Thursday, July 12, 2012

To The Moon

For anyone who was involved in the RPG Maker community in the mid to late 2000s, there was a strong sense of "hometown boy done good" (a unique online version at least) when Kan Gao (aka Reives) moved up to the commerical game scene with To The Moon. It was a very exciting demonstration of what this longtime hobby could lead to with enough dedication and hard work. The whole "indie" game world barely existed in 2005 when Mark (ArtBane) and I started Master of the Wind, but by the time we were done in Similar to what's happening in the books industry, an entire infrastructure is rising up to meet the needs of people who have artistic ambitions with their games and want an avenue to get into the game world that doesn't include toiling away on some money-grubbing Facebook app. I had planned to play the game as soon as I could after its debut, but it got a little lost in the constant flood of movies, games and books I spend my time with (first world problems, yo) and I didn't get to it until recently.

Years ago, I got introduced to Reives's work with Quintessence: The Blighted Venom, an episodic project that was even more brazen than MotW in terms of heavy story content. However, it was the highly impressive mood and atmosphere of Quintessence that made it stand out. His command of lighting, great music (which he composed himself) and various cinematic effects were miles ahead of most of the other projects on that forum. He also had a knack for maintaining interest in the game by doling out little production tidbits and fanart regularly. This was something I never really mastered during MotW's long periods of inactivity...or perhaps I just didn't want to, since self-promotion has always made me a little nervous. I was highly impressed by how visually polished the game was, although the story's heavy reliance on well-worn anime tropes was evident and my response to the narrative wasn't hugely positive. However, that was probably just growing pains because the next Reives project was a tiny 15-minute piece of surreal genius called The Mirror Lied.

So now we've got To The Moon, which has enhanced the strong elements of the creator's previous work and noticeably beefed up the elements which may have been weaker. I played all four hours of this in one sitting. A synopsis - In the not so distant future, two doctors from a memory-altering agency are called in to tweak the life story of a dying old man named Johnny. Before slipping into a coma, he told his caretakers he wished he had gone to the moon...although he can't quite remember why. While playing it, I thought of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception, Millennium Actress and Pixar's Up. In terms of looking for potential inspiration, it's hard to beat that top-notch list of movies.

The two doctors, Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, spend an awful lot of time bickering and insulting one another. Sometimes this is amusing, other times it gets old and it's especially unwelcome in some of the more intense scenes from Johnny's life story. The constant sardonic commentary sometimes risks taking an otherwise beautiful scene and reducing it to an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, the fact that this bothered me reflects well on the rest of the story. To go into too much detail could compromise the sense of discovery, but suffice it to say that the story of Johnny and his wife River is full of surprising turns and has a moving, down-to-Earth sensibility while at the same time creates some beautifully poetic moments. The resonant ending left me with conflicting feelings about how the characters ultimately resolved their work and will likely leave many players pondering the weighty matters of life.

Clearly story plays an important role, but what of the gameplay? Well, there isn't all that much. You wander around scenes in Johnny's past looking for items that will unlock the next memory. These sequences typically end with a sleek little tile puzzle that's good fun. It gets toned down even further as the game goes on and sometimes you can partially unlock memories just by walking around. It didn't bother me at all, in fact it was what I expected! I wasn't sure how other gamers unfamiliar with Reives's past work would take it, but the overall positive reception of To The Moon suggests that most players were appreciative of the tight focus on narrative. And why not? It's not like there's a shortage of games where you can shoot things, battle monsters to get your levels up, or stalk conspirators in Renaissance-era Italy with a concealed knife at the ready. This is a unique, highly personal vision and this sort of thing is what the video game world needs if there are any hopes of the medium being considered art.

It almost goes without saying that the game's aesthetic elements are beautifully presented. It's also impossible to overstate the importance of the music, composed by Reives with an assist from Plants vs. Zombies composer Laura Shigihara, another longtime RPG Maker friend. The score goes a long way towards sustaining the melancholy mood that made this so memorable. From my point of view, the work coming out of Freebird Games has improved so steadily with each release that it is a huge inspiration. I'll be looking forward to whatever comes next.

The game is here and I highly suggest The Mirror Lied as a warm-up.

1 comment:

Reives said...

Hey, many thanks for the eloquent write-up, Vol! Your work's always had such pristine quality to it; I really hope the new project you guys are working on takes off wonderfully as it deserves. And thanks for the tips, I'll try my best to keep them in mind when working on the 2nd episode. c: