Indie games offer a wide selection of different genres and sometimes highly personalized experiences. This is why I’d like to present some of the most interesting examples in the Indie Games Special Week 2012, even if it’s difficult to select just a few with so many great games on offer.
Starting with the unusual genre-hybrid To The Moon from Freebird Games, it sets the tone of games which cannot be found in the mainstream gaming market yet. Even though who is to say what is mainstream or what not?
To The Moon
(Canada 2011, developer: Freebird Games, publisher: Lace Mamba Global, platform: PC/Mac)
Two scientists try to change a dying patient’s memories to help him believe he became an astronaut and flew to the moon.
RPG lighter than lite
Promoted as a hybrid between an adventure game and an RPG, this genre register wouldn’t do the title justice. There is no levelling up in the strictest sense of the word. Actually the whole party-fighting-concept is ridiculed very early on in the game and replaced by a rather unparalleled way to progress in the story: collecting memory fragments to unlock deeper layers of past events in the patient’s mind.
By interacting with certain parts of the environment, going to specific locations or just watching particular scenes, an orb bar at the bottom of the screen is filled. After every slot is occupied, an object which is connected to the past can be “attacked” with this power. Or better: another memory is prepared, which further requires a small puzzle solved in which an image has to be revealed, not unlike the unfolding of an origami.
Easy on the puzzles
So the game mechanics aren’t that intriguing and get a bit old after some time. There are some small adventure-like tasks to perform, like finding and using objects or anwering a character’s questions by investigating certain topics. But all in all it’s always the same system: collect the orbs, unlock another memory, repeat. Of course it means that the player doesn’t have a lot of freedom where to go or what to do. At some points it’s even possible that he walks around a bit aimlessly, because it’s not exactly clear what triggers the next orb.
Attempts of mature storytelling
This doesn’t sound very appealing to either adventure fans (as the puzzles are too few and too easy) or RPG fans (no character stats, quests or fights). But the title doesn’t really need to have a complex system or to mix different genres to stand out.
In what To The Moon succeeds wonderfully is the storytelling. Truly touching stories are still rare in gaming. Even a title like Heavy Rain relies too heavily on stereotypes and tries too hard to make the player feel compassionate about the characters. Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series is a better example, but it is still the adaptation of a comic, set in a world already created before game development started, and in many ways clichés can also be found there.
A truly heartwarming story
So how does To The Moon differ and how does it have one of the most interesting and best stories of the year or even of the past decade? It certainly lies in the simplicity of the heartwarming dream-to-go-to-the-moon trope and then how the story is told backwards. Without taking too much away, but unlike the movie Memento which has a rather dull and uninteresting main story behind all the flashbacks, Freebird Games’ title is about real touching moments in a person’s life. It’s about love, it’s about compassion, it’s about the mental state of people, about fragile memories, it’s all this and more.
Going back in time (there is an actual timeline on the top of the screen showing different life stages of Johnny, the dying man) reveals more and more about the past and how each fragment of memory fits together. The storytelling demands a high level of anticipation and attention from the player, and unlike so many Japanese games which handle the loss of memory in a clichéd way and actually insults the player’s intelligence with its patronizing tone, this game never gets too complicated to tell its story or exaggerates. Everything falls into place, and what’s remarkable is how the player has to think back to memories he already visited and understands certain lines of dialogue or actions of the characters which were rather enigmatic the first time.
The story is so well written that it pulls the heartstrings at the right moment without coming off as something too strong. It’s sentimental, but it treads this fine line rather well, mixed with some humorous scenes as well (which don’t succeed all the time, to be honest).
Feeling for the characters in games is another rare thing as there are so many examples when it feels forced, but To The Moon finds the right dosage of sad and happy moments and reading other people’s comments on the internet show that it even succeeds bringing some people to tears who are usually not the crying type.
Back in the 90ies graphics
Unfortunately the presentation can’t keep up with the stellar storytelling, especially with the graphics which were made with the RPG Maker XP tool. It all looks like an SNES RPG of old, which of course has its nostalgia bonus for some people, but when it comes to animations, some scenes could have been handled better with an improved engine (especially jumping looks quite silly). It’s all lovely drawn and particularly some cutscenes are nice to look at, but it doesn’t change the fact that the graphics are outdated.
Sounds of a lifetime
The music on the other hand is excellent and simply a joy to listen to, at least in the happy parts of the story. The sad emotions are conveyed by a beautiful but make-you-cry piano score. It’s another thing the game does extremely well: Sounds may be a bit sparse, but the musical accompaniment fits every single scene (not to forget a wonderful piano solo with female vocals) and enhances the player’s immersion.
Voice acting would have been a nice touch, and there’s quite a lot of text to read. But this doesn’t distract from the overall experience. Just like the excellent indie adventure What Makes You Tick: A Stitch In Time, the dialogues are a joy to read, even if it means shedding more than one tear.
A questionable rating system
How is it possible to rate a game which doesn’t have a lot of gameplay besides a few puzzles for an adventure game or the RPG-lite orb-“levelling up” system which would fail in any other game? There are some control issues, it doesn’t have the best graphics and playtime is something under 4-5 hours.
All this doesn’t really matter as it’s a marvellous achievement in storytelling which few or any games can offer. How many people can say of themselves they cried during a game or were left with a sad, but also happy feeling after completing it? Many would take Final Fantasy VII as an example, but this did nothing at all to me in terms of story or characters as it was always handled like so many other JRPGs with too much pathos and not enough subtlety.
An unforgettable experience
To The Moon makes the story elements feel organic and makes the player cry because even with the sci-fi elements this is something everyone can relate to. The game does it with an unparalleled love to detail which is found in the dialogues, characterization and pacing. If there’s one game a non-gamer should play to convince him or herself this medium can actually offer a very moving experience, it’s To The Moon.
So for the first time I give a game the highest rating possible as it’s a unique experience I’d unlikely forget in years to come. Even if the developer is already working on a sequel.
A quick note: Being priced very reasonably (at least in the UK), this version is DRM-free and provides the fantastic soundtrack on a separate CD. Together with a wonderful packaging, Lace Mamba’s publication can’t be recommended highly enough over the download-only version, available on Steam and other digital distribution platforms. If you want to support the developer directly, you can also buy it on their website.