Video games have a language all their own. It's a language that most people understand implicitly—concepts like extra lives, leveling up, experience points, and boss battles have gone mainstream. That language has begun to seep into other media as well—movies like The Matrix, Source Code, and books like those in the Scott Pilgrim series all use the language of games to tell stories in fresh, interesting ways.
To The Moon, a new PC game from Kan Gao's indie studio Freebird Games, occupies a strange but welcome space between video games and non-interactive media. At its heart, To The Moon is mostly concerned with telling a story—and what a lovely story it is!—but what's remarkable is the way it tells that tale. It is, in essence, an interactive storybook that leverages the cultural language of video games to weave a unique and affecting tapestry.
To The Moon tells the story of two scientists who transport themselves into the memories of a comatose, dying old man named John. They must move backwards through his life, learning his life story while slowly unraveling the reason why he wants to travel to the moon before he dies. The story is presented as a mystery—as the scientists proceed, they (and we) learn more about John, his wife River, and the story of their life together.
The setup is equal parts Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with a touch of Memento's reverse-engineered storytelling. As a "game," it's not much to write home about—there are some very simple puzzles and a lot of object-hunting, but for the most part, the game plays itself.
On the Freebird Games site, Gao is very clear about his goal in making To The Moon. "The design philosophy was simple," he writes, "to create a 'game' that takes the player through a story in the form of an an immersive interactive show." And in that, To The Moon is a success. The writing is snappy and funny, the characters are well-developed, and the music, composed by Gao and Plants vs. Zombies composer Laura Shigihara, is entirely lovely. But what surprised me about To The Moon was how it leveraged the visual, aural and even emotional language of video games to better tell its story.
When I talk about "the language of video games," I'm talking about a couple of things. Recent films like Inception and The Matrix involve concepts of ego-transference, digital projection, climbing through levels, and extra lives. (For those with long memories, I actually had some significant problems with how Inception functioned.) I'd say those films mostly channel the structural language of games. Increasingly, I'm noticing films, books, and TV shows that are informed by games' cultural and emotional language as well.
Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim graphic novels are a good example of this kind of storytelling. Strip away the jokes and the pop culture references, and the books tell a fairly humble story about twenty-something Canadian hipsters slacking off, playing rock shows, and figuring themselves out. The dramatic story-arc follows the structure of a video game—to secure the love of his girlfriend Ramona, Scott must fight increasingly difficult bosses on his way towards self-actualization. But what I've always liked about the books is how they leverage the aesthetic qualities of games to enhance the story, characters, and world. The sight-gags, the game references, and in Edgar Wright's 2010 film adaptation, the pitch-perfect musical and audio cues; all of those things trade on the audience's knowledge of games like Zelda and Final Fight to create a uniquely video-gamey pastiche.
Although it is ostensibly a game, To The Moon actually has more in common with Scott Pilgrim than it does with Final Fantasy. Their overall vibes may be dramatically different, but in much the same manner as O'Malley did with the Pilgrim books, Gao has slyly repurposed the aesthetic qualities of video games with great success. The most striking way he does this is with To The Moon's art style, which clearly and consciously channels the Square RPGs of the 16-bit era, most notably Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana.
It's nice to look at, sure, but the game's art also serves an important emotional function. Seeing those characters moving about the screen in that certain halting, charming manner provides a jolt of nostalgia that is as evocative as it is lovely. The story of To The Moon is a story about the past, about loss and nostalgia, and so by using an art style that so many of us associate with our childhoods, Gao allows the art to do a lot of the initial heavy lifting. From the very first scene, the audience is placed in a headspace conducive to the story that Gao wants to tell. By the time the soundtrack made a melodic reference to "Cloud's Theme" from Final Fantasy VII, I was already thoroughly under the game's spell.
To The Moon is a warmly humorous game, and many of its jokes stem from self-aware video game references. It's similar to the kind of thing seen in other self-aware games like Deathspank, Matt Hazard and the 2004 A Bard's Tale. But while with some of those games the jokes could wind up feeling like the whole point, here the gags are casual and tossed-off.
Call it a game, call it an interactive story; whatever you call it, To The Moon is fantastic. Throughout the narrative, a single piece of music keeps popping up—it's a piece for piano written by one of the characters, and it begins with a two note ostinato, gradually adding left-hand harmony before finally delivering a simple, pretty melody. Just as the song grows in complexity, so too does the story of John and River, and of their home overlooking the Lighthouse. I'm hopeful that Steam will accept Gao's submission, which will doubtless help the game find a broader audience. It would be a perfect game for the iPad and other touchscreen devices, too—like any good book, it would be best experienced sitting on the porch on a Sunday, rather than sitting in front of a mouse and keyboard.
It's so nice to see creative people like Kan Gao and Bryan Lee O'Malley experimenting with video games' emotional space in order to tell such uniquely affecting stories. Their work is a reminder that although we may lament the emotional barrenness of many current releases, video games have been touching our hearts for decades, and likely will continue to do so for many years to come. To The Moon channels that truth with remarkable confidence and heart, weaving a story that is funny, sad, and emotionally satisfying.
To The Moon [Freebird Games]