TO THE MOON / Freebird Games / PC
 
 
There's a lot of loopholes in human psychology that people who are selling stuff use to make people believe that said stuff is better or more important than it actually is, particularly in the creative realms. One we're seeing more and more of in gaming is exploiting emotional impact. If a player emotionally identifies enough with the narrative and characters, they're often willing to overlook serious gameplay flaws and weak writing. See Braid and Shadow of the Colossus (circa PS2 original release) for two high-profile examples. Here's another one, though more humble and limited in scope.

Made with the now very creaky and dated RPG Maker, To The Moon is basically a "visual novel" playing out in Final Fantasy 6's engine (sans any combat.) What "gameplay" there is consists entirely of what is basically pixel-hunting; fishing around for the right items in a screen to click on to make the game continue. That, and an occasional "sliding block" puzzle tossed in seemingly just for a bit of variety. You don't fight anything, you can't die, and you can't lose. All you can do is follow the rails of the story.

So it's fair to weigh and criticize the story the most heavily, as it's really the only reason for playing the game. I can't get a bead on designer Kan Gao's exact age, but he looks like he's well under 30. Well-under-30-year-olds usually don't have a lot of the sort of meaningful insight into life that makes for good stories, particularly when they've been playing video games and/or programming for most of that time. I think that's the case here as well, and I think that's why the game basically lifts the entire plot structure of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and just rearranges a few things, and the "emotion" comes from a string of cliches bound together by often awkward dialogue.

So why are people saying the game is one of the best/the best games ever written? Well, for one, I think the bar for gaming as a medium is still awfully low. Consider it's only existed for about 35 years now, with complex stories that take advantage of the medium's unique qualities possible for only 25 or so. And nearly all of that time has been ruled by massive entertainment companies with proprietary hardware pandering to the lowest common denominators and thinking only of the quarterly profit sheet for the most part. Relatively speaking, we haven't seen that many stabs at genuinely great writing in that time, and the bar is particularly low for gamers who started out in the mid-90s or later and thus missed the heyday of adventure games, the Infocom "text adventure" era, the era where literacy and depth was actually prized and strived for by companies with AAA budgets. So there's a great hunger for this sort of thing, and any halfway competent attempt is in line for a lot of overpraise thanks to that combination of appetite and lack of comparative perspective. Then there's the added overpraise for anything "indie" and "made by the one-man scrappy underdog", and you've got a perfect storm for heaps of overly positive and underly critical reviews and gushing message board tributes.

To The Moon puts me in mind of two other movies: Crash and Videodrome. Bear with me here. Crash was hyped to the skies when it first came out, then over time, critical reception really reversed in on itself and now it's frequently regarded as overrated, overwrought and phony. I think the reason for that is that when it first came out, people were so hungry for anything breaking the usual Hollywood mold of big dumb explosiony entertainment and attempting to comment on the human condition. Over time, as they had time to reflect on the movie, maybe watch it again, they realized what a bunch of superficial emotional-button-pushing bullshit it actually was. And they felt ripped off and taken for a ride, so they laced into it. As for Videodrome - years ago I had all these "counterculture" friends recommending it up and down as some sort of important social commentary or something. I wasted 2 hours watching it just to find out it was a hackish promotion of BDSM culture. What I wasn't aware of was that these people were BDSM enthusiasts themselves, and they loved the movie because it promoted their lifestyle in the mainstream, but they couldn't come right out and just SAY that for whatever reason, so they had to couch it in these broad generalities that made it sound like it was some sort of "important experience" for everyone. It wasn't for everyone, it was for a relatively small and select audience inclined toward sadomasochism. They didn't make that distinction in their blithe recommendations to anyone that would listen. To The Moon has nothing to do with BDSM (I don't think), but it does weave advocating for Asperger's strongly into the narrative. I have a feeling a lot of the people praising this game to the skies in broad generalities are actually Aspies themselves who don't want to come right out and say that's what their praise is centered around. So people who have no interest in the condition whatsoever play it, and wonder what the hell all this "beautiful and important" talk was about.

To The Moon was still looking at a 3/5 after all this, but there was an awful glitch. About 1.5 hours into the game I suddenly started walking through the background and couldn't interact with anything. As it happened I hadn't saved for 1/2 hour ... but somehow this glitch corrupted every other save and even the auto-save, to where the game locked after taking a few steps and forced a CTRL-ALT-DEL to get out of it. No way was I sitting through 1.5 hours of non-linear unskippable dialogue again, so I just watched the rest on Youtube. Thankfully I got the game on a Steam "flash deal" for $3.40 instead of the normal retail $12, but that's still $3.40 for 1.5 hours of gameplay then having to watch the rest of the game on Pootube because it broke. Blech.

If mawkish sentimentality, cliche and stolen movie plots tied together by creaky on-rails gameplay really constitutes "the best writing in a game ever", then as a medium we still have one hell of a long way to go. I know we set a bit of a double standard with this because Kojima regularly gets a pass for stealing all his stuff from Hollywood movies. But he draws ideas from a multitude of diverse sources, then rewrites and rearranges them so they are often much better than they were originally. Plus his games actually have some semblance of gameplay (and AAA budgets instead of RPG Maker.) To The Moon basically lifts from Eternal Sunshine and Inception directly, but it's not better than either. And none of this, I think, is Kan Gao's fault. This is exactly the kind of writing you'd expect from a good-but-inexperienced writer in their early 20s; it's really not a bad effort considering that, and a strong beginning to build off of. It's not his fault what he puts out gets overpraised to the skies by shortsighted Internets people who aren't thinking very clearly. I don't know if he'll ever Google himself and read this, but I hope he hears *something* like this from *somebody* at some point, because if he lets the internet convince him that he's apexed already with this game and game storytelling can't possibly get any better than this, he's in for a career of mediocrity and irrelevance.
 
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