by Ben Taber
Isn’t it strange how complex and overwhelming our feelings about fictional people can become?
There is a conflict of impulses: the sympathetic and the dramatic. We want characters to be happy for the same reason we want our friends and family to be happy – hell, I’m such a goddamn hippie; I even want my enemies to be happy, if possible. However, we also know that bad things need to happen to the character or there won’t be much of a story – or at least, often, not the right story for that character. Indeed, since characters are so often formed by their misfortunes, sparing a character pain could undermine the very qualities that made you love them in the first place.
We are time travelers trapped in a paradox of our own devising. We are helpless to swim against the tides of our own fictions.
To The Moon is a small indie game that was released a couple of years back which I just recently got around to playing. It tells a story – kind of like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in reverse, or a melancholy Total Recall – an old man, Johnny, is dying, and he hires a couple of specialists to fulfill his last wish before he dies: to go to the moon. However, they don’t physically transport him, but rather alter his memories so that the course of his life takes him to the moon. Or, anyway, that’s the plan. Along the way they, and the player, unravel this eccentric and lonely old man’s past, and find out why even he doesn’t know why he wants to go to the moon.
It is a strange kind of creativity that we are tasked with, to create an alternate history which, within the fiction, isn’t real, and then to tell it to a dying man as a comforting lie. It raises some odd ethical questions, but those are never directly addressed, merely left to twist under the surface and leave us with a vague unease.
The story To The Moon presents us with inverts the unease we feel about the impossibility of protecting our characters from discomfort. Sure, if we changed Johnny’s story he would be a different person, and that would change his story – but, shortly enough, in a matter of hours, he won’t be a person at all.
Death solves a lot of problems that way. Deus ex machina indeed.
In the game, there is a scene where one of the specialists explains the procedure to the simulated version of Johnny, generated from his memories. The other specialist asks him why he bothers, when it is a simulation doomed to be written momentarily, and he hesitates.
Why bother explaining to a simulation that won’t exist in a moment’s time?
Why bother comforting an old man who won’t exist in an hour’s time?
Why bother caring about the happiness of those who have never existed outside of our minds?
Piece crossposted with The Problem Machine