I’ve been playing To The Moon recently, a generally wistful 2D light-adventure game with a pixel art aesthetic. In it, you play as two scientists who travel through a person’s memories Eternal Sunshine-style with the express intent of changing one thing: each of their clients is on their death bed, and wants to believe they accomplished a goal they never could. For the elderly John, that wish is to go to the moon.
Sweat pours down his face. He made it out just in time, but he’s not so sure about his friends. They split up a little ways back; not out of convenience, but necessity. He wants to keep moving, keep running away from whatever Lovecraftian terror is so close behind. But for a few blissful, illogical seconds, he stops dead in his tracks.
Playing a video game is all about manipulation. You manipulate your character on-screen, and the tools or weapons that character uses. You decide when that character walks, or runs, or fights, or doesn’t. You can keep them healthy and treat them well, or have them suffer interminable pain because you weren’t good or smart enough to avoid it. It’s an incredible burden that’s placed on the player, one that if executed perfectly would keep tension mounting and fear building. To be responsible for the death of a character you’ve come to care about would be, well, horrifying.