The renaissance that pixel-art styled games are undergoing currently, mostly thanks to the indie development scene, has produced some pretty spectacular works. Just last year I was introduced to Gemini Rue, a game that captured my primarily because of the nostalgia aspect. Of course the game stood alone in terms of game play and story, enough so that playing it didn’t feel like I was simply taking a trip down memory lane. It seems Wadjet Eye has a thing for pixel art styled games and late last year I was sent an email with a trailer for an upcoming game, To The Moon, from one of their partner developers Freebird Games. I’ll be honest when I first saw it I wasn’t particularly interested in playing it but after a strong recommendation from a friend (and watching the trailer) I thought it was worth a shot, even if it was just for the review.
You play as Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, two employees from a company simply called “The Agency” that specializes in memory altering technologies. This technology can be used to change events that happened in a person’s past which then allows them to alter the course of history within the patients mind. Due to the way this works it can only be performed on patients who a near death with the idea that they could have their memories altered to what they wanted and, upon awaking for the last time, enjoy that moment of fulfilment they longed for in life. Shortly after they would pass away. To The Moon follows a story of one patient named Johnny and his wish to journey to the moon.
To The Moon features some gorgeous pixel art scenes paying homage to the many games that used a similar style decades ago. Like Gemini Rue before it each of the scenes does an amazing job at evoking a certain atmosphere, something that plays a critical role in developing the characters. This goes hand in hand with the original sound track that was composed specifically for To The Moon and the combination elevates this simple pixel art adventure well above its expected station.
Like many games of its era To The Moon is primarily driven through character interactions that take place in the form of bite sized chunks of text that appear on screen. Initially the story works in reverse chronological order as you step back through Johnny’s memories in order to unlock his past and plant the idea of him going to the moon. It’s not a new plot mechanic but it was definitely an effective one, since all the characters can allude to the upcoming back story without it being hacky or cumbersome. Indeed the storytelling of To The Moon is what makes this game so compelling and every thing else in it is just ancillary to this purpose.
The game play of To The Moon is very simplistic, verging on the edge of being non-existent. This isn’t a bad thing, especially considering how good next-to-nothing game play games like Heavy Rain have been, just that if you’re the kind of person that enjoys the game play more than the story then To The Moon doesn’t have a lot to offer you. Indeed going into this I was worried that it was going to be another “combine this item with that item and use it there” kind of games, where most of the play time comes from constant iteration instead of enjoyable game play, but thankfully it’s nothing like that.
Between the dialogue scenes you’ll be put into control of one of the two doctors and it’s then your job to find a way back to another memory. This is done by finding a memento in the scene that links the current memory to one in the past. Once you’ve found that you then need to find memory links in order to unlock it. These usually take familiar forms, something which Dr. Watts remarks on during one of the scenes, but it’s basically a game of find the item on the screen. There are some puzzles that mix this up a little bit by throwing in dialogue options and asking you to type things but there’s not many of them, so the core game mechanic is pretty consistent throughout To The Moon.
After unlocking the memento you’ll have to prepare it in order to be able to jump back to another memory. This takes the form of a flip puzzle that you see above. If there’s anything of a game score to compare with your friends this is the only place you’ll find it as each puzzle has an “ideal” number of moves to solve it and there’s a running total of how you went at the bottom. Again these aren’t particularly hard with the most complicated puzzle still only requiring a single digits worth of moves so they’re more there to be a break from the motonity of the dialogue and the find the clue core game mechanics.
At the start I found it somewhat difficult to get into the story of To The Moon. The main characters, the two doctors, function as both the main protagonists in the story as well as being the comic relief. The comic relief sections felt boring and uninspired to me and at the start that’s what constitutes most of the story. After the first couple hours though its easy to put them aside in favour of the main story and on my second session I was instantly hooked back in. After a while though the story started to peter out a bit, with there being no solid plot developments for an hour or more. It was at this point that I got really worried and I got that horrible feeling in the back of my head that I was only playing this game all the way to the end for the review.
