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Just had a very emotional experience.
- 10/01/2012 02:13 PM
I just experienced an emotional journey. I just traversed a man's entire life in anachronic order, from the day of his death to the day he met his wife to his earliest childhood memories. All of this in only three hours. This is how I felt after playing "To the Moon", an independent game project developed by Freebird Games, headed by young designer named Kan Gao. I use the term 'game' here in a loose sense, as it is not so much as a game as it is a visual novel, where you are simply guided through the story.
You play as Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts. These two work for a company that grant dying people their final wishes in the form of a dream. They sell a sort of panacea to the regrets we have in our lives. The concept is not new - the invasion of the mind to alter its state and dreams, much like in Christopher Nolan's Inception or Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where even the equipment and the playful banter of the employees can be seen in our own Rosalene and Watts here.
Our two doctors have been hired by John Wyles, an elderly man two days away from death. He lives on a lofty mansion, which sits adjacent to a lighthouse that is no longer functional due to advancing technology. However, it sits, with its obelisk structure, as a relic of the longing past. John can no longer speak by the time the two doctors have arrived but his wish had already been stated: He wants to go to the moon. And he doesn't know why.
John is cared for by a hospice doctor and his servant, Lily, whom resides there with her children, Tommy and Sarah. Each of these characters are filled with personality and life in this game - a product of the excellent writing that would be seen throughout this entire story. For example, Tommy and Sarah, when not picking on each other's looks, are quite fond of hopping side-by-side on a piano stool and playing a simple two-note melody which serves as the diegetic background music for the mansion hallway at times.
From a first glance of John's mansion, one might think of him as a peculiar and perhaps erratic old man, especially when the children lead you into a locked basement filled with dozens of origami paper rabbits and a quirky stuffed platypus. All the clocks in John's house also do not work. The doctors must visit John's memories, working their way backwards to his childhood to collect mementos and memorabilia so they could learn of his past and properly understand his wish. The previously stated eccentricities and idiosyncrasies each serve as a plot point, our doctors learn as they leap from memory to memory.
For example, very early in the game it is revealed that John's wife, River, deceased before the events of this story, had a degenerative disease very similar to Asperger's syndrome and that it was she who had crafted all the rabbits. Why do rabbits have so much significance? You find that out later at the memory of their wedding. These are all connected to construct the very candid but sombre reality symptomatic of John's s coping with a mentally ill wife. Other mementos, such as an umbrella, a backpack, a football, a notice and a jar of pickled olives all seem like just mundane meaningless items at first, until the player realizes the nexus that is forming as they progress.
The situations here are emotionally heavy but our doctors provide comic relief by joking around with each other from time to time, dropping nerdy pop culture references such as Dr. Who, Street Fighter and Dragonball Z to lighten the mood. As they have noted, they have probably seen stranger things in people's pasts. However, in the third act of the game, it is clear that their journey through John's mind has begun to take an emotional toll on them as they unravel a repressed memory and realize the repercussions it has had on the remainder of John's life. This was foreshadowed by a speech given by John's friend, Isabelle, about pretending to be another person for so long that she has forgotten what her real self is like. Anyone who appreciates good writing can appreciate the manner this story is layered. No scene feels like dead weight.
As much as I want to divulge the entire story, I restrain myself. It has affected me more than any form of media has in a long time, and to think that it was a group of young adults on an Internet forum coming together with their creativity and skill that made something of this impact and calibre, not a major videogame company. It should also be noted that Kan Gao is also a pianist and wrote much of the soundtrack for his own videogame. He has written a story about dreams lost, dreams realized and dreams regained, and how the many people in our lives can affect those dreams. It seems that this was a passion, or should I say "dream", project for him and I am ecstatic that he has worked on it and that it exists and that I had the opportunity to play and finish it. And I ain't ashamed to say that there were many times the story nearly jerked tears from my eyes, until finally the ending reached and I couldn't hold it in any longer.
In an era of fighting for worthless achievements, explosions and floating gun barrels, and the graphics-over-story stance most professional companies tend to take, To the Moon brings back a valuable element of gaming that I last felt in the Squaresoft era in the 90's: a gripping story that will last long after the game is complete. It is proof that, yes, deep emotional reward can be drawn from tiny 16-bit pixellated gestures. You don't even have to like videogames to find what I found in this. You just have to love good storytelling.
I've heard only praise for To the Moon. I'm apprehensive about grabbing it because the visual novel genre usually doesn't do it for me, but I guess there is a one hour demo I could play first.
the moon, you say
I'll take that and raise you this:
I saw this game being promoted on national television. Cool.
this game is really bad btw.