Friday, September 21, 2012

Suddenly ... a genuine treat appeared.

It's not really fair to call To The Moon a game. Game is still a word that draws negative connotations. Critics dismiss games, as if they are somehow not worthy of having time spent upon them. They are automatically classified as throwaway entertainment, low brow diversions for the masses, and are not given the respect that they, at times, deserve. They can't possibly engage you, so the time worn comparison goes, to the same extent as a book does.

But then, this coin has two faces. To describe it as interactive fiction would mean that large chunks of gamers will simply refuse to give it a fair crack of the whip. They are put off by the lack of action, or the long passages where characters simply converse with each other. Games, they argue, are meant to be challenging. If I wanted a story I'd read a book.

Both arguments are, frankly, nonsensical. To The Moon is neither game nor interactive fiction, at exactly the same time as it is both. Traditional gameplay elements are present, in admittedly limited form, but the focus is absolutely upon telling the story.

And, what an exceptional story it is! A tale of regret, of hardship, and ultimately of love.

We are first introduced to Drs. Watts and Rosemary, two specialists in a rather extraordinary field. Utilising a special machine, they are able to enter the memories of a client, and alter them to fulfill any desire. They achieve this by finding links to earlier memories, and working backwards through the clients life until they are able to make a change that sticks. This then has the effect of altering the clients perception of their life. It is almost exactly halfway between Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in its scope.

For client, read patient. The downside of this transformation is that the effort means that once the client has undergone the procedure, they have just enough time to wake up before dying, blissfully happy. It is for this reason that it is only ever done on people who are close to death.

Our patient is an old man called Johnny. His wish is to go to the moon. We don't know why, we just know that our task is to go through his life, in reverse, until we get to his childhood where we can implant that wish along with the desire to make it happen. And so, we embark upon a journey through his life, wherein we meet his deceased wife River, discover why his favourite food is pickled olives, and learn why River kept on making origami rabbits.

As we progress, we find ourselves having to infer most of the important details for ourselves. This game is brave enough to trust that we are able to decipher the clues and pick up on the cues. The subject matter that is breached could be quite hefty stuff indeed, but we never have to sit through any painful chunks of exposition. By the end of the experience, you remember it more for what it specifically didn't tell you than for what it did. One word, in particular, is notable for its complete abscence. In a medium which tends to treat its participants as imbeciles and thus bludgeons us with its points, this is an extremely welcome change of pace.

You see this lighthouse a lot. It is important!

It becomes one of those games where it is impossible to talk about what makes it so good, for fear of spoiling it for the next player. And, you will want to turn your friends into players. The 2D top-down 16-bit JRPG style presentation will be both tool and barrier in this regard, as some will happily jump on board where others will sneer at the apparent simplicity of the graphics. Thankfully, nobody will be put off by the music, which is deployed to devastating effect at key moments. Kan Gao is quite happy to manipulate our emotions, and it could all prove too much for some. Tears will almost certainly form, and may even leave your eyes before your 5 or so hours are up.

It plays us almost as much as we play it. Tension is frequently broken by jokes from Dr. Watts, who is clearly meant to be an everygeek. Dr. Rosemary is his more serious foil, and the interplay between the two is of the sort one would expect from colleagues who have worked together for a long time. The sense that they exist outside of the game space is tangible, and with their approaches to the job it feels very much like these are just two people having a trickier day at work than usual.

It is rare enough that games can be lauded for their story. Far too often the same old tropes are wheeled out, as if game stories are built in factories by randomly grabbing at the blocks that go past on the conveyor belt. When they do have a story to tell, it is often handled clumsily. To The Moon is not just an example of telling a story well, but also having a story that would live outside of its game. This would make for an entertaining movie.

Games that prioritise story have tried different approaches in the past. Heavy Rain turned as much as possible into an interactive element, whereas Dear Esther went to the extreme opposite end of the scale. Neither quite reached the heights that they were capable of, being too entrenched in their respective positions. To The Moon inhabits a curious space in the middle, where game like aspects are present, but only when they serve the purpose of the narrative. For the most part, interactions are limited to walking about with a few straightforward puzzles, and not even the few dialogue choices make any noticeable difference. There is no fail state at any point.

But to complain about any of that would be looking for problems when there is no need. What matters more than the individual parts is the sum, the overall experience itself. That is what Freebird Games has absolutely nailed, and that is why you should dive in and try it for yourself. This industry has challenged my reflexes for more than 30 years now, it is about time it started challenging my preconceptions too.