Whether looking for the next action-packed shooter or the next RPG that demands hours of their time, the average gamer keenly understands the importance of narrative. And while there have been a few beautifully written games released by well-known developers over the past year or two, the indie market continues to deliver in ways that the mainstream seems to fall short of.
One serves primarily as an interactive visual novel that evokes many different kinds of emotions; the other is a monster-slaying, dungeon-crawling adventure to save the world from destruction. To the Moon keeps the narrative focus on a single man whose dying wish is to visit the moon, while Torchlight II takes the player through strange and distant lands in pursuit of the corrupted Alchemist. While the player engages with the world of Torchlight II, it is not on the same scale of intimacy as can be found in To the Moon. But if the story writers had truly sought to bring that level of personal attachment to the world of Torchlight II, players might have become disinterested. The quest of the world-saver touches many lives and effects many things; therefore the scope of both gameplay and interaction with the world needs to remain somewhat broad.
On the other hand, if the writers behind To the Moon had decided to treat the vehicle of their story (Johnny’s memories) as nothing more than a broad idea, gamers would have begun to flounder. It seems to be that half of the battle, especially with indie games, is to know how to balance the narrative. Both Torchlight II and To the Moon masterfully use timed release of information; the player continues to discover the trail of carnage that the Alchemist has left behind, and the further back into Johnny’s memories the player goes, the more is revealed about his wife and the relationship they had. The player’s interaction with either world is controlled to such an extent that it keeps the story flowing, and it becomes difficult, even undesirable, to disengage mentally or emotionally from the events going on.
In comparing Torchlight II and To the Moon, it’s easy to miss just how many minute details influence the narrative. To the Moon features a soundtrack that is both evocative and tension-filled. By omitting the more complex tasks such as combat, the creators of To the Moon set the stage for a narrative that does not allow for much, if any, distraction. On the other hand, Torchlight II paces the events in a “you’ll get there when you get there” fashion. Want to kill monsters and level up your character? Nothing is going to stop you. And while that’s fantastic, especially for those who don’t have much time to game, it seems to make the events that are driving the story take a back seat. Yet when those significant events finally do occur, the player’s mettle is tested, and they become invested in the world again.
Through the balance of narrative focus paired with gameplay, writers and developers can create a story that sweeps the player off of their feet or into the carefully constructed memories of a man on his death bed. Each style has its advantages and disadvantages, but knowing what to use when can make or break the player’s enjoyment of the game.