Indeed if there is one criticism I’ll level at To The Moon it is the disjointed pacing . There are some scenes that progress the story as much as 4 other scenes do which is what lead to me almost losing all interest in the game from about the half way to three quarters through mark. Whilst I don’t believe there are any excess scenes, indeed the story’s multiple plot lines do wrap up well, tying together some of the more dull scenes instead of having to go through the whole find the clues, unlocking the memento, do the puzzle routine could go a long way to ensure the balance between plot progression and player engagement is kept.
Having said that though it speaks volumes for a game that can turn from a boring slog to a heart arching drama almost at the drop of the hat. I can vividly remember sitting there, verging on the edge of giving up on the game when a couple key plot points were revealed to me. It was at that point that something happened to me that hadn’t happened with a game for a long time: I started crying. Not your typical single tear man cry, I lost it completely. I can’t say what it was that did it (to do so would ruin it and also render me an emotional wreck for the next hour, seriously) but suffice to say that once I had completed it I felt compelled to go and be manly for the next couple hours in order to recover. Working out the tears seemed to do the trick.
And that’s the reason why To The Moon is such an incredible story. Sure the game mechanics are simplistic and the pacing is troublesome but anything that can make me care about the characters deeply enough to bring me to tears at the end of it deserves every accolade that has been heaped on it. It shows that games as a story telling medium, no matter their game play or graphics, are joining the ranks of the traditional mediums. To The Moon is just another great example of a story transcending its medium, one that is a must play for anyone seeking a deep and engrossing drama.
To The Moon is available on PC right now for $12. Game was completed with around 5 hours total play time.
The last day of any holiday is always filled with a wide gamut of emotions. We woke up naturally a good 3 hours before we needed to check out and spent that time lazily packing our bags for the day ahead. Our flight wasn’t until 10pm that night so we would have a good 10 hours before the time we had to leave the hotel and the time we had to catch the plane back home. Whilst we still had tickets to the San Diego Zoo I wasn’t too keen to drive the 2 hours there to see it, nor was I too confident that the drive back would be less than 2 hours. Instead we decided to spend the day shopping in downtown Los Angeles for gifts and generally lazing about before the 14 hour flight home.
After checking out and grabbing our car from the valet we headed towards a mall I had managed to find through Yelp. It was a traditional American outlet mall with everything being outdoors and the only indoor area being the food court on one of the upper levels. We spent many hours perusing through the various shops, picking up gifts for our family members that we hadn’t yet accounted for. Time was passing slowly and after what seemed like forever we collapsed in Barnes and Noble for some coffee and free wifi. It was only 4pm around that time meaning that going to San Diego was out of the question so we decided to hit up a movie to pass the last few hours before we’d charge over to LAX.
Arriving at one of the local theatres we discovered that the movie we had decided to see, Skyline which had been endlessly hyped during our entire trip, wasn’t available at this cinema. Undeterred we decided that we’d check the others to see if they were showing it. Strangely none of the theatres near us were showing it meaning we’d have to choose something else. Not really enticed by any of the options we went for Due Date since it was a comedy, figuring some light hearted fun would be the ticket. We bought our tickets but the show wasn’t on for another 45 mins, so we went into the attached mall.
Just as we entered the mall we spotted a puppy store (yes just puppies) and like any young couple we decided to go and ogle those cute little things. Really it wasn’t unlike any other pet store apart from the fact they had 3 “play rooms” set up at the back where you could pick a puppy and then take it there to play with it. I saw 2 families in separate rooms falling for this ploy, knowing full well that they’d be hard pressed to leave without their children’s new found playmate. Afterwards we spotted a Disney store and went in to grab a couple things that Rebecca wanted to get but hadn’t had the chance to last time we were there. We made our way back to the cinema which had the smallest rooms I’ve ever been in. It was really nice though as all the seats were comfy leather couches and the front most rows were giant futons you could lie back on.
After the movie was done we started the drive back to the rental car place to return our ride of the past week. I always remember these kinds of trips distinctly as that’s usually when it starts to sink in that the holiday is really coming to a close and all the memories start to flood in. I remembered so many things: the blazing Florida sun on my skin, the roar of the Corvette, the bitter cold kiss of Montreal, the sleepless city of New York and the child like wonder I rediscovered in Los Angeles’ theme parks. All of this was running through my head as we dropped off the car and took the shuttle to LAX where we checked in for our flight home.
