Giant Bomb Review

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To the Moon Review

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The interactive elements of To the Moon exist solely in service of pushing you through its story, but it's a story very much worth pushing through.

To the Moon writer/director/designer/composer Kan Gao is someone whose talents appear poised to shine in the game industry for a very long time. He is someone who clearly understands what it means to make a video game's story count for something, and he is unafraid to center those stories around challenging subjects that most other game designers assiduously avoid in favor of rote entertainment. The truth is, themes like death, loss, tragedy, and emotional connection can be entertaining--just not in the narrowly uproarious way most game designers tend to focus on. To the Moon is about all of these things, and quite a bit more. It's equally silly and serious, a frivolous adventure that becomes infinitely more meaningful as you trek deeper and deeper into it. And yet, I can't quite call To the Moon a great "game," exactly, because for as much as To the Moon is something you play, its attempts at interactivity are often relegated to the sidelines in favor of pure narrative.

People who look to video games as a storytelling medium will find lots to like about To the Moon.

In a sense, it's the opposite of the problem we critics grouse about so often about video games. Gao's talent as a writer and storyteller becomes apparent early on, and his sense of direction is clear and pointed. Even his musical work (at least a portion of which was co-written with veteran composer Laura Shigihara) is strong throughout. But as with all jack-of-all-trades developers, Gao is clearly better at some things than others. His concept for a game design is to borrow liberally from the top-down, 16-bit era RPGs of the early '90s, then remove nearly all the mechanics inherent to that genre in favor of a design that's closer to a classic PC adventure game. You spend a great deal of time pixel hunting through a highly pixelated world, searching for clues that will simply take you to the next story bit. The best thing you can say about it is that it's largely unobtrusive, allowing you to connect with Gao's writing free of frustration.

And that's good, because the writing is superb. In To the Moon, Gao has crafted a sci-fi story as touching and heartbreaking as some of the best films in the genre. But before it becomes that way, it starts out a little goofy, with the introduction of Doctors Eva Rosaline and Neil Watts as they crash their car while trying to avoid a squirrel in the road. These two have been sent to the rural, barely-accessible home of an elderly man known only as Johnny. Their task? To give him the memories he's always wanted. Their job is sort of a reverse take on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--where that film's central technology focused on the erasing of memories, To the Moon focuses on the wholesale creation of them. In this case, Johnny's lifelong dream was to go to the moon.

In order to create this new set of idyllic memories, the pair hook themselves up to Johnny's mind and begin traversing backward through Johnny's life, hopping and skipping from memory to memory using connecting objects scattered throughout each memory. Much as Christopher Nolan crafted the mystery of Memento by placing his clues at the chronological end of the story, Gao sets his tale up with numerous peculiar threads dangling enticingly in front of the player. What was the nature of Johnny's relationship with his wife, River, a reclusive and emotionally detached woman with obsessive tendencies? Why does Johnny seem so utterly puzzled when asked about the origins of his desire to visit the moon? Why are there origami rabbits everywhere?

Those who prefer their video games with a bit more "video game" in them, however, might have a few issues.

In less capable hands, it would be easy to envision this story spiraling out into some kind of bizarre, mystical nonsense for the sake of ratcheting up the tension in typical video game fashion. By and large, Gao and his crew of collaborators at Freebird Games manage to avoid this. Yes, this is sci-fi, set in the not-too-distant future, thus presenting a wide variety of possible fantastical outcomes that could easily explain everything that's happening away. Instead, Gao trusts his characters to carry this thing through, keeping the focus on Johnny and his memories, while dealing out vital pieces of information that keep this story grounded in a sense of reality, no matter how futuristic it might be.

That trust results in a tale filled with characters you legitimately grow to care about. Maybe that sounds odd when you're describing 16-bit looking sprites that largely emote through wide-eyed, startled jumps and periodic shakes of the head, but Gao imbues them with enough humanity to keep you glued to the screen through the whole four hours of To the Moon.

