The Moon Wed Saturn, by Pseudavid
Points for best title in the Comp to The Moon Wed Saturn, which is a clever pun as well as, I believe, an astrology reference. That same ethos of packing a lot of meaning into comparatively little text carries over into the game itself, which runs through a formative romantic relationship that unfolds over just a few days but reveals a lot about the main character and changes her life to boot. It’s a classic two-hander – it’s 95% dialogue between two characters, 5% flash-forward reflection – with a unique storytelling gimmick, and while I wasn’t as fully invested in the central relationship as probably would have been ideal, there’s a powerfully arresting moment of grace at the end that had as much impact on me as anything else I’ve played so far.
You play as Verónica, who I think is about 19 – she’s got a dead-end job somewhere on the outskirts of a city I think somewhere in Latin America (there are a few well-chosen setting details sprinkled through the story, but no clunky exposition, somewhere), and feels weighed down by expectations, other people, and the general difficulty of figuring out how to be in the world. Into her life sweeps Araceli, a freer spirit a few years older, who doesn’t seem to worry much about consequences and seems to take a kind of glee in prodding Verónica out of her comfortable rut. Described like this, these are stereotypes, but the writing is good enough to really conjure these characters up, and dive into exchanges and snatches of dialogue where the characters are sparking off of each other in lust or conflict, so even though the overall dynamic of the relationship is certainly familiar the player is always embodied in the particular.
Part of what makes this so effective is how the story is told – I’ll spoiler-block this, since figuring out what was going on led to an “aha” moment I wouldn’t want to ruin. You start out clicking your choices in a part of the screen labeled “Monday”, but at a certain point suddenly your focus jumps to the side to a new paragraph labeled “Wednesday”, where one of the characters recalls a bit of the conversation they had a couple of days ago. Later the same thing happens with Saturday, until you’re following a thread of memory and resonance forward and backward through three separate conversations on three separate days that together constitute the relationship between the two characters. It’s all really well paced, too, jumping into exchanges just as they’re getting interesting, and jumping out when they’ve done what they need to do. The visual design backs this up too – when the days go inactive, they fade and go on a slight tilt, making clear where the action is by easy to refer to if you want to make sure you understand the connection points.
There are a lot of choices – at pretty much every pause in the dialogue, you’re picking what Verónica should do or say – but mostly they’re centered on whether she’s going along with Araceli’s attempts to shake up her status quo, or resisting them. For the most part they feel like impactful choices, though you can’t shift her characterization too far, which I think is appropriate, though there were a couple of times when I felt like the game’s interpretation of a choice was pretty different from how I’d intended it (at one point Araceli said something about how she liked places that are weird, and I had Vero ask if she was strange enough for her – I’d meant it playfully, but the blue text that carries Verónica’s inner monologue said it was because she wasn’t spontaneous and always wanted to know things in advance).
It feels like the choices shift the tone of the dialogue, though I didn’t do a ton of replaying to confirm that. They do build to a final, climactic choice, though I even though I’d played as something of a stick-in-the-mud even I had to go for the cathartic option there, and I can’t imagine other players doing anything differently. Spoilers again for what was an amazing moment: so throughout the game, Araceli has been pushing Verónica to leave her awful job, which is being a security guard for an abandoned, half-completed housing estate that’s basically a boondoggle for a corrupt developer. At the end of Saturday, she brings some spray paint and prods Vero to deface the place, and if you do, there’s a sudden splash of red against the heretofore pure white background of the game. The red paint is amazingly well animated – it’s sensuous and beautiful in a way that I, who’s typically way more attuned to text than images, usually don’t appreciate. It’s climactic and cathartic and a perfect moment of satori that ties the whole game together.
For all the things Moon Wed Saturn does right, I have to acknowledge that as I implied above, there were parts of the central relationship that didn’t work for me – specifically, I kind of couldn’t stand Araceli and thought she was just the fucking worst. Don’t get me wrong, I can get why someone like Verónica would be taken with her, but Araceli often came off to me as an aggressive manic pixie dream bully, like in the early segment where she tries to pressure Vero to smoke a cigarette precisely because Vero’s quit and doesn’t like smoking – people should be willing to do things they hate for those they love, you see. And later on, when Verónica explains the necessity of having this job given the challenges in her life, Araceli – who’s implied to come from a more privileged background – cheerfully bats it all away, because she thinks everything people do is just an expression of their character, and refuses to acknowledge how external reality can straiten one’s choices. I kept wanting to tell Verónica, get out of this relationship, this lady is toxic!
But I’ve definitely known people who’ve been in relationships like this – I’m sure you have, too – and I can’t deny that they can be meaningful and important. So the fact that this isn’t an idealized picture of two soul-mates who should be together forever doesn’t undercut the strength of the piece – but it did make the game’s finale perhaps a bit less bittersweet than intended. At any rate, this is a small, subjective response to a work that definitely merits a playthrough.