The flight home went by much quicker than the flight there with the working entertainment system making sure many of those hours passed with ease. As we landed in Australia I felt those mixed feelings that any traveller has when they return home. Relief at the familiarity yet a sense of mourning that the trip is over, not wanting to let go of it. The feelings continued all the way back home and stayed with me until I fell asleep that night.
And now here I sit 3 days later recalling those experiences and the emotions come flooding back as if I was just boarding the plane back in Los Angeles. They will not soon be forgotten as the month Rebecca and I spent in the Unite States of America was more than just a holiday to us, it was our first true escape from our everyday lives that either of us have had. Sure we’ve both travelled before but never independently for this amount of time and because of that our perspective has changed radically. Time will tell if these feelings stay with us, but I feel this is tantamount to what happened to me almost 12 months ago which resulted in The Plan. One thing is for certain though, my heart now yearns for more experiences like these and my determination to make them happen has never been stronger.
The last few decades haven’t been very kind to NASA. Ever since their heyday back in the 60′s and 70′s they have been the target of budget cuts, over-budget under delivering programs and constant congress involvement that has made innovation on their part extremely hard. Whilst I believe that their budget of 0.5% of GDP (as it was back in the Apollo program) is a small price to pay for phenomenally inspirational activities it has become apparent that it is easy to write off the benefits of space travel when there are many other things requiring attention back here on earth. You can then imagine my surprise when NASA announced, in essence, they were going to attempt to do Apollo again, albeit with modern technology and decades of experience in low earth orbit. They called this teh Constellation Program and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were taking their inspiration from the past.
Constellation was born out of the former president’s vision for space exploration which at the time seemed like a boon for NASA and its cohorts. Realistically it was a political ploy for him to try and win votes from the scientific community as if he was not to be reelected how could we guarantee that the next president would share his vision? I can’t comment on how much of the vote swung his way because of this but he did manage to get reelected. However additional funding that would be required to ensure NASA’s continued presence in space as well as developing a completely new set of space vehicles never materialized. This then lead to the current situation whereby NASA has a large gap in its ability to keep a manned presence in space, currently relying on private industry and Russia to support them.
The vehicles themselves are a pretty big step up in terms of delivery payloads into space. The Ares I is a straight up replacement for the shuttle, with a slightly larger payload capability with the added bonus of having better safety features like a launch abort system. The Ares V is where the real changes are occurring, as it can deliver a phenomenal 188 tons into low earth orbit. Compared with the Saturn V it can deliver almost double the payload into lunar orbit at 71 tons. The lander vehicles and crew capsules follow the same route, basically being bigger brothers of their Apollo counterparts. Whilst they are a significant step up in NASA’s payload capability (and really nothing comes close to the Ares V) they are still many years away from being flight ready.
And here is where we get to the crux of the matter: should NASA really be creating a new space fleet? With companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace stepping up their presence and showing that they are capable of providing many of these technologies at a small percentage of the costs that NASA is incurring it doesn’t seem beneficial to have NASA be in the business of building new space craft. Realistically they could get so much more done by utilizing the services these new private space companies are providing as they are footing the research and development costs. This would then allow them to shift their focus away from the routine activities like maintaining the International Space Station and focus on the revolutionary things like lunar bases and a Mars shot.
It’s also entirely possible that because these private companies are doing so well that eventually they will overtake NASA in their ability to deliver those kinds of awe inspiring moments. Once some mega-billionaire gets a taste for the idea of being the first man to land on another planet you can be assured that the private space companies would be more than happy to step up and provide a means for them to achieve that dream. Whilst it would be a significant blow to NASA it would allow them to refocus back onto pure science based missions, something which is not politically palatable right now.
Constellation is one of those projects that I’m sure will bring many positive benefits to humanity. It’s just unfortunate that I can’t see what they are right now. With the barrier to space dropping at an increasing rate I’m sure that the industry will hit a critical point where a combination of private and government activities will lead NASA and its cohorts to inspire humanity once again.