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.

 

PS: Link to the great fanart at begin­ning of the post (con­tain minor spoiler).  To the Moon has a “sorta-ish” sequel com­ing: A Bird Story.  Take my money, Free­bird Games!