Freebird Games’ To the Moon is a game that has had me thinking for quite a while. It explores themes in way I’ve never seen done in a game before, and does it in a highly original way. I would love to further discuss the game’s themes and story bits in greater detail, but I want to avoid discussing spoilers when so many people have yet to play To the Moon. Instead, I’m going to focus on the more general themes that drive this game and how other games could benefit from using similar concepts.
The basic premise of To the Moon involves two scientists who attempt to go through the memories of a dying man to fulfill his last wish. Of course, they can’t actually fulfill his last wish, but their goal is to alter his memories so that, in his mind, that last wish had been fulfilled. In order to do this, the two leads must travel back through his memories, from his last to his very first.
The idea of proceeding backwards through a story is not a new one, but it’s rarely seen in games, or the idea of traversing through the memories of another character. Stories in games are often linear affairs; they might allow for choice, but those choices don’t have much impact outside of the game world itself. Why is that? If any of these concepts are done poorly, you can only hope to further confuse your audience. However, if done correctly, they can really come off as something inspired. Through these basic concepts, you can reveal important details about characters at the right moments and further build up the player’s attachment to them. Although simply telling a story backwards isn’t enough, you need characters that take the journey along with you.
The two leads in To the Moon, Dr. Watts and Dr. Rosaline, are with you the entire way through this adventure. They discover things just as the player does and also grow as characters themselves. You aren’t just thrown into these situations, you go through them with characters that you slowly begin to unravel and understand as the game goes on. Without them, the impact would be lost, so having an experience like this might require having a central character or two to accompany you.
That might limit the structure of the game, but it doesn’t limit the possibilities of what could be explored. Just the concept of going through someone’s memories opens up a lot of possibilities. Just being able to explore the mind of a character, through memories or maybe even dreams, can add a lot to a story. One major theme of To the Moon is not only the mere exploration of a man’s memories but also the consequences of altering them. Even if the technology is available to alter memories, should we use it to do so? These are the kinds of questions that we rarely see asked in games.
How often does something in a game make you stop and think about your own life, or your own decisions? Or even your memories? It’s not the concepts of proceeding through a story backwards or the morality of altering memories that cause it, it’s the around these ideas that make them work. But game stories rarely accomplish that to the extent that you might want. Sometimes you want games to get inside of your head like that, to make you think about games or even your own life in a different way. If the basic concept of “using technology to explore someone’s memories” is something that allows for that kind of story to be told, it’s something we should see more often in games. Not the exact concept, mind you, but one similar; one that will allow us to see just how this interactive medium of ours can be explored in ways beyond what our basic understanding of them is.
A compelling story is something that isn’t entirely hard to come by these days. There are plenty of great movies, games, books, and television shows that can provide that. But I feel there’s a difference between a story that is merely compelling and one that makes you think. I’m talking about a story that gets to the core of who we are as people and explores the philosophies behind our own decisions and the decisions of everyone around us. To the Moon isn’t the first game that has done this, but it makes me think about just how often we could see a story like this told in a game with the right idea behind it.
Games aren’t all about story, I know this. And not all games need to tell a story like one found in To the Moon. But when a little gem of a game comes along, developed almost entirely by one person, and tells a story better than the likes of 2011’s most acclaimed games, then you have to wonder just what is going on in our industry.