My Journey to the Moon

The dying wish. It’s a common enough concept, and one that certainly has storytelling potential. Regrets, ways you would have lived your life differently, or things you never made time to do; it’s easy to imagine all the things you would wish for if you knew your life was near its end. What if you could be granted a single dying wish? What would you wish for? For Johnny, his dying wish is to go to the moon.

A simple premise kicks off a heartfelt story in To the Moon.
A simple premise kicks off a heartfelt story in To the Moon.

That’s the driving force behind the aptly named indie game, To the Moon, which I recently had the pleasure of playing. You play as two scientists as they use some bizarre technology to literally manipulate Johnny’s memories to make him believe he went to the moon as he lies unconscious on his deathbed. It’s simultaneously a far-fetched and simple concept; far-fetched in the sense that manipulating and/or changing memories is crazy, but simple in the sense that granting a dying wish is a familiar idea. It taps into basic human desires in a way that’s easy to relate to, and To the Moon gets a lot of mileage from its initial setup. Why does Johnny want to go to the moon? What has happened in his life that makes this one wish, above all else, his dying one? You spend the entire game sifting through Johnny’s memories to answer these questions, ultimately attempting to grant him his wish.

I won’t go into the story any more than that (I’m not good at writing about that kind of stuff anyway), as that’s easily the reason to play To the Moon. What I will say is that, as someone who plays video games first and foremost to play them, and values gameplay above all else, I thoroughly enjoyed To the Moon’s story. I like it for a lot of reasons too; the writing, the subject matter, etc. But the one reason that stands out more than anything else to me, and what makes To the Moon relevant as a video game, is how the story is presented. This could have easily been made as a movie or a novel or a comic book, but in some weird way I think it works just as well, if not better, as a video game.

To the Moon is, in the most basic sense, an adventure game. You point and click to move your character around and interact with objects, but you only do so in the most basic ways possible. You’re essentially pushing buttons here and there to move this roughly four hour story along, and otherwise spend the vast majority of your time watching and reading. To the Moon makes this work in a couple of ways. First, the gameplay never intrudes on the story. When I think of story focused games that I’ve found off-putting, the gameplay is generally not only boring or frustrating, but also invasive. If I’m playing a game for the story I don’t want said story to be overshadowed by terrible gameplay; I’d rather have no gameplay than bad gameplay. To the Moon does well to recognize why people are playing it, and (save for a short late-game misstep) does a great job at making sure the player is always getting what they signed up for.

To the Moon didn't have to be a video game, but in some ways it is better for it.
To the Moon didn't have to be a video game, but in some ways it is better for it.

Secondly, and more importantly, the way To the Moon is presented makes it quintessentially a video game. I would argue that the visuals and audio (the soundtrack in particular is beautiful) are vital to the experience, which immediately rules out novels and comics as means to tell this story. And as limited as your interactions in the game are on the whole, some of the game’s most memorable moments occur during those times when you have the freedom to move around on your own, and are more memorable because of said control. To the Moon has an innate understanding of the power of discovery natural to video games, and harnesses it wonderfully to guide the player in discovering a captivating story in a way that something like a movie simply could not do. Make no mistake; you spend the majority of To the Moon not playing at all, and plenty of the time you are playing is pretty rote. But there are just enough moments that hit home that much harder simply because you walked those precious few steps on your own accord. That’s a wonderful thing, and something unique to our medium.

If you are interested in video games as a storytelling medium, or more importantly, simply enjoy a great story, then I can’t recommend To the Moon enough. If you are looking for a game in the strictest sense of the word, then To the Moon will not fulfill that need. You barely do more than occasionally push a few buttons to keep the story going, but it’s a story well worth seeing (I even got a little misty eyed here and there). To the Moon is proof that great stories are great regardless of medium; that it finds a compelling way to make a great story feel perfectly at home as a video game, that’s something else entirely. Our medium still has plenty of growth to do, and my journey To the Moon has shown me one of the directions that can happen.

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