Indie Time: To the Moon

To the Moon first got headlines because it features some music by Laura Shigihara, famous for writing and performing the Plants vs. Zombies theme song. But then it kept getting headlines, on its own merits, and by all accounts is not only excellent but also fascinating. I’ve been looking forward to playing it for a while.

The premise of the game is simple. At some point not far in the future, the technology exists to alter a person’s memories, essentially rewriting their lives. Since this process is so disruptive, it is reserved for people on their deathbeds, to help them realize their final desires. In the game, the player follows two doctors from the Sigmund Agency of Life Generation, as they enter a dying man’s memories and attempt to fulfill his last wish: to go to the moon.

The game is made with RPGMaker, a program typically used to create Japanese-style RPG games, but To the Moon is not an RPG. In fact, it does not easily fall into any game category; perhaps the closest would be an adventure game, but the game’s primary creator, Kan Gao, describes it as an “immersive interactive show”. There are relatively few “game-y” elements, and those present do not actually add much to the experience (and in a few cases might even detract from it). Instead, what To the Moon does incredibly well is tell an engaging, tightly-woven, well-written and very moving story.

I found I was playing To the Moon at an appropriate time, on the heels of a heated controversy stirred up by some comments a writer for Bioware made — specifically that she does not particularly enjoy combat in games, and would like the option to skip it so she can enjoy the story. This resulted in a torrent of hate aimed in her direction, something that I wish I could say was surprising. Sadly, such reactions are all too common on the internet and from the so-called “gaming community”, and the taint they put on the public perception of gamers is something that I hope this blog does a tiny part to alleviate. But I don’t want to discuss that now; it’s already been covered excellently elsewhere. What I do want to discuss is the idea, put forward by many during this debate, that when combat or other gameplay mechanics are skipped or removed in favor of story, the result is no longer a game, and might as well just be a movie or a book. This idea could not be more wrong, and there is no better proof than To the Moon.

Before I go any further I should state that To the Moon is wonderful. It is masterful. I recommend it highly to anyone, even those who do not play games. You might think that 4-5 hours of playtime is not enough to justify the $12 asking price; this is not true. To the Moon may be short, but it uses its time more effectively than any game in recent memory. I have argued previously that it can more important for games to be interesting than to be well-designed, but To the Moon manages both. It is interesting not only because it focuses on narrative, which is a rare thing in games, but because it executes its narrative in a way that could not be done in another medium.

In many ways, To the Moon seems to mix elements from different media: it has scenes that play out much like those in a film, for example, but these scenes show you less than a film would. The low-res graphics manage to be quite beautiful, the characters well-animated and expressive, but nevertheless there is room for the player to project his or her own interpretations onto the scenes. The details of characters’ appearances, their voices and tone (dialogue is text-based) — these are left up to the player to imagine, as would be the case in a work of prose. The original soundtrack, composed by Kan Gao (Laura Shigihara lends vocals), is not only instrumental in setting the emotional tone of various scenes in the game, but is also tied to the narrative in a meaningful way. Aesthetically, the result is something rather unique.

Most important, though, is the interactive element, and this is even more impressive considering how little interaction there is. As I stated before, some of the elements — puzzles and the odd action sequence — actually detract from the game a bit, seeming to be concessions to traditional game mechanics in a work that otherwise does so much to move away from them. These things could be removed without doing any damage to the work as a whole, but once taken out, the remaining interactive parts of To the Moon are quite subtle. The player can do little to change the story, although there are some surprising details that serve to personalize the experience. At one point, controlling one of the Sigma Corporation doctors, I walked into a room to find my colleague on the phone. I feared that this would advance the story before I was ready — I wanted to look around and talk to some people before moving on — so I reloaded my save and avoided that room, instead starting conversations with a few other people first. When I returned to the room, my colleague was no longer talking on the phone, instead telling me about the conversation he had just had. Apparently my choice to spend some time talking to others was actually a meaningful one, in a small way. This made me wonder how many other such moments there are in the game, where little details respond to where I go and what I choose to do. Moments I might not even realize were there.

That is in essence what is interactive about the game: while the story itself is linear, the player has many opportunities to explore and talk to people, both in the real world and in the dying man’s memories. At many points these explorations are mandatory, as a means of locating a path to earlier memories, but at other times there are optional components. And while this interaction is fairly minimal, it makes a huge difference to the overall experience. The two doctors were moving backward through the dying man’s memories, but I was too. By giving me control, To the Moon involved me personally in the story in a way that is not possible in, say, a film. I was not simply watching these characters, I was with them myself, personally invested in them and the dying man they were trying to help. And even if the responses to my choices were, in the end, unimportant, the fact that they were there did a great deal to enhance my personal connection with the story.

At this point it should be clear that I am avoiding talking about the plot. It really is best to go into To the Moon without knowing anything about what happens. An unfortunate side effect of this is that I feel I have not expressed well enough just how good it is. It is about a great many things, despite its short length, including several themes that few games would be brave enough to tackle. It is funny, somber, heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once, and is worth playing just for that. But it is also a daring piece of experimental design and an excellent case for the value of games as a medium.

You can get it here, and there’s a 1-hour free trial too if you are on the fence about the $12 price tag. Hopefully the trial will make you realize you shouldn’t be. There are hints that the next game from Freebird Games will be a sequel of sorts, but no matter what they come up with next, I look forward to it with anticipation. In the meantime, I hope I have convinced a few more people to play To the Moon. It’s worth it.

