Many if not most gamers are simply nerds who enjoy a good story. If you are like me, you often defend your gaming by making comparisons to traditional storytelling through television, movies, and books, and rightfully so. Sometimes a game is more than just shooting whatever moves, or jumping from platform to platform, or aligning candy in rows. Even the Founding Fathers of gaming understood that we want to be inspired and designed box art that told stories that went far beyond square-shaped pixels carrying a line and piercing a seahorse-shaped...thing.
With HUGE technological advances in a relatively short amount of time, game designers have much more to work with, and a better, more interactive story can be told. The stories told in The Legend of Zelda have morphed into complexities told in The Last of Us, and we gamers have the advantage of having yet another medium to enjoy beautiful storytelling by some of the world’s brightest and underappreciated minds. Yet we know that even though advanced technology gives us amazing things, it doesn’t take Hi-Def visuals to tell the best tales, and in 2011 one of the very best was told through the magic of 8-bit design: To the Moon.
I won’t talk much about the game itself, and definitely won’t give any spoilers. If you’ve played it, you know that it’s not as much a “game” as it is interactive fiction. Though there is a tiny gaming element, you don’t play To the Moon for the challenge. You play it to experience a story unlike any other, and you’d be doing yourself a favor by playing it. All I’d like to do is tell about two very real and special ways To the Moon has impacted my life.
Have you ever cried over a video game?
I’m talking about a legit cry-fest, complete with eye leakage, vocal emissions, and tissues, and I don’t mean that time you were on the last level of Super Mario Bros 3 and your little sister accidentally reset your NES.
Has a story, experience, or emotions that came from playing a game actually made you cry? It happened to me a few years back, and while I had a lot going on, To the Moon was the final step toward that end. To set the stage, I had recently learned that my father had been diagnosed with cancer, and I did not handle the news well. I still remember how my knees buckled and how I crumpled onto the floor in a horrible mess just as the phone call ended. I wanted to see him immediately, but we lived in different states. Not unreasonably far, but his reassurance that things would be fine put me in check and kept me from making any sudden decisions. That call happened in late November of 2012, and it was a couple weeks more that I would hear that surgery was in the near future. December 31, to be exact. Since my dad lived alone, I immediately made plans to be with him during that time and help with anything he needed. I packed up a few clothes, a jacket, and my computer, and on December 31st I made the trip to Tucson, Arizona.
My flight had been delayed, so I got to the hospital just as my dad was coming out of surgery. He would be sleeping through the night, so all I could do was go back to his house and wait for the next day. I could write an entire post based on that night alone, and how it felt spending New Year’s Eve alone while my dad was in the hospital. After talking to my girlfriend (now my wife) on the phone for a bit, I knew I needed to focus on something, so I pulled out my computer and remembered that a Humble Bundle was gifted to me over Christmas. In that bundle were some fun little games including A Cave Story, Crayon Physics Deluxe, and of course, To the Moon. I didn’t know much about it. Only that it won some awards recently, and reviews were good, so it seemed like a nice way to distract me from my emotional state. I would soon find out that it would not only fail to distract me, but maybe put me more in-tune with it.
In truth, I may not have stuck with it had I been in other circumstances. The first half of the game didn’t seem like much. A very straightforward story with no exploration or challenge, I kept wondering when it was going to get good. Then it started to come together. Slowly I began to realize that a bigger story was unfurling. The platypus, the lighthouse, the Zombievas... It was all coming together, and I needed to keep going. I clicked that mouse like I was trying to buy Taylor Swift concert tickets, and then… tragedy. The sad past in the game was revealed. Further along the story wraps up in what I believe some of the most brilliant and effective storytelling I have ever come across. When the game was done, so was I. Sure, I was probably emotional from a long day of travel, thinking about my dad, and being alone in his house on New Year’s Eve, but the ending of To the Moon is what completely destroyed me. A tidal wave of tears hit, and it would last until 2013.
A final note: My dad has been in complete remission since the surgery. Six years later and no signs of cancer.
Later that year, on a beach in the Caribbean, I proposed to my girlfriend. If you’re thinking that sounds cheesy and typical, I most certainly agree! It was not the plan, but I had to adapt and overcome, but that’s a different story. The point is that she said yes, and we began discussing the wedding later that evening. My girl is a gamer herself, though only casually. She grew up with a gamer brother who now works in the industry, so she has a healthy appreciation for it. Still, I was pretty shocked when she suggested we include To the Moon in the theme of our wedding. After I returned from helping my dad in Arizona, I had her play it with me, and she was taken by not only the story, but the gorgeous music by Kan Gao, the game’s creator. The fact that her mind went there for the wedding, though, was still surprising. The idea that my bride-to-be wanted a video game to be in her wedding was exciting!
I, of course, thought it was a fantastic idea, so shortly after we returned home, I emailed the company, Freebird Games, to tell them. I wrote the note explaining why the game was so special, and then I asked if they had any thoughts I could incorporate. I wasn’t sure it would be read at all, as I’d never done such a thing, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. I was completely floored by the reply. Not only did I get a response, but it was from Kan himself telling me how much he loved the idea! He said he wasn’t sure how he could help, but then went on to sheepishly ask if I’d want him to attend and play any music from the game!
I have to stop here a moment and ask that you listen to this very short clip of "For River," the song my wife fell in love with. She had imagined walking down the aisle with this song playing, and here was Kan offering to play it live! I can’t overstate my excitement about this. He'd fly in from Toronto to my house in Southern California, stay the night, then we’d all leave for the venue the next day to rehearse. The time until then would be spent finding ways to incorporate the game, including origami rabbits at each place setting.
A couple days before the wedding I picked up Kan at the airport and spent the drive home talking about the game. I took him to my house, showed him to his room, and let the reality of my impending wedding began to sink in...
The day of the wedding was filled with many stories, but we aren’t here for that. I will say, thought, that Kan had a hand in calming me down in the moments just before the wedding. Then it was time, and we all took our places. I had the honor of listening to Kan’s special mix of the song he prepared just for this moment while watching my bride walk down the aisle toward me. It’s a magic I cannot adequately describe, and I will forever be grateful to him for the memories he and To the Moon contributed.
We all know that video games are still trying to earn respect, and we all know they deserve more. For some of us they mean more than just entertainment. They add to our social circles. They help create and maintain friendships. They give us an outlet to focus negative emotions. They provide wonderful escapes from the awful world around us. Or, as in my case, they help define our lives in ways no other stories can.
You can pick up To the Moon on Steam or your mobile device.