Marriage, friendship, hardship, loss of loved ones, second chance in life, pursuit of happiness… interwoven into a fairytale of love. That’s how I would explain the award-winning indie game: To the Moon, by Freebird Games, in a tweet’s length. It’s a short game; took me only 5 hours to get to the ending. For 5 hours of gameplay, the game’s price tag isn’t exactly cheap; $10 for the game itself, and optionally an extra $2.50 for the OST. But if you seek a superb story–and more importantly, a superb story telling experience; To the Moon is worth of every penny of your money and every second of your time.
Its brilliant story alone could not have moved my pathos so much without the beautiful, catchy soundtracks where the game masterfully amplify the mood of different parts of the story. Happy, sad, lovely, or even creepy scenes are immortalized by the music associated with them. I’ve played many games, but the only other game that achieved this effect was Umineko, where upon replaying the tracks I am able to immerse myself with the memories of fragments of the game.
Under my criteria, as a storytelling component, the background music in this game, is infinitely close to perfection.
My first impression of the game’s engine, however, is that it doesn’t deserve the quality of the game’s music. This game has no combat or leveling up mechanism, so why use RPG Maker? The engine has been a good platform for many Japanese horror games out there, but for this game, I initially did not know how it would capture the finer emotions (apart from fear).
Of course, there are obvious resource constraints that the developers faced. I too have wondered: how can characters comprised with only 16-bit sprites of countable number of pixels, without any close-up face portraits of any kind, or voice acting, enact a story with deep sentimental values?
Well, the game still has plenty visual cues that expresses emotions: turning one’s back, a blink, a facepalm, an excited child jumping up and down… Before high-fidelity, photorealistic graphics and before digital media has capacity to store voice overs and cinematic, we still had memorable characters and stories that have inspired our younger selves, to where today we still enjoy, write about, or even make video games.
Then I realized. It’s called imagination, the powerful tool that allowed one to visualize things that are left vague in these games. Like how an old man’s face must have looked when his dying wife inform him her refusal to undergo operation to extend her life. Like how happy the same couple must have been at their wedding. The examples are numerous, but listing them will spoil both the story and the fun.
I also thought about whether To the Moon could be better off as a comic, animation, or even a visual novel, but somehow I fear an adaptation would cause the game to lose its charm. Interactiveness, however minimized in this game, still serves as a functional storytelling component. In the story, two doctors, which the player controls, intent to observe and discover important clues within a man’s memory. Each memory piece is rather confined, and the objectives are quite close to each other. A fine equilibrium is reached where players will not get lost, but still feel that their “investigation” is important and push the story forward.
“If you want a good story, go read a book.” A common response to complains about video games lacking a good story. Granted not all games are about having a good story, as even fewer have the ability to fuse a solid story with game mechanics into a state-or-art storytelling experience.
And I’m glad that To the Moon has done it.