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To the Moon

I was looking for something new

After my interview with Leigh Alexander my "gaming taste buds" changed. I wanted more from a game. I wanted a game that presented more than impressive graphics and required more from players than good hand-eye-coordination or the application of a rudimentary strategy.

I played most of the big titles that came out this year, Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Skyrim, to name but a few, but these all still left me unsatisfied. I felt that developers were just repeating the same formula every time – only making small incremental improvements to audio-visual aspects and gameplay mechanics. I wanted something that challenged me on a deeper level, that forced me to look at life from new angles.

To the Moon was that game and more.

“This is one of the few games I have ever played really, that has a story worth telling.” Tom Magrino Hotspot

This game tells the story of our struggle to connect with each other. It's about the complexity of human relationships. The game illustrates this by examining the lives of two deeply flawed characters, namely Johnny and River. They met when they were mere children and went on to get married. It's the story about how they grew apart from one another and their attempts to grow closer and reconnect again.

Less is more

At first glance To the Moon comes across as a typical Indie adventure game, requiring players to complete simple puzzles to advance further. The gameplay mechanics are extremely minimal and merely serve to facilitate the progression of the story. It felt more like an interactive story than actually playing a game. So in stead off focusing on mastering your gameplay, the player becomes swept up in the actual story that unfolds. It grabs your emotional attention and causes introspection as a result. The overall impression of the game is that of simplicity and therein lies it beauty. It has none of the 'clutter' that fills usual games, complicated controls, graphics that distracts, unnecessary cut scenes or drawn out dialogues and quests. This simplicity serves to elevate  the profound message of the game – our need to connect with each other.

This same simplicity reflects in the soundtrack of the game, at times it's barely more than 4 notes being repeated. I just happened to stumble upon one of the piano pieces and it had such a profound impact on me that I had to play the game. To try and articulate how deeply moving the music is, is very difficult, because it is entirely in the language of the heart.

Let me try to explain what I felt as I listened. There's a place deep inside me that rarely gets touched, moved. Too much of life is filled with the ordinary and mundane, we are surrounded by it, we choke on it. The moment I heard those first few simple notes I was swept to that place. The music has the ability to make the world stop for that brief moment when you listen to it. The soundtrack is all inclusive, all immersive and utterly captivating. It demands all of your attention, it gently compels you to feel, to share at that moment in the game the feelings that the characters go through... it is truly magical.

The Storyline

The adventure starts when two scientists arrive at Johnny’s death bed where they have been summoned to fulfill his dying wish, which is to go to the moon. He entered into a contract with the company they work for which offers dying clients an alternate future in their minds. The scientists, Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts, are able to do this by hooking him up to a machine that essentially allows them to create a memory for Johnny of going to the moon by manipulating certain events within his memories about his life.

He doesn't know why he wants to go to the moon, the scientists therefore have to travel through his memories until they discover the reason for this wish. Through the machine they become observers of the most important parts of his memory. By playing as one of the scientists, the player gets to share very private memories with him. This is so perfectly executed that it felt like I was intruding upon his innermost thoughts and feelings. By collecting memory orbs the player is able to move back through Johnny’s memories right up to his childhood. You feel like a trusted friend and an intruder at the same time.

A Bittersweet Tale

As the player journeys through Johnny’s memories we discover that River has Asperger syndrome. This disorder is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Johnny had his memories altered because of a traumatic incident that happened in his childhood. This alteration had an unintended side effect, causing Johnny to forget the magical moment when he first met River.

As I mentioned they met as children, sitting on a log while watching the moon. That lost memory was the one moment that they shared a perfect connection. They were two innocent children able to communicate from the heart, unhindered by the masks and behavior we adopt to keep us safe from hurt.

Throughout the story River makes these all white origami rabbits, and one rabbit that looks different from the rest - it has the colours of the moon, blue and yellow. She repeatedly asks Johnny what he sees, but he is incapable of making the connection back to that moment in their childhood when they were sitting on the log watching the moon, perfectly in sync. Ultimately they keep on drifting further and further apart.

The story illustrates how we struggle to interact and communicate when so much depends on factors that are out of our control. Our lives are the story of broken connections with loved ones, of how we are unable to convey our true feelings, our struggle to express our true self. We all keep parts of our core hidden because we are either too afraid to express it, or incapable of expressing it. However, the desire to connect with others is such an overpowering need that we still do it even though we come across as broken and misunderstood. Our hearts cry out for others to look deeper, to see what is beyond the acting, beyond the shows we put up in order to protect our fragile self.

Amidst all of this brokenness there are times of joy and fine humor. The interaction between the two scientists balances the somber mood of the story. The player experiences a wide spectrum of human emotions, which makes relating to this game come naturally.

This is not a game that will receive praise for its graphics or the intellectual challenges it provides. It is however unparalleled in its ability to make the gamer connect, to the game itself and more importantly to your own experiences.

Game information

Soundtrack

Freebird Games Website, Facebook page and Twitter

Gamespot and Kotaku Articles

Awards

Gamespot Story of the Year 2011

Best Game Music of 2011 Readers Choice

Cost R106.51

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