I recently watched a playthrough of the computer game To the Moon, which I knew nothing about except that it was independently made and that a lot of people were impressed by the depth of its storytelling.  I found it to be a gripping story that managed to use the genre of a video game to draw the player into a tale that was both tragic and beautiful at the same time, while giving the player a lot to think about.

To the Moon screenshotI really can’t talk about how the game does this without giving the story away, so if you want to experience it the way I did, you can download it for Windows computers at http://freebirdgames.com/to_the_moon/ for $10.  Or, you can look for a playthrough of the game on YouTube, preferably one without anyone talking over the game, such as this one.  I was so impressed by the playthrough that I bought a copy of the game to play myself.

There’s actually enough to talk about in To the Moon for a whole series of posts, and I’m afraid I will need to reveal most of the story in order to talk about it.  So I’ll just start with this post for now, and include the following spoiler warning:

If you are the type of person who wants no spoilers at all, then I’m afraid you have to stop reading here and play the game!  Be prepared for tears, though– it’s an emotional story.

I knew that To the Moon‘s story was emotional (with both happy and sad moments) when I started watching it.  But I was not expecting for it to resonate so strongly with me on a personal level.  It actually helped me put words to some of the things I’ve wanted to write about on this blog.  Unfortunately, I can’t really explain how and why it did that without spoiling pretty much everything about the game’s story!

So, I figure I’ll start by reviewing the game as a whole before giving my personal reflections on it.  I’ll wait until my next post before I get into the really spoilerish stuff, but I hope you do come back and read what I have to say eventually!  🙂

To the Moon is designed in the style of a classic 16-bit RPG (role-playing game) like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger.  That genre of game is usually heavy on story, portraying battles only abstractly and allowing the gamer to use his or her imagination to picture what’s happening.  This game is even more story-centered than that, in that there are almost no battles– in fact, the main characters are in no danger for almost all of the story.  In that sense, it owes a bit to point-and-click exploration games like Myst.  The incentive for progressing in the game is the same as that in a really good book– simply wanting to find out what happens next.

The story has a sci-fi premise.  Technology has been developed that allows for the reading and rewriting of memories.  It can be used to give a person on his deathbed a final happy memory by allowing him to experience something he always wished he could do but was never able to– a different life, a path not taken.

The player characters are Dr. Eva Rosaline (all business) and Dr. Neil Watts (an endless source of wisecracks), who work for a company that offers this service to those who request it.  Their client is Johnny Wyles, an elderly man just days away from death.  Johnny’s dying wish is to go to the moon– but strangely enough, he can give no reason for this wish.  It’s just something he feels he’s always wanted for some reason.

This presents the doctors with a bit of a problem, as knowing the reason behind a desire tends to be important if you want to find a “turning point” somewhere in a person’s life from which to explore a different path.  Did the desire to go to the moon begin as an adult?  As a college student?  As a teen?  Even earlier?  Johnny is unconscious throughout the story, so Rosaline and Watts can’t talk to him.  And no one else knows much about him– his family is gone, and his housekeeper says he’s always kept to himself.

But they can explore his memories.  Rosaline and Watts enter what is essentially a virtual reality simulation generated by Johnny’s memories.  They can watch and listen as significant events and conversations take place, choosing to interact or remain hidden.  It is just a simulation– one that they can even rewind and reset if they make a mistake. They are not changing history or changing Johnny’s memories; they are merely exploring.

They are able to start with Johnny’s latest accessible memory, from not long before he fell ill.  If they come across a keepsake or other object that has earlier memories tied to it, they can use that to jump backwards to those memories.  (The game uses a very simple puzzle game to represent setting the time coordinates; I couldn’t help but think that if these were my memories, the puzzles would probably be nonograms!)

And so we get to see the story of Johnny’s long life play out in reverse.  We see his most joyful times and his lowest times.  At its heart, the story of his life is a love story between him and his wife River, who had her own struggles that John tried but sometimes failed to understand.

Story is everything in this game, and clearly a lot of work went into the storytelling.  The conversations throughout Johnny’s life are realistic and heartfelt.  The game expertly reveals little pieces of the puzzle in a way that only heightens the anticipation of learning more.  It makes great use of the two player characters– Dr. Rosaline and Dr. Watts’ problem solving, bickering, and silly antics give the game some tonal consistency that helps the player to process the heavy emotional content of the main story.  Sometimes their comments are detached or flippant, but other times each of them becomes quite thoughtful, even though their personalities couldn’t be more different.

The game’s soundtrack is excellent– I like to listen to the music by itself.  It features several haunting piano melodies backed by strings and plucked harp notes.  It’s computer-generated, but it reminds me a little of Joe Hisashi’s style of music, and that’s high praise.  The main theme of the game is a lovely piano melody composed by Johnny for River.

“I . . . I’ve never told anyone, but . . . I’ve always thought they were lighthouses.”

The only criticism I have is that I thought the game’s ending left more loose threads than I expected given the quality of the storytelling, but that’s an opinion that might change if I play through the game again.  I think the ending is intended to leave the player with some questions to think about– interestingly, based on my reading of others’ reactions, although nearly everyone cried at the ending, some cried because they thought the ending was happy and others cried because they thought it was tragic!  I didn’t cry, because I was still trying to figure out which it was– perhaps an unsettling mixture of each.  But I think that’s what the game’s creator was going for– no easy answers, just a lot to think about.

This game demolishes the argument that video games cannot be art– To the Moon is certainly a work of art, and its effectiveness as such is largely due to the fact that it uses the video game genre so well to tell its story and invite the player to participate in it.
I’m looking forward to sharing more specific observations in my next post!