Narrative in Video Games #9: To the Moon

The anthology narrative is a fascinating storytelling concept for its unconventionality. Instead of a larger singular narrative, a series of short stories are compiled together often only connected by a theme, a premise, or a shared character or event. Juxtaposition helps facilitate the audience’s ability to find connections between the works. The mechanical focus of most games lends itself well to loosely connected stories, but today’s game takes more of an arc-based approach. The first of Freebird Games’ currently unnamed series: 2011’s To the Moon.

To the Moon follows Dr. Neil Watts and Dr. Eva Rosalene on assignment from the Sigmund Corporation to grant a dying man’s wish by using a machine able to create false memories. That man is Johnny, and his wish is to go to the moon, though he can’t remember why. It’s up to Neil and Eva to travel backwards through Johnny’s memories to find the origin of the wish and trigger a ripple effect rewriting the old memories with the new so he can die without regrets. Johnny’s tragic life story takes center stage, but by the end you’re reminded that Johnny was just the next in a long line of patients for Neil and Eva.

The premise casts Sigmund Corporation in a morally, legally, and ethically ambiguous light the game smartly highlights in the post-game episodes with picketers outside the Sigmund building. The reasons why Neil and Eva chose their jobs and continue their controversial, debatably worthwhile work is also left unanswered. They aren’t changing the past, they’re tricking patients on their deathbeds into thinking their lives played out differently than they did in reality. Presenting these quandaries as they are, as simply the reality for the characters in this world, gives the game greater narrative depth.

To the Moon’s greatest failings come from pacing and a general lack of actual gameplay. Traversing memories is done by finding a memento and solving a simple puzzle, basic but workable. The problem is that the player is forced to do this sixteen times in the first act. This section borders on filler from its significantly longer length compared to the other acts, sheer repetition, and the relative unimportance of many of the individual memories, especially in comparison to the twist at the end of the second act. Despite these shortcomings, To the Moon is still a fascinating, unconventional, and well-told character study.


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