I can already sense the grumbling on the other side of the screen from potential players displeased with that relatively brisk length, but before you get too grouchy about it, a bit of perspective. To the Moon is a $12 game (one currently only available from Freebird Games' website, but will purportedly be on Steam in the near future), and save for a few awkward moments here and there--most egregiously, a late-game shooter sequence that controls about as well as the hunting simulation in the original Oregon Trail--the game hardly wastes a second of that play time. Each moment feels vital to the pacing of the player's discovery, even though you aren't necessarily doing a whole lot to make those discoveries. Again, this game is essentially a pixel hunt, tasking you with clicking around environments to get through dialogue bits and to recognize items you can use to progress to the next stage. There are a few puzzles here and there, but they're rarely challenging and become more than a bit repetitive as the game goes along--thankfully, they disappear before the game's final third.

If there is any issue to be taken with To the Moon outside of gameplay, it's that it periodically has issues finding its tone. As emotionally wrenching as the game can be, Gao counterbalances that dire seriousness with quite a bit of humor, most of which comes from the two doctors constantly butting heads with each other. Their dynamic is very anime, with the headstrong-yet-eternally-curious woman constantly wagging her finger at her lazy manchild of a cohort, and at times, it wears thin. It's especially true when Gao overindulges in memetic Internet humor. Most of those gags are fine, but it pops up a little too often, and sometimes in situations where it's more distracting than it is humorous.

Why yes, that IS an Animorphs reference!

Still, these are the kinds of indiscretions you can forgive in the greater context of an experience as wonderful as To the Moon. This is a game that well represents the enormous potential of a writer/designer on the cusp of delivering something pretty fantastic to our chosen medium. That said potential is not fully realized here is perhaps due to the fact that Freebird Games is, by and large, Gao's baby. The actual number of people credited on this game consists far more of contract content providers than it does actual employees, meaning very few people dedicated themselves wholly to the completion of this project, with Gao chief among them.

As a result, one can easily see why Gao would be so willing to wrap his story in such an age-old style of gaming, given the relatively few restraints it puts on the player. I don't believe that To the Moon's approach of excising gameplay in favor of visual novel-style storytelling is necessarily the answer to the "interactivity vs. narrative" argument developers have struggled with lo these many years, but there are enough flashes of brilliance inside To the Moon's shell to give one the impression that such a breakthrough might be on the horizon. Given more resources, more collaborative experience, and a few more finely crafted tales like To the Moon under his belt, it feels wholly possible that Kan Gao could help bring that breakthrough about someday, perhaps in the not-too-distant future.

Alex Navarro on Google+
64 Comments
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Posted by wumbo3000

I'm excited to play this!

Posted by Akeldama

I was wondering about this one

Posted by networkned

To the MOON, ALICE!

Posted by ateatree

Cool to see a review of a much less 'visible' game on the site. I will definitely check this out.

Posted by Little_Socrates

I've never heard of it. If you feel the need to write about it at all, Alex, I'll check it out. Thanks.

Posted by ThatFrood

see, the only thing I don't like about things like this is why is it a game? if the gameplay isn't compelling or fold into the story, why bother having it? it detracts from the rest of the "experience", for me.

Posted by movieman20xx

As soon as I saw the preview for this game, I pre-ordered it. I love the look/feel and it reminds me of times past, serious nostalgic value. It is in my queue, waiting to be played.

Posted by MysteriousBob

Literally never heard of this game in my life.

Posted by KamikazeCaterpillar

I just heard about this on Rebel FM. Nice to hear its pretty good.

Posted by whylessness

Great fucking game! I shed manly tears.

Posted by csl316

This game keeps appearing every week or so, reminding me to buy it.  Yet I still haven't!

Online
Posted by Olivaw

@ThatFrood said:

see, the only thing I don't like about things like this is why is it a game? if the gameplay isn't compelling or fold into the story, why bother having it? it detracts from the rest of the "experience", for me.

This is a question that pops up a lot with indie games.

I don't know that I've heard a satisfying answer yet.

Posted by Skald

I heard this was good. Consider me intrigued.

