probably say, no, the real Johnny already more or less forgot Joey and is more deeply attached to River (as shown by how he grieves her) so he would have been much happier with seeing River again before he died.

Of course, a fake memory in which he never knew River and also enjoyed a great fake life with his brother is also a perfectly valid ‘road-not-taken’ fake happiness-before-death option. So that’s also possible. Hey, you signed your brain and memories away, you takes the risks of whatever your technician comes up with for you.)

Anything you wish I’d asked you about that I haven’t, for this act or any of the others? Answer that question for this one. 😉

And my question is: why lighthouses? What are lighthouses supposed to be a metaphor or symbol for?

My best guess? People. Lighthouses and stars are meant to represent individual souls in the universe, shining their unique message into the night. Lonely, isolated by default, too far apart to hear true what others are saying… but occasionally, someone comes along to love and care for them like River cares for Anya, and by extension, how Johnny cares for River.

7 thoughts on “To The Moon Play-Along – Act 3

  1. I’ve read all the playthroughs and your write-ups are the ones that made me laugh out loud. I feel like I want to play the game now to see if the writing really is as mundane and leaden as you make it sound. Then again, maybe not…

    1. There are certainly some cringey moments in the writing, particularly early on. And again — like Jeromai called out — the conflict between Eva and Neil at the end is very contrived. Sure, sure — there is the ticking clock of Johnny’s life expiring and all. But it isn’t like they’re not exchanging dialog while they do what they do — just that rather than taking a single breath to explain or convince, Eva continues demanding blind faith.

      On the other hand; it’s clear the pair have worked together before. This isn’t their first job together. And despite their incessant bickering, they *do* like each other… So perhaps the demand for faith isn’t so unreasonable after all?

      In any case, hard to say whether you would enjoy it or not. It’s a very short experience to find out though, I suppose. 😉

  2. I think Neil’s plan was essentially to leave Johnny’s original memories untouched, yeah. To not go ahead with a write that would remove River from his life — given they had discovered in the course of their duties the whole reason Johnny wanted to go to the moon was to find River again. Information that Johnny didn’t (consciously) have at the time he signed the contract.

    Eva certainly *hoped* that her actions would allow Johnny the chance to have his cake and eat it too — but it was also clear she was perfectly willing to risk Johnny and River ever meeting if it meant completing their contract, as written. If it didn’t work out as she planned… Well; so be it. Mission still accomplished. Or as she said repeatedly throughout the game, ‘She isn’t the client.’

    1. Neil’s stance is contradictory with every sentence though, either he’s feeling more than thinking logically at that point or he’s getting absolutely puppeteered by the author for the sake of plot pushing.

      If he leaves Johnny’s original memories untouched, then he hasn’t given Johnny the happy ending that he also says he wants for him. Because Johnny is dying sad and alone and missing River for years already in his original memories. (And if their poking around removed the block, then Johnny is also going to remember the tragedy of his twin brother’s death -just- before he takes his own death rattle, which is even -further- away from anything resembling a happy ending.)

      I’m honestly a lot more for Neil and keeping River around, IF he could actually articulate a coherent plan to get there. But he’s instilling zero confidence at that point.

      “”Well, we happen to know what he wants better than he does!”” “We might not know what Johnny wants, but we know what he doesn’t want. And what he doesn’t want is exactly what you are accelerating.”

      How do these two sentences come out of Neil’s mouth about one scene away from each other? First he says he knows what Johnny wants, and then he decides several minutes later that he doesn’t know what Johnny wants. If I had a doctor this indecisive, I’d definitely be asking for a second opinion.

      “No, don’t do it, don’t remove River.” “I have a better idea. Let’s unblock Johnny’s early memories. Let’s engineer a cure for River in his mind. Let’s let them live a long life together and die together in bed. It’s not going to the moon, but @#@ that, we’ll appeal!” Sadly, at no point does he say anything like this. He and Eva could have had some real hash-it-out conflict then, about whether they should get in trouble by breaking the contract but creating a ‘better’ happy ending for the old geezer, or risk losing a significant part of Johnny’s memories by fitting in the “to the moon” constraint.

      Throw in another argument for “But you’re forgetting his brother!” or “It’s River he misses more!” and we would have some real meat on the bones. But all we have now is essentially “Stop, Eva! I won’t let you do this!” *shakes fist, accomplishing nothing besides token resistance*

      1. Johnny wouldn’t remember anything (more) of his brother if they don’t commit the new memory path to Johnny’s mind. Remember, what they’re doing is simulated, recreated by memory and where necessary, other publicly available information.

        But nothing ‘changes’ for real-Johnny without them committing it to memory (heh).

        Sure — Johnny *would* still be dying without River next to him in his most recent memories — but he still would’ve had the memories of their life together as he passed, instead of (to Neil’s belief at that point, since Eva refused to explain anything for the purposes of the drama) remove River entirely.

        The two contradictory sentences you note — don’t they appear before and after the reveal that what Eva has done has brought Joey back? Assuming I am remembering that right, I think there is certainly some room to introduce doubt with that new information.

  3. From the outside, I just think the entire problem lies with the premise. Johnny is about to die, isn’t he? These are just his personal memories, aren’t they? Does it make one whit of difference to anyone what they are at this point? Whatever change the doctors make, is it going to have any effect of any kind on anyone but Johnny? Is anyone but Johnny even going to know what memories he now has? They could make him remember absolutely anything and he would believe it, right? And then he’s going to die? Why not just slap in some off-the-shelf happy memory of a wonderful life and let him slide off into the void on that? It literally makes no difference to Johnny what he remembers at this stage, real, wish-fulfilment, totally made up by a stranger… just so it makes him feel good for as long as it takes him to die.

    I read the wikipedia precis of the plot and if it’s accurate the whole thing makes no sense to me. The guy’s in a coma. The procedure is only permitted to be used on people so near death they will die almost as soon as it’s complete. As far as I can see from the description, at best it’s the emotional equiavelent of end-of-life pain relief. All the angst about detail seems supremely irrelevant at this point. And that’s “at best”. It actually just sounds like a cynical way to extract money from desperate, dying rich people.

    When someone’s memories are messed about with like this in genre fiction it’s almost always by the villain of the piece. There’s a good narrative reason for that, I think.

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