To the Moon review
For::Wonderfully written, Deeply emotionally affecting, Stunning soundtrack
Against::Not in the strictest sense a game
Kan Gao’s latest is a beautiful, touching work about love and memory.
Wheels within wheels
Hey, you remember when you watched that team of scientists invading the mind of an enigmatic individual, swimming around in a soup of pop-culture tropes and bizarre reality distortions while groping their way towards a nebulously-defined goal slotted away in the deepest psyche?
Yep, I played To the Moon as well this month. That is what we were all thinking of, I’m sure. And despite the sad lack of Joseph Gordon Levitt looking slightly constipated, I had a wonderful time. I think you will too, if you can let go of a few preconceptions about ‘fun’ or ‘value’.
To the Moon, the first commercial production by Canadian indie auteur Kan Gao’s Freebird Games, is the story of a very singular technology, which allows specialists to enter the mind of patients on the verge of death, and grant them their greatest wish. Complicating the picture is the fact that the scientists must understand the roots of their desire to allow the recipient to assimilate the artificial memories completely. Beyond my utterly hilarious misdirection in the opening paragraph, it really shares little with Inception; if Christopher Nolan’s film is the magician strutting the well-lit stage shocking with hints of deep mystery, Kan Gao’s tale is the gypsy fortune teller in the shabby tent, telling well-worn stories of the human heart.
I’m going to be up front about this: In my opinion, everyone reading this would be better served simply stopping right here and scurrying off to download a copy. Still, if you are intent on hearing what I have to say about things, although I can’t imagine why you would, then I can sum it up in a single sentence: To the Moon is beautiful, touching and intelligent, but it is not a game.
Am I a butterfly dreaming I’m a man… or a bowling ball dreaming I’m a plate of sashimi?
I’m very aware at this point that I am holding a lot back. I want you to go out and experience the wonderful plot and tight characterisation of To the Moon, but in order to properly convince you to do that, I may have to give away more than I might wish. You see, coming to this visual novel fresh is like coming across a wild flower in bloom by the side of the motorway where you just happened to pull over because you were busting for a pee; all I can offer you is the ghostly remains of its scent trapped between sheets of paper.
In other words, if you don’t want to know the score, look away from the next paragraph now.
To the Moon is a deeply affecting exploration of the ties that bind two people together, and the way that desires and dreams are sublimated to the cause of maintaining a life together. The scientist double-act whose roles you take on are contracted to fulfil the desire of Johnny Wyles, a dying widower who expresses the wish to visit the titular satellite. The way the wise-cracking, and overtly cracked, duo achieve this is by travelling backwards through his memories, collecting objects that hold hermeneutical significance to break open earlier scenes. Johnny’s deceased wife River comes to figure as a totem of the way Johnny’s life failed to live up to expectations, and the unravelling of mysteries surrounding their relationship forms the bones of a narrative that spans life, death and memory itself.
It is a rare thing indeed that a developer plays with character for more than a few moments before committing to the same tired stereotypes as everyone else. Flashes of indie inspiration notwithstanding, it is often a simple matter to read everything you need to know about a character’s motivations from the clothes he or she wears. Wearing armour with lights on it? Must be a sci-fi space marine in a desperate struggle against an alien menace. Got an infeasibly large sword and a ridiculous haircut? That’ll be your androgynous JRPG boy-man, on a journey to seek a place in the world and overcome personal tragedy.
Kan Gao has gone beyond this simple trope, with a lightness of touch and a taste for the mundane made strange that reminds me why it is I bang on about writing in games quite so much. The characters are all complex individuals, with secret dreams and hidden trauma that they are only ever partly aware of. Every decision they make, be it for good or ill, is driven by their personal psychology. The story is built from such imperfect building blocks that it never feels surprising when you run up against a reference to something that remains unexplained—life is rarely as neat as video games would have us believe.
If I haven’t made it entirely clear yet, I love this odd thing. The story is a beautiful prism, reflecting back at me moments in my own life that I wish I could revisit and change, while showing me the heartbreak that lurks beneath the surface of some else’s face. It does what all great art is meant to do, creating a brief tenuous link between the audience’s own self and the soft mushy substance of some else’s personality. A large part of that is the soundtrack; I am not ashamed to say that Laura Shigihara’s guest appearance brings me to tears every time I hear it.
For all that though, describing it as a game feels like a step too far for me to take. The elements of interactivity within it are rudimentary at best, and despite the aesthetic style bringing up memories of SNES-era RPGs, it is more of a mixture of cultural appropriation from multiple media. The phrase I’ve used most often to describe it so far is ‘Visual Novel’, one that takes the respect for narrative from the dead tree tradition and transplants it wholesale to a new medium. This comes with some baggage attached however; I’d like to see a version of the game where the tedious puzzle-lite elements are removed, allowing audiences who aren’t familiar with game conventions to experience something that has universal appeal.
I sincerely believe this is one of the finest pieces of narrative design I have ever seen, regardless of whether it is technically a game or not. If you can cast off some of your assumptions, you might like it too.
To the Moon is available on Steam, GoG.com and Origin, or directly from the developer. Freebird Games have announced that a second instalment in the series will be with us in due course.