I’ve been playing To The Moon recently, a generally wistful 2D light-adventure game with a pixel art aesthetic. In it, you play as two scientists who travel through a person’s memories Eternal Sunshine-style with the express intent of changing one thing: each of their clients is on their death bed, and wants to believe they accomplished a goal they never could. For the elderly John, that wish is to go to the moon.
So far it’s a smart game, one that makes good use of its time-skipping contrivance to tell an interesting story in reverse. It looks gorgeous, especially for what was clearly a very cheap game to produce, and the music is stellar. The writing is competent enough to get the broader melancholy beats across effectively, and it’s all cut cleverly with casual banter between the scientists to remind that this just another day on the job. For all the things To The Moon gets right, there’s one thing that hasn’t ceased to bother me. The part where you play it.
And that’s a tiresome thing to say, what with all these monotonous conversation about which games are actually semantically not games at all. I don’t present this criticism as a means of devaluing To The Moon‘s status as a video game; it’s just a criticism, one that in a game as story-driven as this is fairly damaging.
I’m also not trying to say that To The Moon needs to be an open-world third-person shooter, nor that it even needs gameplay fitting to its 16-bit polish. Some recent games have done a great deal of experimenting (some good, some bad, all beneficial) in the effort to more seamlessly bind the disparate elements of gameplay and story. Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead used player choice and quick-time events, while Spec Ops: The Line worked toward not breaking the fourth wall, but shouting through it; Hotline Miami did the same, but with greater levels of aesthetic abstraction and narrative bluntness. Atlus’ Persona series makes its story its gameplay, literally, through smart use of time management and player goals.
One can even go back farther, to the days To The Moon so clearly takes inspiration from. A game like Final Fantasy VI is often deadpan in its matching of RPG storytelling with RPG mechanics, but it stands out for specific ambitions, like Celes’ suicide attempt in the World of Ruin, or the infamous opera house sequence. Earthbound spun a standard “boy saves the world” yarn, but did it with style, blending humor and easy-going Americana satire into something brilliant. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past had little story to tell, but communicated exactly what it needed when hero Link first steps out of his house, and into the rain.
What I’ve played of To The Moon has none of that consideration, largely due to the regimented structure of its gameplay. You see, “levels” in the game are broken up into memories you bear witness to. There’s generally an interesting or heartfelt conversation to lead each segment, and they work wonders. Off-hand remarks and plot threads in the future are elaborated upon in the past, and the game builds a lot of nice little mysteries around this man’s life. When the story bits end, you’re left with a depressingly cynical task.
You need to find five items across the level, each supposedly bearing a significance to the client. When you collect these “memory links,” all five of them, you find a final memento which allows you to travel further back into an earlier memory. Finding these links is never especially difficult, just ocassionally time-consuming, and in a game so short and tight, the perfunctory nature of it does little but drain me of my enthusiasm. At a point, the game seems to grow as tired of it as the player, spitting out two or three links at a time for exploring an area with no discernable significance.
So why does it need to be there? By the end of the game it’ll probably add anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour of play time, I guess, but the point remains lost on me. I’m a fan of games that commit, and if To The Moon really wanted to be convincing, it should’ve cut the fat or ground up better meat.
I don’t want to sound too harsh, because To The Moon is already a couple steps ahead of most game stories. By raising the bar, it’s naturally inviting finer criticisms. I’m glad it exists, and I’m eager to keep playing, but the thing that’s sticking with me most is how it made me think about what I really want out of a video game’s story. I knew something felt off about To The Moon, and I realized what it was: it doesn’t make very good use of the medium.
Maybe my standards are shot to hell, but I don’t know that it’s enough anymore to tell a good story that doesn’t fit with, well, a video game. It would be kind of like watching a movie of someone reading The Great Gatsby aloud. Still a great story? Sure. Is it a great movie? Probably not.
Just like movies, video games have their own storytelling cadences. A lot of the examples I’ve already given (namely things like Heavy Rain and Hotline Miami) succeed by embracing its own game, dissecting what it means to have control over a character in a story. Heavy Rain accomplishes it through a sense of freedom and the constant spectre of permanent death. Hotline Miami is the opposite, a game about the player’s control manifesting as delusion and oppression. Both are equally viable stances, and both make their cases well. The thing they share is that sense of interactive storytelling, of either involving or implicating the player through smart use of mechanics.
To The Moon represents the other end of that spectrum, where an often great story is marred by its clashing with rote and uninspired gameplay. It serves as a helpful reminder of what’s important in burgeoning art forms: to reach high and fail, rather than stay comfortably constrained.