Other Lives


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?

  1. You raise some interesting points. Why do we care about fictional characters? I know I have read books, watched films, played games that give you a range of emotions from sympathy to rage.

  2. Very interesting! To answer your last question, my thoughts of course, is I think that we all get caught up in this world our mind creates while reading a story. Eventually , if it’s a really good book, you cant hear nor remember the actual world you live in. Words are strong, some people that say they aren’t obviously never read a good book. I mean, if a person can get someone to cry their ass off just with words.. that’s actually a real gift, don’t you think? By the way! Perhaps you would enjoy my blog as well, after reading yours. If you have time, please check it out, would mean a lot to me, being a new blogger! Greetings!

  3. Because they feel so real to us, and because of that, we ache and hurt and yearn for them and their happiness. Sometimes we love these characters so much, they become real to us, like our parents or our neighbors.
    At least, that’s how I think of the girl on Facebook who named herself after the female lead of a popular anime.

  4. I think it has something to do with our perception of real life – that real life exists more in memory then in the moment, and so we remember our lives and relate to them on the same level as we do fictional characters. That the fictional character never existed does not matter as much as the fact that we have a memory of them, and so they fit in with all of our other memories.

    • Good point– Though that makes a story about changing those memories all the more uncomfortable, doesn’t it? No matter how much it’s couched in terms of fulfilling someone’s dream, or making their passing easier, there’s something that feels fundamentally like a violation there. Without our memories, what are we? Or, perhaps more precisely, what are our friends, our family, our history, to us?

    • Ed said:

      Another thing is how we can see the fictional characters struggling through their problems, which isn’t often the case with real people. By looking at how different fictional characters struggle in different stories and situations, people can build their own image of their ideal self and try to be closer to that image.

  5. Because if there was not Deus Ex Machine,we would never have happy endings into a tale!

  6. I agree with what emperort said, it’s all about identifying yourself with the character. You don’t even realize when you start relating. Maybe not yourself, but someone you know with hints of personality executed by the fictional character. The “What-if” questions set your mind on fire and there you are.. shedding a tear or carving a smile.

  7. Benny said:

    The first thing that came to mind when I read your article was the time when I watch the movie 50/50. There were so many emotions, and so many sides of complex characters that I felt unhappy, over joyous, jealous, vengeful and sorry for many of those characters. It’s funny how stories, movies, television, with fictional characters allow us to find our emotions.

    In a way, I think it reflects who we are in real life. We clap for the villain that dies in the end, we cheer for the hero that saves the day, and the entire spectrum in between.

    Thanks for an excellent post!

  8. Created ~ Create.it said:

    Hmmm, I have never thought about this before. Very interesting points. Thank you for sharing.

  9. We care because these are extreme and idealized people in a world where we can take risks and be something without the fear of no do-overs. It’s a way to live a 1000 lives instead of just one. Although you should take full advantage of the opportunities and find ways to make the most out of your real life, you should enjoy the ability to escape to another person’s reality. It’s something unique to humans and it’s something which can put you in the mind of the mediums creator. It’s just another extension of our human condition! I love it!

  10. It’s an old adage that fact is stranger than fiction but these days the lines are often blurred so much we can’t tell the difference -or perhaps it’s that we don’t want to -I believe we are what we and others tell us we are -there’s obviously some inherent need being met when telling another what he is or isn’t (or was or wasn’t) -we do it all the times-gaming or not.

  11. i often mind myself falling in love with these lifeless characters and it pains to know that they are unreal. therefore, we pull them and slap them on our memory board and try to become our own lifeless self to match them and create a life.
    absolutely remarkable post. congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  12. I think it’s our human element. The instinct to empathize. We may know characters are fiction, but just like people we invest time in getting to know them and it taps into our emotional side. To put it simply, we get attached.

    That’s the beauty and addiction to fiction. You can escape to something, with someone, somewhere without ever leaving your seat and feel like you were a part of something.

    Great post, by the way! :)

  13. How can i change my background on wordpress?

  14. Reblogged this on Tanja and commented:
    We are time travelers trapped in a paradox of our own devising.

  15. I believe everything is a perception, every reality is unreal because in turn everything perceived as real is again a picture framed of perceptive pixels. We keep on being sure of the directions of the flow of life but we are always surprised, we keep on thinking we know a real person but that again is an image we have made in our minds and we fit his/her reactions in that frame.
    Hence, be it real or fictional, at the end it is just a mental thought. That is why we are bothered, that is why we care.

  16. I would like to answer your questions. In games, we get the opportunity to make decisions and experience adversity without real life consequences. They are an excellent learning experience that allows us to deal with things that scare us to death in real life in the setting that we can turn off when we can’t take any more.

    The way to act in these games also teaches us about ourselves and about human nature. Extra Credit’s video today actually addresses this, definitely worth a watch:


  17. Sarah said:

    I just bought and played this game. I loved it, and I love your speculation on fictional characters. I think I was most disturbed by the fact that the scientists were working to comfort a man by lying to him, but that again brings up your question. They aren’t real. Why should I care?

    As I fantasy writer, I am hoplessly attached to fictional characters. Perhaps it is because the whole world of one fictional character serves as only a particle of a real human being. Fiction is a way to open up and explore the vastness and complexity of reality. It helps us care about things we would never otherwise see, and understand better what we see everyday.

    Ha. I’m starting to sound like a book of cheesy quotes. Think I’ll be going now.

  18. Reblogged this on Ink Sparks and commented:
    It might be said that the characters we hold most dear are those we relate to on the deepest level. We see part of ourselves in them, and a connection is formed. Fiction is only really effective insofar as it reveals truth about reality. I love it when game developers take the opportunity to explore these poignant themes within an immersive medium!

  19. Well written story lines and well developed characters can be so engaging. Even in a fictional world, people are still in touch with their humanity. I enjoyed your post. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! :)

  20. Zaziu said:

    Interesting stuff. I did a short review of To The Moon on my blog and thought it was a very heartfelt story. I even cried at the end of the game. But why? Especially when we know it is going to happen from the very start of the game that the man is going to die. I think some characters are created in games specifically to bring out your emotions, which this game does very well.

  21. I’ve never played this game, but your write-up makes me curious. The questions you pose at the end are personal, and how we answer them says a lot about ourselves.

  22. A few years ago I read The Book of Lost Things and there was one part where I had to stop to go grocery shopping or something equally mundane but I remember rushing through this task because the character was in trouble and if I didn’t get them through this part of the story soon they were going to be in a very bad way. I didn’t really make sense but I was incredibly invested in the story and the characters, more-so than the horrible relationship and job I had at the time.

    To me the emotional connection was a fancy form of escapism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: