To The Moon(1)

Genre: Role Playing, Adventure
Year: 2011
Developed by: Freebird Games
Published by: Freebird Games
Platforms: Windows, Linux, OS, iOS, Android
Feeling Like: Entering my memories

Can I be honest with you?

I didn’t expect this project to last this long. I say that, but I’m only technically 20% done the goal of writing a piece on 500 different games. How far have I really come?

To The Moon is a perfect game to launch my next hundred. It’s appropriate both because it’s a numerical turning point on this list, and a small paradigm shift in video games. At the very least, it’s a prime example of artistic expression and how video games can be other things than shoot bad guys, collect power ups and save the princess.

It’s the highest quality byproduct of the popular program RPG Maker, masterfully crafted by Canadian (woohoo!) Kan Gao. There’s a heavy emphasis on story here because…well, that’s mostly all there is.  That’s the point. So how did a tiny game with dated graphics and a tiny scope pull this off?

To The Moon(2)
Take a seat and I’ll tell you

The story begins with two scientists entering a Johnny’s home. He’s an old man on his deathbed, and has tasked the Sigmund Corporation duo to implant false memories of him going to the moon. He doesn’t understand why he feels the need to do this, so it’s up to you to find out why. The memory must be implanted at childhood, but you’re only able to enter his recollections later in life and work your way backwards. It’s Inception meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, sprinkled with a bit of Memento, and if that isn’t one hell of a hook, you and I don’t have a lot in common.

Wow. WOW! Count me in. Oh sure, going into people’s dreams and memories is something I’ve done before in games, but this? Deeply personal. Deeply sad. There aren’t any easy answers, and there’s no miracle cure. You’re not there to save Johnny; he’s had a long life and will pass away soon. But there’s clearly regret and pain and who wouldn’t want to forget those sorts of things when you only have hours to live?

Constructing a narrative backwards isn’t easy, but To The Moon succeeds and then some. Each hour passes with a few mysteries solved, and a few more revealed. Johnny’s wife, River, didn’t have an easy time. She was diagnosed with Aspergers, frequently creates origami rabbits, randomly cuts her hair and is obsessed with a lighthouse for some reason. Does Johnny’s secret lie with River’s pain?

To The Moon(3)
The setting for one of gaming’s great love stories

I can’t divulge any further details without completely spoiling the story, but that does lead me to a small point of contention; did this need to be a video game? There’s little gameplay to be seen, mostly point here and click there. Would the impact have been amplified in another medium?

It’s possible, and the story does get a little heavy handed at times. But the emotional impact of the major story twists overcome any problems I had with this. When To The Moon hits, it hits hard. Dealing with things like love, regret, redemption and longing are not easy. Likewise, it’s just as difficult to portray these emotions with respect in video games and it’s likely why we don’t see it tackled with much frequency.

Freebird Games succeeds, by trusting the player to care about River’s plight, by allowing us to empathize with Johnny’s wish, by creating an astoundingly effective soundtrack, by not being afraid to address mourning and by doing all this with 16 bit sprite graphics and a minuscule development team. Even typing this post takes me right back to the game’s final and most satisfying scene and trying to convey why a rocketship and a few beeps means so much is futile, unless you’ve played the whole story. I still get goosebumps just thinking about it. Doubly so when the soundtrack appears on my playlist.

Here’s just one example of the brilliant audio that is draped across To The Moon.

It’s also appropriate to post this today, since it’s also the day that a sequel has just been announced. I doubt it will get the fraction of hype that most major AAA games do, but there’s a couple thousand people who jumped for joy at the news. Triumph in art usually flirts with an emotional connection across a wide number of people. I’m confident that if more played To The Moon, they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss stories in games as merely background wallpaper, instead of a crucial part of the centerpiece.

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