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.
For over 20 years I have been a gamer. I can still remember fondly the days when my Dad first sat me down in front of our new computer and showed me how to fire up Captain Comic from the DOS prompt. I’ve then watched as the wonderful world of games grew from a hidden away world only for the socially inept of the world to the multi-billion dollar industry that it has become. So when the game companies who I’ve stuck with through thick and thin decide that the best way to combat piracy is by slapping DRM on something I feel a little hurt. It’s like an old friend telling you he can’t see you anymore because of his new girlfriend, you just can’t accept it.
I will admit that the majority of my gaming life was spent DRM free. Sure there were the license codes and some games requiring me to have the CD in the drive (which was easily defeated by spinning up something like Daemon Tools) but that was usually a one time thing, and it never really interfered with the normal operation of my machine or the gaming experience. In 2004 however I was greeted with my first ever in-your-face DRM, Steam. Back when it was first announced Steam was going to be a revolutionary way for developers to deliver games to consumers. At the time I was still outside an area that was capable of getting broadband Internet and this proved to be quite a problem for it. After spending about an hour installing Half Life 2 I was then greeted with having to create an account to play it. Fair enough I thought and plugged away at the sign up process. After this I was then greeted by Steam telling me that there was an update available. My attempts to stop it were futile and I could not shift the game into offline mode until it had updated. The result was me feeling cheated as I had paid good money for a hard copy so I could play it that day. Instead I was given a several hour delay on top of the install and sign up time. I didn’t trust steam for many years after that.
Another 4 years by before I would have my next run in with a DRM system. After years of hype I was excited to see Will Wright’s new creation Spore hit the shelves. I had been fooling around with the Creature Creator for a week or so before with my house mate and we were looking forward to creating and messing with our creations. Everything seemed to be fine until my housemates computer started having random issues, caused in part to SecuROM. I began to have issues as well after I began developing again, as SecuROM begins to throw a fit when debuggers are present. After spending $80 on a game and having it run rampant through my system I was a little miffed, and I haven’t installed the game since.
Just a few weeks ago I was intrigued to see a new game pop up on Steam, Aion. I’m a total sucker for eye candy in games and the initial once over I did of it looked promising. After searching around for a while I found out that it uses GameGuard as an anti-cheat system which in itself is not a bad idea (I come from the old days of Punkbuster, and I had no issue with them). However the behaviour of the program is squarely in root kit territory with it installing a device driver and remaining even after the game is uninstalled. The list of programs it messes with contains many programs that I use and are not intended in anyway to cheat, but if I choose to install this game they will either break or cause the game to crash.
It’s really sad for someone like me who has enough disposable income that a $50 game can come under a weekly “consumables” budget I have but I’ll stop dead in my tracks if they decide I need to be treated like a criminal in order to play their game. I’ve been eyeing it off Aion for a while and the promise that GameGuard breaks on Windows 7 (with a homegrown fix for it) has me leaning towards giving it a go. But had the Aion developers chosen not to include this software I would’ve already been a paying customer, and it’s sad that their sale to me is going to rely on using what amounts to beta software.
So game developers have a think about the market you’re delivering to. No longer are we the young gamers struggling to eek out a living (in fact the average age of gamers in Australia is 30), we’re mature adults who can afford to spend up on games. Treating us like criminals and cheats just costs you sales and does nothing to prevent either. It’s sad that the first thing I check when a new game is released is what DRM it uses not a game play video or similar.
And that folks is how you make a grown gamer cry.