I guess somewhere along the line, I gifted a friend of mine To The Moon on Steam because he texted me about it late last night. I guess that because 1) he’s normally a strictly meat and potatoes kind of gamer where he feeds on an artery-clogging diet of Call of Duty, Madden, and SNES fighting games, so for him to play something out of his lopsided nutritional pyramid usually takes an outside force, and 2) he told me I gifted it to him like six months ago or so. Mystery solved!
Or so I thought. Though I only knew how he was playing it and figuring out why was just as easy (he was bored), the real question was why he bothered to text me about it in the first place. Knowing him, he would appreciate the story but not necessarily understand its import. Mere moments after it finished and he had closed the window—Steam library staring him in the face—he would likely consider which The Fast and The Furious movie to watch before bed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it just shows how cognitively he’s aware, but emotionally he’s inarticulate, so for him to talk to me about such a non-game video game is a Big Thing.
After some back and forth on the whole thing, I was able to discern what his monosyllabic replies were hinting at: the music. But not just any particular song or even the entire soundtrack as a whole. Though he lacks the diction simply because he never bothered to show up to his Intro to Cinema class in college, I managed to suss out where he found his personal significance in the whole shebang.
Diegesis labels a brand of storytelling within a wholly contained world through recounting rather than recreation. It originates from the contrast of showing versus telling from Plato and Aristotle where diegesis is the result of retelling and reality while mimesis is the result of imitation and flourish. Now you’re likely to find the discussion shifted to movies where people decide if a song or song is diegetic and comes from the world or is non-diegetic and comes from the external viewing parameters.
My friend, as it turns out, was talking about how the shift from diegetic to non-diegetic music in To The Moon managed to find his one soft spot. When you first hear the song “For River,” you hear it through the little kids Sarah and Tommy playing on the piano in the foyer of the house. You hear it from within the world of the game and is thus diegetic. It’s pointed out by the kids that they are playing that song on the piano as non-diegetic credits roll over the screen, which makes for a nice contrast.
But that’s almost beside the point. The next time “For River” is pointed out to you almost directly is when Johnny plays it for the first time for River as she lays sick in bed. You’ll hear it throughout the entire memory, moving from room to room and even to another moment in time altogether. By now, the song is almost certainly drilled into your head as a diegetic response to various emotions and memories.
So then when it finally breaks from being diegetic, something happens. I don’t want to get into specifics, but the shift is important. It bubbles up everything you have eventually come to associate with that hopeful yet melancholic song over the course of the game and it damn near breaks you. Slowly it has been replacing the pillars and struts only to be all yanked away in an instant, crumbling even the most shooterest of bros.
This is a trend you’ll see quite often in games once you start to look for it. It’s not always for a specific grab at overwhelming sadness or reflection. I mean, just look at Far Cry 3. There’s a mission where you have to burn down some fields of marijuana (à la Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). You are given a flamethrower and begin to set fire to some fields when all of a sudden you start to hear an odd tropical beat. It’s jubilant and bouncy, quite appropriate given the island setting and the ridiculous circumstances you’ve found yourself in, but it’s a stark contrast with the rest of the music you hear in the game.
Every other bit of music you hear is lo-fi reggae bumping out of the trashy jeeps and coupes you commandeer throughout the game, but as you look around for a radio perhaps blasting this clear and crisp ditty, you realize there isn’t one. Is it coming from you? Are you, Jason Brody, high from burning all this sweet stinky weed? Before you arrive at an answer, the heaviest of drops hits and you realize it’s Skrillex. Nonsense? Sure, but also supremely fitting.
This is a highlight of the game precisely because it is ridiculous and yet makes absolute sense in the game. All you’ve heard for the entire time on the island in regards to music is just tinny car radio trash, and now, as you embark on a dumb but well-realized mission of eliminating drug fields, a Skrillex reggae remix fills your ears in a non-diegetic fashion? It’s no wonder it won Giant Bomb’s
Best Use of Skrillex.
But just as it can bring dumb joy to the table with Far Cry 3 and overwhelming emotion via To The Moon, the diegetic flip is versatile enough to do so much more, as is the case with Red Dead Redemption. Red Dead Redemption is, for the most part, a stoic game. You play the part of a no-nonsense John Marston trying to turn over a new leaf and often find yourself in a deathly silent wild frontier. You’ll get musical stings and pings and dings as you play the game, of course, seeing as how this is a video game and player feedback is crucial, but you’ll hardly ever find any sort of music. The closest you’ll ever get is walking into a saloon and hearing some sweet diegetic ragtime coming from the piano man in the corner. Everything else is diegetic as well, if non-musical, as you’ll just hear wind whistling, guns firing, men shouting, and animals prowling/rumbling/roaring.
This makes the Mexico moment all the more striking. If not of all of 2010, the first horse ride from the river into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption might also be one of my all-time favorite moments in all of gaming. You finally hear something besides the wilderness and that Mission Complete sting and it is wildly non-diegetic and stirring acoustic song. You’re riding your horse into unknown territory after a harrowing escape down what you previously thought a barrier instead of a path and further away from your family yet closer to their salvation. All those conflicting emotions bubble up as you hear this moving piece from Swedish–Argentine folk singer José González. You are no longer stoic so much as you are resolved, your feelings fueling a fire rather than being suppressed as you go about your duty. The quiet milieu is broken with a non-diegetic moment and it takes a simple horse ride and turns it into something so much more.
I’m sure you’ll start to notice this more and more. Not necessarily because it’ll happen with more frequency but simply because you’ll be more aware. Just as my friend now knows that he didn’t just mean “oh you know, the music” but instead it was the non-diegetic shift that got him, you’ll be keener on when these moments happen. And they can be all the more powerful.
Now go play To The Moon if you haven’t done so already. And yes, someone is cutting onions, so be sure to bring tissues.