To The Moon and Tension
StoryScan: Weak Point
StoryScan: Weak Point highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering To the Moon (Freebird Games, 2011), the indie game that tasks players with digging through a dying man’s memories. This essay will cover content from the entire plot of To The Moon. Players who have not completed this game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Secrets have played an important role in narrative design since the earliest days of storytelling. They’re instant sources of tension, as they command our attention and force us to ask questions about the characters. With secrets, says author Robert McKee, “We arouse the audience’s curiosity about…past events, tease it with hints of the truth, then deliberately keep it in the dark by misleading it with “red herrings,” so that [the audience] believes or suspects false facts while we hide the real facts.”1 In other words, when we add secrets to stories, we’re directly engaging the audience and encouraging them to pay attention to details they might otherwise ignore. This powerful technique can backfire, however, if we keep secrets from the audience for the sole purpose of creating tension. This results in what McKee calls a ‘false mystery.’ According to McKee, false mysteries occur when: “Exposition that could and should have been given to the audience is withheld in hope of holding interest over long, undramatized passages.”2 False mysteries can occur in a variety of circumstances, but they can most often be found when characters act against the story’s internal logic and their own natures to withhold information from each other. While too many artificial tension spikes can break a narrative completely, even a handful of false mysteries can strain an otherwise compelling piece. This is the case with To the Moon (Freebird Games, 2011), the indie adventure game that reveals a series of mysteries through fragmented memories.
By all accounts, To the Moon is a well-written game. Using a mixture of dialogue-driven flashbacks and simple puzzle-based gameplay, To the Moon tells an emotionally compelling story about the complex relationship between a dying man and his late wife. Along the way, it tackles the grieving process, memory loss, developmental disabilities, and communication in relationships in a way that few other game stories have. The game’s unique approach to these weighty themes earned it multiple awards, including Best Story at GameSpot’s 2011 Game of the Year awards and a spot on GamesRadar’s 2015 Top 100 Games of All Time list.3 To the Moon’s stellar story is not without its weaknesses, however, and one of its greatest weaknesses is its reliance on false mystery as a source of tension. Although some of the characters have legitimate reasons to withhold information, others will obfuscate key exposition for the sole purpose of heightening tension. Ironically, these attempts to enhance tension actually end up detracting from it, as they betray the audience’s faith in the story.
Tension, False Mystery, and Authenticity
In To the Moon, players control two scientists who offer a unique service: they can rewrite the memories of the dying, effectively rebuilding their lives from the ground up. To accomplish this feat, the scientists must travel through their subjects’ memories, starting with a recent memory and leaping backward repeatedly until they reach the earliest possible moment where they can effect change. It’s a clever narrative conceit, one that To the Moon uses to tell a moving story, but maintaining a mystery when scenes occur in reverse chronological order is no simple task. When scenes unfold in chronological order, characters learn more about themselves and others with each passing scene; in reverse chronological order, the characters know less and less as the story progresses. This means that the characters have the most information when the audience has the least, and the resulting imbalance threatens to remove any mystery from the story. To combat this, To the Moon’s earliest scenes are peppered with vague dialogue where the true meaning of the conversation is obscured. It’s a tactic that works well for the characters who always struggle with communication, but when the characters have no reason to be circumspect, the narrative illusion falls apart.
One of the earliest scenes to strain player credulity occurs during a remembered conversation in a bar. In this scene, John—the dying man whose memories form the backbone of To the Moon’s narrative—is catching up with some old friends who haven’t seen him in a while. Initially, the scene includes John, his wife River, and their friends Nicholas and Isabelle, but Nicholas and John are left alone after River and Isabelle leave to get some air. After some small talk in which Nicholas emphasizes how long it’s been since they last saw each other, he asks John: “Oh hey, so did you tell River that thing from back then?” Not only is the subject of the conversation obscured with ‘that thing,’ the timing is also noted with an ambiguous ‘back then.’ Since neither John nor Nicholas have any communication issues, unlike their wives (more on this later), there are only a couple of justifications for this level of vagueness, neither of which hold up under scrutiny. The first justification (that River is in earshot) doesn’t hold up because she left the room. The second (that John will know what he’s talking about from context) doesn’t work either because the two men haven’t seen each other in ages, and ‘that thing from back then’ isn’t enough to go on after that kind of time gap. The only remaining explanation is that Nicholas’s dialogue is intentionally vague to pique players’ curiosity, but instead, the ambiguity cheapens the scene by reminding players that To the Moon is a scripted story, one where the characters are beholden to the needs of the writer.
To the Moon continues to employ vague dialogue to obscure key information throughout the story, but some of the vagueness is justified by the characters. The main example of this warranted ambiguity comes from River, John’s wife. River has always struggled to be direct about her feelings, and her difficulties with communication form the backbone of her character. When she expresses herself in a roundabout way, it doesn’t feel cheap because it’s true to her nature. Unfortunately, her unorthodox methods of expression can be a source of frustration for the other people in her life, including her husband. This is one of the reasons that River and John visit someone who specializes in River’s condition: a developmental disorder that goes unnamed throughout the entire narrative. While the decision to keep River’s exact condition ambiguous has its merits (it keeps the focus on her as an individual, for example, rather than her diagnosis), it leads to more circumspect dialogue from characters who have no reason to be coy. The dialogue in the meeting with the specialist is particularly jarring: the doctor has no reason to be vague, yet he only refers to River’s developmental disorder as ‘her condition,’ ‘the subject,’ and ‘it.’ Once again, To the Moon’s desire to withhold information from the characters forces them to act out of character, detracting more from the narrative than it adds.
The final mystery that strains To the Moon’s characters is the mystery that forms the core of the story: the reason John wants a memory of going to the moon. At the beginning of the game, John isn’t sure why he wants to see the moon, but he’s gripped by a lingering belief that it’s important. Unfortunately, when the scientists travel backward through his memories, they hit a roadblock where they can’t go back any further. In the end, it turns out that John lost his memories of his childhood when his mother force-fed him beta blockers to make him forget his brother’s death. As a side effect, John also forget his first meeting with River—a meeting she still remembers—where he promised to find her on the moon if they couldn’t meet again. While River’s reasons for never telling John about their meeting make sense, it doesn’t make sense that John’s late brother and the events surrounding it could be so easily erased from his life. The death of a child is a shocking incident in any community: the kind of thing that persists in newspapers, memorials, and family memories. No matter how many beta-blockers John took, they wouldn’t have erased his brother from existence, yet the mystery hinges on the player accepting otherwise. Unfortunately, the build-up to the reveal asks players to scrutinize so many things about John’s life that they’re conditioned to scrutinize the reveal itself, and it just doesn’t hold under that kind of inspection.
To the Moon is a story with many positive qualities. It taps into the emotions of its central characters, John and River, to tell a heartbreaking story about two people who overcome their differences to find their own definition of love. The story is not without its problems, however, as the narrative hinges on several false mysteries that detract from the overall experience. Writers who wish to write compelling mysteries can look to To the Moon as an example of when to keep information hidden and when to reveal it to the audience.
The imbalance of information between the characters and the audience keeps the story interesting.
How characters express themselves, using spoken or written words.
Plot points that subvert the audience’s expectations work best when they integrate other elements of the narrative.
1 McKee, Robert. Story (pp. 349-350). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
2 McKee, Robert. Story (pp. 354-355). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
3 “To the Moon: Awards.” Wikipedia, 2021.
* Reference Footage: Crabman Gaming. “To the Moon (Switch) Full Game Playthrough Walkthrough Gameplay 100% No Commentary.” YouTube, 2020.