To the Moon

The videogame medium as a whole has a continual problem with the concept of narrative.

Early games were either devoid of narrative or kept the narratives so deceptively simple that there was no real reason to worry about them. Here’s a gorilla who kidnapped a princess, here’s a plumber jumping over barrels to save her. Go. RPGs came along and added more depth to the field, but along with that came a cavalcade of tropes and repetitive gameplay that fans became so reliant upon, that it took literal decades to move on from endless level grinds, although new RPGs have embraced the no frills of the newer type of action gameplay a la newer Final Fantasy installments, there are still nostalgic games that embrace that same grind that makes those game 100-plus-hour marathons with about ten hours of story stretched out into the aether.

Narratives in games have been an evolving situation, albeit that evolution is at a snail’s pace compared to the graphical and technical leaps within the industry. At this point, games like The Last of Us have become a standard for narrative excellence, although for folks like me, the ludonarrative dissonance is too strong to overlook. Playing a taut, heavily scripted narrative experience that’s immaculately animated, framed, acted and scored only to enter into disruptive gameplay segments where a character who frets about the morality of harming human beings then starts lobbing bricks and bullets at the heads of immaculately scripted baddies doesn’t work for me.

This gave rise to a subgenre of games called “walking simulators,” dubbed as such by HARDCORE GAMERZ who saw these more artistic games that didn’t focus on addictive gameplay loops or shooting mechanics, but instead something closer to film or prose-like pacing, but with using a videogame as the medium and delivery method as diminutive experiences. Yet, these games have endured, sometimes using simple, free or commercially inexpensive tools to make said games, with the focus on telling a great story, not bogging you down with skill trees or boss fights.

To the Moon is one such game, from way back in 2011, and a game I’ve put off playing for years for who knows what reason. I think it might be the intro with the two quirky scientists that threw me off, or how rough the actual game played while controlling them to get past the intro scene. But I finally sat down and played this game last week and was pleasantly surprised by it.

The conceit is simple: you control two scientists (although you pick the man or the woman as your main playable character) who work for a service that traverses the memories of a client, connecting their memories with strong found objects, then implanting an idea to help craft an end-of-life wish. In this case, they’re at the home of John, a dying widower who built a house on a cliff side right next to a lighthouse and has a house filled with origami rabbits.

You see, he wants to go to the moon.

The problem is, nothing in his memories point to having any strong connection with going to the moon and there’s a stopping point for these memories where he’s suppressed parts of his childhood. Traversing these memories, the doctors find a complicated relationship between John and his autistic wife, the same reason he built the house by the lighthouse, the person who created the rabbits, and the person he devoted his life to. Only his memories make things seem more fraught and complicated. In fact, John feels almost unlikable throughout parts of the story.

As the story unfolds, you learn more about these characters and this is one of those games where a lot of the minor details come back later to be much more meaningful. There are a few “gamey” segments where you’re dodging spikes or trying to navigate through a maze, which isn’t great, but a bulk of the game is walking around, watching these memories unfold and interacting with said memories.

The two doctors can be grating at times, but it all pays off nicely. This is very much a game built in RPG Maker, although later ports were built in Unity, and while there isn’t a lot of technical mastery over the medium, it’s perhaps one of the best actual stories I’ve ever experienced in a videogame to date. The same kind of punch that comes from playing a game like Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home, Adios and other “walking simulator” type of games. What’s striking is that this is the kind of story that could technically be done through other mediums. This could easily have been a play or a film, but there are integral parts that are so uniquely built for the medium of games that even if gameplay takes a backseat to the narrative, it’s very much a videogame and very much worth your time.

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