Let us begin this post with a warning to all of you who would read it: There are some massive spoilers for Bioshock Infinite and mild spoilers for To The Moon in the following piece. I would highly advise you to play one or both of these games before continuing. But if you are experienced (or simply don’t care about spoilers), then please continue, faithful reader.
Early in Bioshock Infinite, there is a moment where the protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is coerced by an odd pair of twins to participate in a coin toss. At first, it seems like the player is being asked to make a call for heads or tails, but the only option given is to “Toss Coin.” Regardless of the player’s actions to that point, the coin will land heads-up every single time. Following the toss, the female twin marks a chalk board where it seems hundreds of other coin tosses have led to the same inevitable conclusion of heads. To a novice, an obvious deduction is that a loaded coin has been used and some sort of scheme must be underfoot at the Columbia Fair, but to anyone who has completed Bioshock Infinite, the recurring coin toss signifies a multi-universal constant.
Booker DeWitt has not come to the floating city of Columbia on his own accord. He has been pulled from his universe to another very similar one as a part of an initially unknown experiment and journey: to prevent destructive events by altering key decisions and actions between realities. Until the game’s conclusion, Booker (and by extension the player) has no idea that he has done this all before; his choices made the chaotic world he has come to, and it is up to him to stop a maniacal version of himself from raining destruction upon the United States. Within his journey, Booker encounters a series of variables and constants along multiple realties. In one world, he is a revolutionary leader who frees subjugated people from their hardships, while in another, Booker is focused on clearing his gambling debts and has no time to get involved with other people’s problems. The hero’s agenda is a variable, while moments like the coin toss landing heads-up are constants across realities.
Throughout Bioshock Infinite, there are several examples of these constants and variables within the main storyline, but outside of the narrative, one thing remains the same: Bioshock is a first-person shooter with a rather high body count. It is a shame that such a complex story and rather intellectually high concepts must be drip-fed to the player in between repetitive shooter gameplay. There is some wiggle room for experimenting with guns and vigor powers, but due to the amount of combat present in Bioshock Infinite, these initially novel methods become a mere formula to be repeated over and over again. The fact that most of the battles are gated and the player must clear all threats before continuing only further detracts from immersion in the excellent story. The limited amount of variables in combat styles are ruined by the constant of gated and frequent gunfights, and the flow of Bioshock Infinite suffers as a result. But I suppose that in order to thrive in the triple-A market, Irrational Games had to design Bioshock around the wildly popular first-person shooter genre. No matter how much I would have liked to see Bioshock Infinite as an exploratory adventure game with minimal combat, I realize that this simply could not happen; in order to be popular, the coin had to land on “FPS.”
But what about the other side of the coin? Maybe there is a world where first-person shooters never translated well to consoles. For some reason, games like Halo and Call of Duty fared poorly outside of the PC market, so their developers abandoned any hope of branching out. Instead, role-playing games remained in the spotlight, and ever since the release of Final Fantasy VII, the gaming public at large has been obsessed with dystopian fantasy worlds and brooding protagonists. In this reality, companies like Bioware and Square-Enix are the top dogs of development. Endorsements and product tie-ins lead to products like Mountain Dew: Mana Potion and the new Jeep Wrangler, which is branded with dragon scales and a huge Skyrim logo. RPGs have become just as over-saturated as FPS games in our world, and if a publisher wants to make a triple-A hit, they follow the rules and produce yet another role-playing game for the pile. Then a studio comes along and creates To The Moon, and all eyes turn to another touching story of multiple realities and the impact of personal choice.
On the surface, the game looks like anything else that is popular in the current market of this world. The game was made using an engine reminiscent of the 16-bit RPG era, so it gets street-cred from the retro crowd. The media darlings start talking the game up, eager to hype another entry into the role-playing triple-A industry. Screenshots are shown, gameplay videos are previewed, and the game reviews with accolades of “10 out of 10,” and “The Best Game Ever!” But beneath the aesthetic of a traditional role-playing game, experimental gameplay and a complex story have snuck into the spotlight.
To The Moon features a world where last wishes may be granted. In this game, technology exists that allows scientists to enter a person’s memories and rewrite his/her history, thereby changing their perception of reality. Johnny Wyles, an elderly man on his deathbed, has contacted the Sigmund Corporation to fulfill his lifelong dream of going to the moon. Unfortunately, Johnny has no idea why he wants to travel to outer space, and this complicates the entire process. Without a specific memory to associate the desire, the player must travel through an interactive series of life moments and find the best place to alter Johnny’s consciousness. Upon discovering the perfect moment, the desire to go to the moon may be inserted into Johnny’s past, his mind will create memories of an alternate life, and he will die without regrets. But exploring the human mind is a tricky thing, and Johnny’s memories lead the player to several mysteries that must be solved in order to lay the old man to rest.
In spite of its engaging and emotional story, To The Moon does not garner as much public appeal as other releases. Most games provide players with 40+ hours of gameplay, chock full of interactive objects, a wide cast of characters, and plenty of battles. To The Moon is more concerned with a core narrative, so it features a limited cast in a linear adventure, and virtually no combat. The lack of RPG trappings turns many players away from this fantastic game, and innovation suffers once more in the face of making a profit. Even in an alternate reality, a game has to play by the rules in order to become a mainstream hit.
It seems that no matter which side of the coin we choose to look at, there are constants that work against games with novel features like Bioshock Infinite and To The Moon. There are so many variables to consider when making a product, especially if a developer is hoping to make a profitable game. But as more game designers choose to make innovative and personal titles, the reality of the market is shifting. There is a growing demand for video games with experimental gameplay and deeper narrative. The coin of “Follow the Rules and Make Money” or “Do Your Own Thing and Go Broke” is changing into a sea of options; but it is up to consumers to make the right choice.