Published on September 10th, 2012 | by James Kulas
To the Moon: A Lesson in Interactive Storytelling
Art is capable of transporting us to another place, putting us in someone else’s shoes, opening doors to people we once were or could have been. Throughout life we each compile a list of literature, film and music which evoke our strongest reactions; recommending them with religious fervour to friends, family, and frightened pedestrians. For me a few of those are games, but given the amount I play, not many as I’d like.
Being a younger medium, interactive storytelling is still defining its language. Writers from more traditional backgrounds are adapting their tool kits, but dictating our experience in those terms often comes at the expense of interactivity. To the Moon falls into this category, for the most part you’re just along for the ride, but when the ride is so compelling, none of that seems to matter.
The premise is captivating, revolving around the ability to rewrite a dying man’s memories and experiences from within his own mind. Take your pick of science fiction where the protagonists enter another’s mindscape and you’ll be halfway there. We assume control of the doctoral detective duo responsible for this impressive feat, as they attempt to grant their patient’s final wish, to visit the moon.
Each memory is linked to another through the discovery of mementos, a beloved childhood toy, a favourite place, a familiar smell. Leapfrogging backwards in time to reach the origin of the notion, and sew the seeds of suggestion. Telling the story in reverse lends tremendous gravitas. Looking back over a life lived is a breathtakingly powerful and distinctly human sentiment, even more so when handled so thoughtfully.
Conversations are honest and believable, and while there is the odd rough patch, they provide insight without ever spelling things out. Provoking thoughts about characters and situations, inviting you to engage. A combination of nostalgic 16-bit RPG twangs and haunting piano accent every moment, and is so beautifully intertwined with the storytelling as to be inseparable. I cannot overstate the impact, you’re emotionally primed for the events to sink in unhindered, bypassing any jaded notions that you’re simply playing a game.
Bearing a striking resemblance to my beloved Chrono Trigger, To the Moon is capable of surprising visual subtlety as well. Perhaps it’s a case of my mind filling in the blanks, but characters appear expressive with only a handful of pixels at their disposal, and body language conveys as much information as the dialogue itself. Sweeping cliff-top vistas highlight poignant moments with cinematic finesse, leaving a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye.
It’s not an entirely sombre affair either, moments of genuine humour see parodies of traditional turn-based combat, and banter between the two protagonists provides some welcome comic relief. The emotional range at Freebird’s command is certainly impressive, competing with anything page or screen have to offer on a minuscule budget.
It’s not entirely without its flaws though. While I was finding my footing I longed for some more contextual elements. Aside from the mementos there isn’t much to explore within each environment and wandering off the path rarely yields rewards. Once I reconciled that exploring wasn’t necessary I settled down between the boundaries laid out for me and the plot whisked me away. In addition the simple tile puzzles are inoffensive but don’t really enhance the experience, or tie into anything meaningful as far as I could tell.
I’d love to go into more detail about the themes on display here, but I fear I would fundamentally alter your experience. As I’m sure those who know me will agree, I’m not someone who typically wears my emotions. It’s a testament to Freebird’s tremendous skill and consideration, and I can pay no greater complement than to admit To the Moon reduced me to tears several times. Suffice it to say, there are multiple threads to be teased out if you’re giving it the attention it deserves. Handing out glimpses of something more, deliberately and with exceptional timing, crafting a story which transcends the characters and engages the player on a level rarely seen in this medium. It is with great pleasure that I add To the Moon to my list of most precious experiences, and one I will never forget.