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6 Responses to Indie Time: To the Moon

  1. jefequeso says:

    Games need to approach stories in ways that cannot be done in other mediums. Primarily, though player interaction. Allowing you to affect the story, change the ourcomes, create your own tale etc are all obvious ways of doing this. But they are not necessarily the only ways. For instance, although I think that the Call of Duty series as a whole exemplifies bad videogame storytelling, the nuclear scene at the end of CoD4 is actually quite good. It engages the player emotionally because the player really is there, dragging himself around and looking at the wreckage as he dies. From an abstract point of view, the same effect couldn’t be achieved in another medium. The player interaction is what makes it so powerful. That’s good videogame storytelling.

    Bad videogame storytelling is when the story could have just as easily been told the same way in another medium. And I would argue that when player interaction is limited, and is not being utilized as an important aspect of the story or emotional effect, then it’s bad storytelling no matter how good the story itself might be (I have not played Dear Ester, but I very much suspect this to be the case with it).

    From your review, it sounds like To The Moon is NOT bad storytelling. However, I’m a little concerned with this recent trend of simplifying or completely ignoring gameplay in favor of the narrative. Yes, videogames are a storytelling medium… but they are also so much more. And to try to turn them into ONLY a storytelling medium is to take away significant parts of what makes them so intriguing in the first place.

    • waltorious says:

      I absolutely agree that not all games should be focused solely on narrative, and that narrative is hardly the only thing worth analyzing and appreciating in games. But I do find narrative in games very interesting as it’s an aspect that can easily be compared and contrasted with other forms of media, and this often reveals some of the unique strengths of games. Analyzing gameplay systems in a multiplayer shooter, while interesting, doesn’t usually lead to comparisons to film, for example (although I suppose comparisons to sports might be appropriate). This is why I think narrative comes up often in debates about the relative artistic merit of games as a medium; it’s an aspect where we can demonstrate unique strengths of games as directly compared to other media like film.

      “And I would argue that when player interaction is limited, and is not being utilized as an important aspect of the story or emotional effect, then it’s bad storytelling no matter how good the story itself might be”

      I’m not sure I agree with this. Games that utilize interaction in their storytelling are interesting because that interaction is unique to games as a medium, but I still think that games with non-interactive stories can have good storytelling. For example, I quite liked Master of the Wind, primarily for its writing and story, but that story was completely linear and I had no influence on it whatsoever as a player. Instead, my gameplay was limited to non-story-related stuff: the random battles, solving puzzles, or wandering around towns in between story events. Still, I found I was far more invested in the characters and their story than I would have been if it were a book or a film. Their growth as characters was mirrored by their increasing effectiveness in the battles, which I was guiding, and as a result I felt like a part of their team rather than an outside observer.

      Hmm… when I phrase it like that I guess you could argue that the interactivity was actually related to the story. But I’m certain others would argue otherwise, and claim it’s just a linear story that the player must watch. Certainly I had no effect whatsoever on the script itself. Comes down to how one views the interactive elements I suppose.

      Also there were other aesthetic aspects that I enjoyed, like how the non-interactive sections involved written text rather than voiced dialogue (so I could read my own inflections into characters’ lines), and action was shown graphically but with a more symbolic rather than realistic style. A film would have had a stronger reliance on visuals and audio, whereas a book would have required descriptive text to replace the animated visuals. Instead, by using the representational techniques of a specific game genre (that of the old-school JRPG), I got something in between, which suited the writing quite well. So even without considering interaction, just the way the game communicated to me was different than it would have been in another medium. Although I suppose that technically one could have made a film using the same graphics and with text boxes for dialogue. But that type of thing is hardly common.

      • jefequeso says:

        Yes, I would argue that in your example, the interactivity was related to the story. Because as I touched on, it’s not about having concrete mathematical ways in which the player can influence the story. It’s about using the most unique part of videogames–their interaction–in a way that enhances the experience. I think that Halflife 2 has one of the most forward-thinking stories in all of gaming. Or at least in all of FPS gaming. And it’s because the real meat of the story lies in you actively looking around, observing things, experiencing things, and deducing things for yourself. You need to “go get” the story, rather than let it be handed to you as it is in other mediums.

        Arguably, every single game is going to be a different experience than if the same game were a movie. Even Call of Duty, in that you feel more connected to the cutscenes you see because you end up as part of the events you’re seeing. So it’s probably quite inaccurate of me to imply that there’s a definite solid line between good and bad videogame storytelling. It would be more accurate to say that games that don’t make good use of this aren’t utilizing the medium to its fullest extent.

  2. jefequeso says:

    And for the record, I was in agreement with the article you linked until he started showing his own bigotry. After that, it was apparent that he’s yet another hypocrite that calls for an end to internet flaming yet perpetuates the same sort of bitter hate that causes said flaming in the first place. So he wants to fight fire with fire? The past couple decades have seen the internet full of exactly that, and it’s done nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing but keep the problem alive and well. If people REALLY want to see change, they need to stop trying to smite all those that oppose them, and start treating others with respect… even if they don’t think those others deserve respect.

    • waltorious says:

      You are referring to the “A Wretched Hive” article? I didn’t read it that way… I guess the author ends on a bit of a harsh note but his central argument — that we should not simply ignore people who spout offensive hate speech, but confront them — is valid. And for the most part, he does ask for reasoned, polite intercourse with such people, even if it’s clear he’d like to simply tell them to “fuck off”, as he does at the end. That’s easily the most contentious part. I think the author was trying to say that when the opponents don’t listen to reason and refuse to engage in respectful discourse, that’s when you boot them. Perhaps that’s a bit too harsh, but I agreed with the rest of the piece. You are right that fighting fire with fire doesn’t work, but I thought that article mostly did a good job of avoiding it.

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