A Slightly More Theoretical Take on To The Moon

So yesterday I posted about To The Moon, a game that I really liked, and that post was really just a “hey, look, this game, play it!” kind of post. This post, on the other hand, is going to be about what the game did for me in a theoretical way. So–

THIS POST CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR TO THE MOON

So the basic plot of the game is that the two technicians are going into a dying man’s memories to change his life so that he traveled to the moon. This is pretty basic science fiction fare, but the game adds the notion of “leaping” back through memories. The basic idea is that significant objects are connected to earlier memories, and through tracing a lineage of significant objects the techs can go backward in memory/time. That means that we get the narrative backwards, from John’s own death, to the death of his wife, to building his house, and so on, all the way back until we reach his childhood.

And all of that is interesting, but the plot really turns on a moment when John is a kid where he witnesses the death of his twin brother. His brother runs behind a car that their mother is driving and in one quick moment he is no longer a twin. His brother is killed in as graphic a way as possible from a top down, 2d RPG. The mother becomes mentally ill and collapses the two children into on identity, calling John by his brother’s name for the rest of his life.

John, after the accident, takes “strong beta blockers” in order to forget the event. It is literally wiped from his conscious memory along with every other memory from before that time, which includes the meeting with River, his future wife. In the meeting with River, they agree to meet on the moon if they are ever separated, a child’s promise, but one that she continues to take seriously the rest of her life, even after it is apparent to her that he does not remember making the promise.

So John is left with a desire to go to the moon and no knowledge of why.

The plot of the game stems from the trauma of the brother dying, which seems to be a stand-in for the trauma of existence. For John, the trauma is watching his other half being killed by their mother. For me, the player, it takes on an enormous amount of significance. The mother kills Joey and replaces him with John. What kind of horrible life would that be, haunted by the ghost of a brother that you don’t even remember having? At this point the game turns into a narrative about a man who is buried under history, his brother, and the lack of fulfillment in his brother’s short life. John is forced to take that all in himself; the shattered connection when his brother dies simply loads him full of unfulfilled desires.

The way that the player character, Dr. Rosalene, fixes the scenario is that she reverses the break. She makes sure that the brother never dies. This means that John never has to branch out into finding River, or finding a partner at all. The death of the brother was a communicative break akin to an existential crisis. It put John into a position of radical difference from the world. His mother, a murderer, could never be trusted again, and his brother, essentially him, was exterminated. An infinite gap appears between the subject and the world around him.

This is the impetus for communication as I understand it. Communication is a product of trying to bridge the gap, to pull others into us, to try and make the world whole again, and it is a bankrupt project. Life happens in the middle of those two poles: wholeness on one side, the recognition of our subjectivity on the other. So the only fix is to prevent the break, to make sure that the world is always-whole, never-broken.

And that makes me think about video games on the whole. There is always a radical break between the player and the game world proper. Narrative normally makes this really apparent–the player/character is a chosen hero or a coming messiah or just a soldier with a destiny, outside of the game world, a subject apart from an organic whole.

But what are the techs but programmers of memories? It seems a lot like a video game, and if the organic whole can be programmed into existence in memory, why can’t we have games that function that way? The closest thing that I can think toward that is when I read narratives of Skyrim where players choose to live “normal” lives as parts of the game world. They chop wood, they get married, they don’t do a lot of questing. They are just regular people, living lives, and being part of the organic game world.

It gives us ways of thinking through new subjectivities, simulations of lives we cannot live in real life. I harp on this a lot, but there is something to it. The ability to create a world stitched from memory, fixing all of our mistakes, even the unconscious ones, that will come from video games first. To The Moon comes down to the basic thesis of, if we solve that initial break that splinters the subject/world, we could drive ourselves into anything we need.

But closing that gap opens others. The lack of River creates another lack, one that has to be fulfilled by going to the moon, so let me edit what I just said: video games is the field that will help us selectively close phenomenological gaps. And this could be great, like the game suggests, and allow us to artificially direct our lives in ways that I can’t explain or dream of.

I’m not making prescriptions here, and I don’t know if that would be a good thing, but the game presents a world that isn’t foreign from our own, and it terrifies me. I can’t see over that precipice.

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