Wednesday, May 2, 2012

To the Moon and Chasing Catharsis

To the Moon
System: PC
Developer: Freebird Games
NA Release: November 2011

Something about sad stories tends to draw us in. Perhaps by empathizing with the tragedies and mistakes of others, we allow ourselves an oft-needed rendezvous with our own mortality and humanity. We often consider grief a negative emotion, but its release can have a healing or edifying effect after we experience it. At least that's a better theory than us all being a bunch of emotional masochists.

How deep our connection to a sad tale goes relies greatly on how deeply we know (or feel we know) those involved, and this element is where To the Moon by Freebird Games most brilliantly shines.

Graphics are relatively simple, but offer a fitting Chrono Trigger vibe.
The mere premise of the game can be enough to make your heart twinge: two scientists explore the memories of a dying man, Johnny, with the goal of producing a new set of fake memories in which he is able to do the one thing he has requested, but was unable to accomplish, in life: go to the moon. That alone is enough to let many people begin to relate to the man, but the masterfully woven story of To The Moon adds layer upon layer to Johnny and his loved ones as the scientists travel backward from old age to his early years. What at first was a story about the fulfillment of a dying wish becomes much more complex as reasons beget reasons and others' lives intertwine with Johnny's. We feel we eventually come to the core of Johnny and his desire, and the ending explodes outward like a cathartic megaton bomb, consuming each layer of the story back to the beginning.

Oddly enough, I believe it is fiction that gives us this best chance to explore this way. The stories we come across as spectators in reality are often just beginning to scrape the surface, like the beginning of the game. We know when something is poignant, of course—that there is some emotional or spiritual significance—but we can't delve into all the memories and souls that led up to it. We can't see the layers as the scientists in the game come to see them. And yet sometimes we seem to crave that deep, tragic connection. Look at all the people who come out when a popular figure dies because they feel “connected” to a person they thought they knew intimately, even if much of what they felt they knew was a facade.

A happier memory, but how does it fit in?
In reality, we just don't try looking into others' lives that far. When I covered a tragic story as a news reporter, I could tell you what the mother of an Iraq soldier who lost his legs told me on the day their family learned, but I couldn't tell you everything that was behind her exhausted, wavering voice; why she was trying so hard to be stoic that I had to go cry in the bathroom after talking with her. Really, I would not have wanted to, nor would I have had the right to out of simple respect and dignity. Even Johnny asks about his privacy in the game, but fiction gives us that key to tread freely. We must know for the experience to be as powerful as it is and we are more comfortable doing so in fabrications. In essence, we build our own experiences to reach a goal much like the false memory tracks of the scientists' design.

To the Moon reminds us that we are inherently complex creatures built of simple needs and desires. When we look into others to find meaning and significance we can relate to, we are often like the scientists, starting at one point and only able to see a couple clues just beneath the surface. The ways in which the game demonstrates the true depth of life are amazing, and I have not dared share any here in hope of not spoiling this experience for anyone. Highly recommended. 

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