Posted by Dain22

Cannot wait for this to get released on Steam. This sounds like the just kind of game I've been wanting to make.

Posted by WorldDude

This is one of the best games I've played all year. I don't consider the gameplay/interactivity only existing to push the story along as a bad thing, but that's just my take on it. Either way, it's a game that everyone should experience.

Posted by drag

@Olivaw said:

@ThatFrood said:

see, the only thing I don't like about things like this is why is it a game? if the gameplay isn't compelling or fold into the story, why bother having it? it detracts from the rest of the "experience", for me.

This is a question that pops up a lot with indie games.

I don't know that I've heard a satisfying answer yet.

it comes up a fair amount about big games too, really. that gameplay is largely irrelevant busywork stringing together barely-interactive set pieces and cut-scened exposition. but those kinds of complaints are usually shouted down

Posted by Video_Game_King

Thus supporting my theory that any video game with the word "Moon" in the title in inherently awesome.

Edited by MideonNViscera

"Animorphs? Have you read it?" hahaha Ok I wanna play this game.

Posted by NTM

I'm surprised this game got a review. Cool.

Posted by CharlesAlanRatliff

Four stars from Alex and cover of the game are all I need! I think I'll go buy this.

Posted by allodude

Animorphs reference = purchase.

Posted by ImmortalSaiyan

Thanks for reviewing this Alex. The game needs all the exposure it can get.

Posted by SpunkyHePanda

@Olivaw said:

@ThatFrood said:

see, the only thing I don't like about things like this is why is it a game? if the gameplay isn't compelling or fold into the story, why bother having it? it detracts from the rest of the "experience", for me.

This is a question that pops up a lot with indie games.

I don't know that I've heard a satisfying answer yet.

It's going to be a subjective thing. There's something about the interactivity of a game that can really help draw me into the story, even if it's as simple as this one. Playing through the Ace Attorney games, where the gameplay is extremely limited and surrounded by mountains of dialogue, has been one of my favorite gaming experiences of the past decade or so.

Posted by CaLe

Cried twice.

Posted by FlipperDesert

The fact that Animorphs is being mentioned in anything in 2011 is blowing my mind.

Posted by CommodoreGroovy

Glad to see indie developers getting coverage. If I remember correctly I played another one of their games some time back. I think they were using an RPGmaker engine back then, but they tweaked it so much you could hardly notice it.

Posted by m2cks

I saw the screenshots of the game, and I said "duuuuude what?!" This game has probably the cleanest looking pixel art I've seen in years. That and the fact that it has a tear jerking story has sold me on it.

Posted by Vegetable_Side_Dish

The cover reminds me of that story where the teddy bear goes to the moon in a cardboard box with a drainer on his head. 
Peak times.

Posted by Landon

I played the 1 hour demo they had and I already fell in love with the game. Need to get some money together and buy it.

Posted by MikeHawk

I'm so glad that this game is getting more coverage. Played through it in only 2 gaming sessions, but it was one of the most emotionally impacting games that I've ever played. Even though it was made with a modified version of RPG maker XP, I'm really excited to see what else this guy makes in the future.

Edited by MormonWarrior

Animorphs? ...okay, I'm sold.

@Olivaw said:

@ThatFrood said:

see, the only thing I don't like about things like this is why is it a game? if the gameplay isn't compelling or fold into the story, why bother having it? it detracts from the rest of the "experience", for me.

This is a question that pops up a lot with indie games.

I don't know that I've heard a satisfying answer yet.

...says the guy with a Hotel Dusk avatar. I felt the same way about that game - compelling characters, neat story and art style, pointless frustrating gameplay that got in the way of my enjoyment of it. I also feel the way about many Double Fine games.

Posted by Bolt3

Thank you Alex for posting this review for a small indie game! Definitely sounds like something I don't want to miss out on.

