Saint’s Row the Third (14 hrs): I got a lot of video games for my birthday and Christmas (mostly on Steam). So I wanted to finish up the last narrative game I had started before playing those games. I played a few missions in Saint’s Row The Third. As I had surmised before, the loose narrative based mostly on archetypes and stereotypes made it extremely easy to jump in. It wasn’t like in Mass Effect or Final Fantasy 10 where I couldn’t remember why I should be caring about these characters. The missions with the VTOL planes (STAG missions) were pretty hard.
One of them took me an hour to get. I’d probably be enjoying this game a lot more if I didn’t have a deadline to finish it in the next couple weeks before the new semester starts. Most of the fun of this game is in doing random stuff throughout the city and I’m just trying to power through the narrative.
Civilization V (7 hrs): Enjoyed finishing up my game with the Gods and Kings expansion pack. Not much more to be said about Civilization V that I haven’t already said. It continues to be a great game and I’ll continue to play it in between narrative-based games.
To the Moon (4 hrs):
When I heard about this game I couldn’t wait for it to come out on Steam. Unfortunately, that took two years. But since the game has been out for two years i’m going to speak opening about spoilers for this game. So if you haven’t played it let me say that this game does an incredible job of demonstrating how well video games can tell stories (on par with books, comics, and movies) if the writers are willing to take advantage of the particulars that make storytelling unique in the video game medium. I can’t recommend this game enough and I think you should buy it – it’s relatively cheap for four hours of entertainment!
To The Moon is evocative of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind mixed with a bit of the Pixar movie Up and a bit of Memento thrown in for good measure. I’ve never seen Eternal Sunshine, but based on what I’ve heard of it it seems to match; plus agreement from tvtropes all but confirms it. The plot revolves around a future (though not too far into the future) where you can have memories of the life you always dreamed of implanted into your head (so there’s a bit of Total Recall in there) and it’ll be the last thing you remember before you die. In other words, instead of your real life flashing before your eyes it’s this new life you requested that flashes before your eyes.
The technicians for the company that replaces the memory are the player’s representatives and also the comic relief. The game uses the interface and engine in the style of a 16-bit jRPG. And the these two characters are funny in the style of Biggs and Wedge from Final Fantasy. It’s corny, but (at least for me) it was so corny it was funny. The opening scene when they arrive in a car crash is the perfect example of the type of humor I’m speaking of. I also loved the music. It was original while being evocative of games from this era. Gao does a great job with the soundtrack. It’s worth buying together with the game.
OK, we’re heading into spoiler territory within the next paragraph. For narrative reasons the memory implantation process requires the technicians to go backwards in time through John’s memories. This allows the game to do as Memento did and allow the context of each scene change as you learn more. When exploring the house you find a “creepy room” filled with white origami rabbits. At first you are led to believe that John is just a really eccentric guy. But then you go into the first memory and discover this was a pretty eccentric couple that lived in this house. Especially the story that unfolds with his wife, River, and how she dies in order for their money to be used to preserve a lighthouse.
Then you learn that River made the rabbits. And there’s something a little off about River. You also learn that the song the kids are playing is a song that John wrote for River. What makes the first chunk of the game so fun is the way the writers mess with your head. Eventually you learn that River is autistic, although I don’t think it’s ever said outright – only implied and a book you see at some point is a real-world seminal book written on autism. So that seems to explain the strange behavior with the rabbits and the obsession with the lighthouse. But then you find out they had their wedding at the lighthouse – so maybe that’s why she’s so fond of it – why they end up building a house near it. Then you find out that ”Ever since the incident she’s been making strange rabbits out of paper”. And you’re wondering what the incident is when you find out that River was upset that a rabbit was killed on their wedding day.
And so it goes as you see how they met in high school and so on. And the story is a little sad in the same way that Up is. John has outlived his wife and they had an epic-ly awesome relationship. The only weird thing is that John doesn’t know why he tells the technicians that he wants to go To the Moon. It’s just something he has inside him and can’t figure out where that desire came from. Part of the reason we have to go through all his memories, unless I misunderstood something, is to find the point at which he wanted to go to the moon so they could use that point from which to build the new memories.
Eventually you get to his earliest accessible memory and activate the sequence. But it won’t take hold for some reason. What follows is one of the funniest moments in video game history as the technicians jump from memory to memory trying to get John to want to join NASA and go to the moon. It gets to the point of them going to a high school assembly and mentioning that NASA would love for kids named John to apply. With John quickly approaching death and not wanting to fail, they try to explore the world a bit more to find out why they can’t get him to want to go to the moon.
Finally one of the technicians finds out that at a young age he was given a high dose of beta blockers; a dose high enough that it could have been used to block out a traumatic memory. Finally you’re able to go back to that memory and it turns out that John had a twin brother who his mother accidentally ran over when backing out of the driveway. In order to keep him from getting traumatized, they gave him an overdose of beta blockers to get rid of the memory. Right away you realize that there was some pretty messed up stuff going on with the mom in some of the memories you saw earlier. She was left pretty traumatized and it seems she didn’t always have the lucidity to realize that John was the twin left alive. And that twist alone would have propelled this game’s storytelling to the top in my eyes, but after that you were able to go back one more memory.
That’s when you find out that John actually met Rain at the fair. He gave her a platypus that had played a huge part as an important memory item throughout the game. They also stared at the moon together and promised to meet up there if they were ever separated (the seed for his desire to go to the moon) and you even find out why the lighthouse was so important to Rain. She told John that she thought the stars in the sky were lighthouses.
Suddenly everything in the game made sense. Why she wanted to use her medical money to save the lighthouse. Why she was constantly making origami rabbits (they said the moon looked like a rabbit’s stomach). Why she was so upset when he told her about what he remembered as the first time they met. He was drawn to her because of his interactions with her in youth, but those memories were gone. And that broke my heart because he clearly loved her as you saw with all his actions – including building the house for her near the lighthouse that was so important to them even though it would stretch their budget.
It’s a bit unfair to my brother to say that the only reason he didn’t like it as much as me is where he is in life. After all, while we like a lot of same stuff we also disagree a lot about what is enjoyable (Weird Al, for example). However, I do think that a large reason why this game resonated so much for me is because of where I am in my life. While people who know how old I am would laugh to hear me say this – I am quickly approaching mid-life. I’ve done a lot of reflecting and thinking about what it would be like to outlive Danielle or have her outlive me. I’m just in the perfect place to perfectly appreciate this game. I don’t think a 17 year old would get nearly as much out of it as I did. That said, it is a pretty great story. And by making it into a video game rather than a movie, it allows me to explore it at my own pace and truly embody the technicians. And, unlike a book, I tend to feel a lot more like I’m immersed in the world when I’m controlling a video game character. And, of course, the choice to remove all but the most basic game aspects made it truly a story vehicle. Unlike, say, Saint’s Row, there is nothing to enjoy in this game outside of the story itself. It’s a unique thing (or fairly unique) to do with the video game medium. I would love to see more video game writers explore telling stories in games where there is no real game to it. There are so many games (like Uncharted) where my abilities (or lack thereof) take me out of the narrative and keep Danielle from watching me play that have stories she would otherwise really enjoy. While I’m skeptical the next game in this series will affect me as profoundly – I’d already be looking for a locked memory twist or something – I’m hoping it’s not too long until it comes out so I can check it out.