If there is one discussion topic that I wish would just disappear from the gaming community forever, it would be the question regarding whether or not video games can be art. The more this question is asked the more it implies that games cannot be art and holds video games as a whole back from being accepted as an art form. Comparisons in these discussions are often made to the film industry, which is a form of entertainment that is commonly believed to be “art.” What most people do not seem to consider is that games have often used elements of cinema and literature in them which means that, based on their association, video games are also art.
Now the question is, why did decide to bring that topic up regarding this game? The reason for this is that many of the games that are used as examples of “art” are ones that try too hard to tell a story in a unique manner, which often results in these games coming off as pretentious to most gamers. This is another similarity with the film industry regarding a lot of art house films that attempt a similar approach and often get the same reaction. What is also a similarity is that the art styled games and films are often made by smaller studios and are not targeted towards the mainstream audience due to lacking the budgets of larger studios, which causes them to try something unique in an attempt to stand out. Naturally it is no coincidence that a lot of the games considered to be art are also indie games.
These games tend to have limited appeal and thus come across as pretentious to most others. I am not going to give any names, but let’s just say that the most prime example rhymes with Kraid. While I am not saying that it is a bad game by any means, it is simply not the proper way of going about creating an art game that can appeal to those other than stereotypical high class aristocrats wearing top hats and monocles. To the Moon on the other hand, is a perfect example of how to handle an art game that I suggest other indie games take notes from.
The story of To the Moon starts with our two main protagonists Eva and Neil, who are members of an organization meant to fulfill the last wishes of people whom are dying. Their client is Johnny, an old man on his deathbed whose dream is to go to the moon. Obviously in his condition it is impossible to get him to the moon. So Eva and Neil decide to fulfill Johnny’s last wish by they hooking up a machine that connects Eva and Neil to Johnny’s mind allowing them to see the events of his life first hand and even interact with them. By using this machine, they attempt to alter the past so that he successfully becomes an astronaut and reaches the moon, or at least that is what he will believe. In reality, all they are doing is altering his memory so that he thinks he has achieved his goal and can die peacefully.
Before they can alter his memory, they have to figure out why Johnny wanted to go to the moon so they can motivate him to go through with his dream earlier in life. There is one problem though; Johnny does not know why he wants to go to the moon, so the only option that Neil and Eva have is to go through Johnny’s entire life starting from just a couple of months prior to the events of the game and going as far back as his childhood. This brings about one of To the Moon’s most unique and effective techniques; the story of Johnny’s life is told backwards. As a result, you end up seeing tragic events first which makes things more depressing whenever you see Johnny and his Wife River in an event before something major occurs chronologically. In a normal story, you would not know about the major event until it happens at that moment, but in To the Moon you already know what will happen, which makes it even harder on you that the characters do not.
Despite taking the literal opposite direction that most stories take, the various mysteries and plot devices are still revealed as you go along in a similar way to traditional stories. In fact, it generally carries all the more meaning when you finally figure out Johnny’s reason to get to the moon by seeing it firsthand than if it was done if it was told by a random NPC years afterwards. In addition to Johnny’s reasoning to get to the moon, you will also witness many other tragic and emotional events that occur during Johnny’s life story.
However, the true impact in To the Moon’s story is that you realize this is just the story of one ordinary man. Johnny never had any major influence in the world, nor did he have any important positions. There are quite literally millions of people like Johnny who have likely gone through equally difficult hardships in real life that you will never know about. In fact, the game itself makes it clear that this type of case is not even out of the ordinary for Eva and Neil. Very few stories manage to succeed in delivering such a powerful message in an effective manner, and that is what makes To the Moon such an amazing accomplishment in storytelling.
Despite the fact that To the Moon is a much easier game to wrap one’s head around than other art games, there is still going to be one factor that will prevent this game from appealing to everyone. That factor is that there is a much lower emphasis on traditional game play elements than one would expect from any game. I would probably go so far as to say that To the Moon is barely even a game. If I had to slap a genre sticker on it, I would have to classify it as a visual novel even though the graphical style more so resembles an RPG Maker game and it plays like a point and click adventure game. Aside from the occasional puzzle or mini-game, there really is nothing in the game that is a challenge in any way and it is impossible to get a game over. Really it is important to know that, while there is interaction, it lends itself more towards the atmosphere and storyline and that this is not a game for people who believe that a game needs to be focused on game play.
