Having taken advantage of GOG.com’s 5-for-10 deal this weekend, I set out to play To The Moon first as the trailer pushed just about every gamer button I have: amazing soundtrack, check; nostalgic 16-bit art, check; strong emphasis on story, double check.
I started it Saturday and finished it Sunday. I would have played through in one sitting, but a very small human kept wanting attention, food, etc. Apparently that was more important than video games! Anyway, I’m not 100% sure that “game” is the right moniker for To The Moon. It’s more like an interactive visual novel with light puzzle elements and some minor dialog choices. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing at all; it was just unexpected and definitely unusual in my experience.
I don’t think I can really talk about the story much without getting into some heavy spoilers. But I can say that there was a twist at the end that blew my mind a little bit and was simultaneously kind of obviously coming. Overall, it lived up to my expectations as an experience, even though it wasn’t really a game. Highly recommended even if you have to pay the normal price of about $10.
One of the awesome things about GOG.com is that there is always some sort of bonus material included when you buy a game. Often it is a soundtrack or wallpapers, but To The Moon included an entire second game from the same developer, Freebird Games. This game is called The Mirror Lied, and it is even more unusual than To The Moon.
First, it is very short. Depending on how fast you can figure out what to do next, it is only about 20 or 30 minutes of play. You control a faceless girl named Leah, who is trapped in a house by herself. And then, well, stuff happens. Weird stuff. Seemingly pointless stuff. Eventually, the credits roll. You will probably find yourself staring at the computer screen with a blank expression for at least a few minutes.
The second oddity is that there isn’t a plot, per se. I mean, stuff happens, but it’s not like anything else I’ve ever played. There isn’t really a story, at least not one that is fully crystallized. This appears to be a deliberate design choice by the creator, meant to push the bounds of what a video game can be. He has succeeded on that front, for sure!
Finally, the gameplay is pretty traditional point-and-click adventure game stuff, similar to what you might find in Myst and its ilk. However, the actions you have to take to collect items and move the game along are not always particularly logical in the way that you would ordinarily expect from such a game. You have to kind of just roll with the atmosphere and aesthetic of the game and do what seems to fit in the very strange little world of the game.
In the end, The Mirror Lied is something that it almost never attempted–a video game as pure art. Sure, I was “entertained” while playing it, but entertainment is definitely not the point of The Mirror Lied. To make any sense of the game at all, the player absolutely must bring a substantial amount of herself to the interpretation, as the game is deliberately ambiguous. The Mirror Lied cannot be directly understood, it must be interpreted by the player. I think that sets it apart from traditional video games that are meant to be entertainment into the realm of actual art. I’m not sure I would necessarily recommend this game to everyone I know, but anyone with an open mind about what a video game can be should at least give it a go. In fact, I think I will likely play through it again to pay more attention to details of the setting that I didn’t see when I was mainly looking for the next puzzle piece.
I am so happy that small indie developers like Freebird are able to find a way to make their business work. They can innovate in ways that big game companies can’t, as their sales expectations do not run into the tens of millions of copies. For example, they can release a game that has almost no plot, and what plot there is is nearly incomprehensible. I don’t think we’ll be seeing an experiment like that from EA or Blizzard anytime soon. I have downloaded the other two games (well, one is not actually a game but more a short film?) available from Freebird’s website and I am very curious what I will find when I fire them up. All I know for sure is that it will not be video games as usual.