A few months ago, I wrote about the popular mod turned indie game, Dear Esther, which I believed took many good steps toward reviving the interactive story experience as a genre, but was somewhat disjointed or perhaps misguided in its methods.  Dear Esther was a game with several great elements.  It had a good story premise.  It had beautiful visuals with a very loosely defined aesthetic to go with the ambiguous plot line.  It had good mechanics, though I don’t think the game took full advantage of them.  Today, I want to talk about To the Moon which in my opinion is pretty close to what an interactive story should be. 

There is a common misconception that interactive stories have to be…well…interactive.  In most cases, this equates to a moral choice system or a dialog tree.  Every moral choice system basically has polar opposites of soulless or saint, sometimes with a neutral option of cardboard cutout in between.  This has given rise to the belief that every interactive story has to give dialog options or moral choices and allow the player to define the character.  To the Moon throws all that out the window, but let’s talk about its structure first.

To the Moon is a rather simple game.  Its aesthetic is somewhere between relatively modern Japan and suburban America.  It could basically have been written for Gameboy color or maybe as a higher quality flash game.  Its mechanics are basically point and click in a top down adventure game format a la early pokemon which again is roughly the level of graphics we’re talking here.  There’s nothing overly new or impressive about these, but where To the Moon shines is its story (consider this your spoiler alert though I’ll try not to give too much away).

To the Moon is not an overly long story clocking in at around 5 hours for me while multitasking a little bit, but the short length does not in any way take away from it.  To the Moon tells the story of a man, two very unusual doctors, and a song.  The basic description from wikipedia reads

The premise of To The Moon is based around a technology that allows the construction of artificial permanent memories. Sigmund Corp., a company that uses this technology, offers the notion of “wish fulfillment” as a service to people on their death bed. Since these artificial memories are permanent, it sharply conflicts with the patient’s real memories soon after the person awakens, which is why it is only done on those without much longer to live.

To the Moon follows Neil and Eva as they are sent to do this for a patient, Johnny Wyles, but as with any great story things are not always as they seem.  We as the player watch them relive Johnny’s memories in reverse trying to be able to reach enough different points in his life to seed his desire to go “To the Moon” into his consciousness and thus butterfly effect all his later memories accordingly.  We see the history of the song and indeed the soundtrack being woven into the story from the children of Johnny’s nurse playing it together to Johnny playing it for his wife on her deathbed to Johnny writing it to it being a subtly pervading theme throughout the game emphasizing his memories.  The conflict comes when the butterfly effect fails them.  How can the butterfly effect fail?  How can you change someone’s life goal and deepest desire without by definition changing his or her life?  The scientists discuss this and discuss the ethics of removing his wife from his memories in order to fulfill his desire.  This brings about a complete role reversal as Neil, the wisecracking doctor trying to distance himself emotionally from the patient, has to argue against changing the patient’s life in such a drastic way.

To the Moon’s story can’t be told in the same way with a moral choice system.  Is it ethical to permanently change someone’s memories on their deathbed?  We’ve developed a cultural concept around the idea of seeing our lives flash before our eyes before death.  Is that what this is?  Which life would you see?  The life you lived or the life you chose?  Could you really remove the love of someone’s life for the sake of completing your job even if that is to fulfill their deepest desire?  Is it ethical to trade someone’s love for their brother, especially if the brother died so young that it is impossible to interpret how the brother would have grown up?  Could you take care of someone with a social disease that can make them want to spend hours alone folding paper rabbits or contemplating the stars like that?  Could you let someone choose to save a lighthouse over their own health?  To the Moon raises all these questions and more.

To the Moon is a very simple short interactive story available on Steam and I highly encourage you to play it.  Watch the story unfold.  Contemplate these questions.  That’s what an interactive story should be able to do.  Moral choice systems are great in theory, but flawed in concept because they are so heavily grounded in duality.  To the Moon is a remarkably compelling story that makes you think not because you are defining the character, but because the character defines you.  Please play To the Moon and support indie games like this and indie game composers like Laura Shigihara (of this and Plants vs. Zombies fame).