Posted by Branthog

It's hard for me to seriously consider this game when most of the conversations I've heard about it drop comments about it being about "relational disorder" (because the DSM now contains a diagnosis on everything, so everyone is "suffering" from one made-up thing or another) and having a main character who has Asperger's (this decade's version of mental retardation in the 1990s - when your movie automatically became an Oscar contender if it featured a mentally retarded character).
 
It may be very good. The sci-fi element sounds a little compelling, to me. The way people have described it makes me think that you need to wear big thick black rimmed hipster glasses and tight women's pants while listening to the latest WILCO album and alternating between puffs of my clove cigarette and green chai tea, sitting next to my ironic north korean war era reproduction military hat. The discussions about the game probably do it a disservice. They make it sound pandering and emo, which I can only presume it really isn't (don't get me wrong, I'll probably give it a chance once people stop pissing themselves in self-congratulatory appreciation of the game).

Posted by rcath

sounds great, nice review.

Posted by Brendan

Although this sounds like a good piece of artistic work, I don't really think that this is something I would want to play. I might play this via Steam in a dead season.

Posted by tourgen

something about the main theme/concept of the game strikes me as supremely selfish and narcissistic.  It's extremely off-putting and gross.  also futile and pointless.

Edited by JackSukeru

Actually, hearing that it will take "only" around 4 hours to finish a game with a story worth experiencing, but otherwise repetitive gameplay makes me way more interested in playing the game than if you would have told me that it would take around 12 hours to finish. I might check it out some day, I already saw a bit of it in that Quicklook Kessler and 'other guy' did on Youtube.

Also, Animorphs! I used to read those books!

Posted by Undeadpool

@RockmanBionics said:

Actually, hearing that it will take "only" around 4 hours to finish a game with a story worth experiencing, but otherwise repetitive gameplay makes me way more interested in playing the game than if you would have told me that it would take around 12 hours to finish. I might check it out some day, I already saw a bit of it in that Quicklook Kessler and 'other guy' did on Youtube.

Also, Animorphs! I used to read those books!

The other day, I looked up the Wikipedia cause I kinda wanted to know how the series ended (I remember it fondly from...let's say elementary school into jr high) and the page is BEREFT of info! I was actually a little bit crestfallen.

Posted by JackSukeru
@Undeadpool:    I think the total number of volumes was 52 but I only read like 12-14, I got some hints to the series' ending when I read its TV Tropes page a while ago though. Get this, apparently

dies at the end.

Posted by me3639

The music watching the preview is chilling. Cant wait to play. Thanks Alex for reviewing hopefully it will get people to play.

Posted by Ruken

I never would have known about this game if there wasn't a review here for it. I love GiantBomb

Posted by RecSpec

Just here to second all of the thanks for giving this game more spotlight. Loved this game.

Posted by Tordah

This sounds really interesting, I'll have to check it out when it reaches Steam.

Posted by yyZiggurat

@networkned said:

To the MOON, ALICE!

Damn I thought I'd be the only one with this thought. Well...

TO THE MOON, ALEX (Navarro)

Posted by falling_fast

doesn't seem like the kind of game Alex would normally play. neat.

Posted by AceBlack19

So... It's not a "The Honeymooners" game then? Damn. Someday...

Posted by Winternet

@HomemadeZiggurat said:

@networkned said:

To the MOON, ALICE!

Damn I thought I'd be the only one with this thought. Well...

TO THE MOON, ALEX (Navarro)

POW Right in the kisser!

Posted by ptys

I'd like to play this... unfortunately it's not on any of the mainstream gaming device I own, X360, PS3, Steam Mac and iPad? Talk about missing the boat!

Posted by MattyFTM

I was hoping to see some coverage of this. It looked really cool, but I'm always reluctant to spend money on a relatively unknown quantity.

Moderator
Posted by craves

@MattyFTM said:

I was hoping to see some coverage of this. It looked really cool, but I'm always reluctant to spend money on a relatively unknown quantity.

You don't have to spend money, there's a 1 hour free trial on the developer's website: http://freebirdgames.com/to_the_moon/

I just checked it out and found myself instantly buying it after the time limit expired.

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