However, despite the fact that To the Moon has little in terms of traditional video game elements, those elements still make a huge difference and result in something that cannot be replicated in the form of a movie or book. If it were a book then there would be no sound or visuals, which means the game losses both its amazing artwork and beautiful soundtrack. If it were a movie, then To the Moon would lose its simplistic yet amazing art style and the lines would likely be voice acted. I am not one to normally say that video games should not have voice acting, but in the case of To the Moon it would be nigh impossible to express the sheer emotion the game gives off with voice acting and will always be done better in plain text. To add to this further, simply walking around and exploring adds a great deal of atmosphere to the game that you cannot find in a book or movie.
One thing that is especially notable is the game’s music. One would think that without the knowledge of how musical compositions work or the terminology used for them, there would only be so many ways you can say that the music is amazing and adds to the atmosphere. To the Moon’s musical score not only does what was previously mentioned, but is also so impactful in that the game might not be nearly as emotional as if it were silent. By themselves, the story and writing are still amazing, but the beautiful soundtrack is what makes the most dramatic moments all the more powerful. The game’s main theme deserves special mention for being integrated into the plot to great effect.
One last notable aspect of the story is the role that Eva and Neil play in it. Despite the fact that the story occurs from their point of view, it is actually Johnny and his friends and family that receive the most development. Yet at the same time, Neil and Eva are interesting on their own. To the player, this is a tragic, emotional journey that you are unlikely to find anywhere else, but to Neil and Eva it is just another job. While Neil and Eva do ultimately care about fulfilling Johnny’s dying wish, it is interesting to see how these two characters do not react as strongly as the player does to the situation. Also the comic relief that the two provide is quite hilarious and manages to balance out the depressing nature of the game.
Many critics whom believe that video games cannot be art use the argument that something like Citizen Kane cannot be done as a video game. To the Moon is a game that proves otherwise. Some may argue that To the Moon does not qualify as a game due to the limited interaction and lack of traditional game play used, but the small amount of interaction this game does have still makes all the difference in the world. Without the ability to explore your surroundings, there would be an absence of immersion that you would feel otherwise. Without the simplistic yet elegant presentation, a lot of the emotional effects this game has would not be nearly as powerful.
The only negative thing I can say about To the Moon is that it is a difficult type of game for a lot of gamers to accept. Despite how story driven most games are nowadays, there is still the persistence that game play is the only thing that matters. To those who believe that I must ask one question. If Final fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill 2, MOTHER 3, and Bioshock had a complete absence of story, would they still be nearly as memorable as they currently are? The only difference here is that To the Moon is more focused on trying to tell a story and does not focus on being “fun.” It is understandable that not everyone would want to play a game like this if they simply desire to play a game that is entertaining in the traditional sense, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. In the end, To the Moon easily stands as what quite possibly is the greatest example of a game as an artistic masterpiece, and anyone who considers themselves even a remote fan of art owes it to themselves to experience it.
If one didn’t guess, I’m putting this up to coincide with the recent release of the game’s sequel Finding Paradise, and I plan to put up my review of A Bird Story as well. I may just be my own worst critic here, but I don’t seem to feel so strongly about the original review. Maybe it is because I felt a bit like a broken record saying by even referencing the “games are art” bullshit. I mean, Roger Ebert is dead folks, there’s no need to beat him into the ground any further when he’s already buried (unless he was cremated, hell if I know). Even before that, he admitted it wasn’t his place to judge considering the lack of personal experience. There is no one left to argue against this point, and I cringe even knowing I gave this stupid topic the time of day.
And yes, one can see that I was nowhere near as abrasive back then as I am now. I was under the impression that showing any sort of opinionated or abrasive emotion was “unprofessional” when it was really the exact opposite. I’ve made it clear that I dislike most “art games, and maybe the fact that I was saying an interactive 16 bit movie is a better example of “art” than something that actually does something unique with its gameplay. However, I have grown to dislike the idea that using cutscenes or dialogue is inherently inferior than using gameplay to tell a story.
I have often heard Bastion cited as an example of a game that doesn’t use cutscenes to tell a story, but from what I could gather of the game, its backstory is still handled by exposition given by a narrator. The same goes for The Stanley Parable or The Beginner’s Guide. I have nothing against any of those games, but they are still done using literary elements; they are only done more abstractly. From what I can gather, Braid does the same thing where the backstory is spilled in text logs you read between levels. Question, how is this ANY different from what Final Fantasy XIII pulled in that you needed to spend 15 minutes reading the datalog to understand what the hell was going on?
It is because of this that the games I perceive as “art” are almost never the same as what the mainstream says and why nine times out of ten, games that are truly amazing will go unnoticed. To the Moon was well received, rightfully so, but there are a number of games just as good if not better than it at being art, and the purpose of this blog is to highlight them. Nonetheless this recommendation stands and you should most definitely play it.
This review was put up on GameFAQs on September 16th of 2013 and has since been re-edited with enhanced presentation.
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