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Tonight Dies the Moon

by Tom McHenry profile

2015

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Number of Reviews: 2
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cold war longing, July 31, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Like Horse Master, Tonight Dies the Moon is a futuristic game set in a dystopian world that is sketched in few but striking and imaginative details. Also like Horse Master, it contains some sequences that are reminiscent of existing computer game genres -- a sort of reverse Space Invader and a market-simulating farming game -- but neither deliver nor want to deliver the kind of victory that such games promise. Add the instantly recognisable visual style of the games, and there can be no doubt that you are playing another Tom McHenry game.

(Spoiler - click to show)Tonight Dies the Moon is actually two related games: one where you play on Earth and one where you play on the Moon. In one sense, these sequences are entirely different. On Earth, you are obsessed with the war against the Moon, you go to work to shoot some lunar bases, you say goodbye to your best friend, and then you escape to the moon. On the Moon, you've apparently never heard of a war; you spend turn after turn planting crops for both the government and yourself, raking in big profits for the former and meagre earnings for the latter; you have some non-interactive interactions with your fellow colonists; and finally, you get blown up by an attack from Earth. (Perhaps it is also possible to die earlier from starvation, if you don't manage to be successful at the farming game; and maybe, just maybe, it is possible to earn enough money for a ticket to Earth.) So where the Earth story is a more traditional piece of linear fiction ending on a high note, the Moon story is a farming game with some episodic fictions sprinkled through it and a predetermined loss looming over you.

But in another sense, the two halves of the game are very much alike. Both protagonists live in poverty and must scrape to get by. Both are pawns in a political system that doesn't care about them and with which they collaborate for lack of an alternative. Both keep their lives tolerable through a friendship with a single person. Both dream of a different existence, and look at each other's world in the night sky with the vague hope that maybe there is a better life up there. We, of course, after playing both halves of the game, know that those dreams are only that, dreams; they have no base in reality. But we understand why people would think differently. We understand why they must think differently in order to keep life bearable. As a tale of misguided and yet understandable longing, Tonight Dies the Moon is quite beautiful and affecting. The Moon-sequence could have been a bit shorter (the game goes on and on long after the episodic fiction has stopped), but all in all, not in the least because of the many original details (like ChangeNames and the process of copying and changing books on the moon), it works and stays with the reader.

Less successful is the political side of the game. Earth and Moon are quite obviously meant to be modern-day versions of the U.S.A. and Russia in de cold war. Earth is a hyper-individualistic and shallow society obsessed with a war fought with drones, and even more obsessed with its bad health care system. The Moon poses as an egalitarian community, but the government is just profiting from the people, its plan-based economy is a disaster leading to famine, and anyone who wants to read something good must engage in samizdat. The former, if read as a critique of current right-wing political trends in the U.S.A., is over-the-top and lacks the kind of truth that would make it sting. (After all, not even Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are in favour of expensive health care or ineffective wars, even though their policy decisions might lead to that.) The latter, if read as a critique of the Soviet Union, is like kicking someone who is already dead; while I don't see how it would apply to current left-wing movements. The entire game might have been more successful if the personal stories of longing had been emphasised more and the political background had been emphasised less.


In total, I think Tonight Dies the Moon is less successful than Horse Master, but still a great play. I'm looking forward to more games by Tom, because his imagination is a fecund (and I suspect scaly) thing that takes us to wild and aberrant places!