I recently played the game To The Moon by Freebird Games. I has heard a lot of good things about it, and knew that it was an artsy interesting game. I’m struggling to figure out why I liked it. Is the narrative actually good, or does it just seem that way compared to other video games? Should it have even been a game, or would it have worked better as a book or a movie? Is the game benefited by being a game?
To give some background: To The Moon is a game where you guide a pair of scientists through the memories of a dying man. You travel through his memories backwards and do so by searching each memory for scenes and important objects. Reviews of the title are mostly positive, with most of the praise going to its narrative and absolutely gorgeous music.
I don’t think I would like the story as well if it were told through a movie or book. A movie would make the story seem bland and childish; especially if some of the dialog were to be spoken rather than written. And I think a book would need a lot more structure and detail to hold the narrative together. As a video game, however, the story was enhanced by both the expectations and the conventions of the medium. It’s not that video games tend to have bad stories, but the story typically serves as a vehicle for gameplay. They are usually a simple explanation as to why you need to kill all the bad guys and save the world. It’s rare for a game to have a story dealing with themes like those in To The Moon such as death, old age, regret, and mental illness. And the game tells its story in the same way as Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy, where the player guides the characters from scene to scene (usually with bouts of strategic combat between each point).
I noticed two video games techniques that To The Moon relies on to tell its story. The first is that only some of the details present in each memory are required to progress the narrative. A careful player may find additional dialog, or insights that other players never see. The second is that by putting the player in control of the scientists, the player becomes part of the narrative. You don’t have everything explained to you, and your actions are required to advance the story. I think this allows a player to become more invested in a story, than they would otherwise be, and it might be one of the reasons the story wouldn’t work well as a book. A book would require an even stronger story and characters to hold the attention of a reader.
In conclusion, To The Moon’s story is bolstered by being a video game. It allows players to be a part of the narrative and fill in the gaps it would need to be a stronger movie or book. And it allows the narrative to have some depth, because not all of its details are on the surface. I think it is beloved because it shows that games can tackle more serious issues, and although I feel it falls short of its narrative potential, I anticipate future developers will be inspired and advance the story driven games even further.