Holy moly what a great time I had yesterday playing To the Moon.
Released almost exactly one year ago, To the Moon is the latest game by Canadian development team Freebird Games. The game explores themes not often seen in video games. These themes are highly personal and human, such as memory, relationships and mental disorders, among others. For those who still don't think that video games can't convey meaningful content in the same way that can traditional mediums, like books or movies, play To the Moon. It might change the way you perceive the medium.
You can get the game here: http://freebirdgames.com/to_the_moon/
The player delves further and further into the life of the patient through a special machine. Exploring memories this way works well in a video game, much like the animus system of the Assassin's Creed games. The main difference between these two games is that To the Moon's narrative is incredible, and not just "for a video game", and it only took three and a half hours to deliver, not thirty.
While playing To the Moon, I realized that there really is a difference between a game and the experience it delivers. There is nothing particularly challenging or technologically impressive about To the Moon; that being said, it is now one of my favorite games. The gameplay? Mostly walking around with either the mouse or arrow keys, interacting with NPCs, or solving one of the many puzzles to progress the story. By no means an ugly or broken game, nothing really stands out with the gameplay or the technology itself. The experience? An amazingly crafted, deeply personal tale centering on the fulfillment of a dying man's last wish. It's definitely one of the best stories of this kind that I've seen, no matter the medium. On top of that, it's also definitely a game, and not just an interactive story. I've never experienced a game like this. For this reason, it's tough to put into words how I feel about it.
It's kind of like being blown away by a movie, but not by the cinematography itself; or being truly moved by a novel or book, but not by the writing style itself. In these cases, the artistic medium is exactly that : a medium through which an experience is delivered.
To the Moon runs in the RPG Maker engine. Even though To the Moon is more of a story-driven adventure than a traditional RPG, they've put the engine to good use. Having spent a significant amount of time working with the engine, I quite enjoyed playing a game made with RPG Maker since I got to see to what it was capable of when used well.
The fact that such a powerful experience was conveyed through the RPG Maker engine showed me that it's possible to deliver a great game through an easy-to-use engine. One doesn't need to be a professional programmer to design a game with the user-friendly (yet highly customizable) RPG Maker engine. The game is a good example of how amazing content can be presented in a simple and dated form.
AAA versus Indie: Round 1
I'd like to come back to the Assassin's Creed comparison. I recently bought, played through, and enjoyed Assassin's Creed III. The game is technologically impressive with its own cutting-edge engine, but the narrative, while not terrible "for a video game", is far from excellent. To the Moon is the opposite: while lacking technological excellence and impressive gameplay, the game delivers an exceptional, deep, universal, thought-provoking, and often funny experience unlike any other.
The way I see it, there are two ways to evaluate these games. The first scale is based on the game elements, and on this scale, games like Assassin's Creed III would win hands down. It has an epic cinematic journey littered with side quests spanning 30 hours of cutting edge gameplay. By traditional video game norms, this is well worth the $70 price. It was for me, anyways, and with its impressive sales, it's safe to assume that it was for a lot of people. I walked away from the game satisfied. But will I remember this game experience in ten years time? I'm guessing not, since its qualities are mostly technical and on a gameplay basis, things which evolve rapidly enough and noticeably improve year after year.
The second is based on the quality of the experience, and it's on this scale that games like To the Moon shines. I was surprised at how well the story of To the Moon was executed in the span of only three and a half hours. Assassin's Creed III, far more technologically advanced, tried hard to make me care about its characters, but even after 30 hours, it hadn't really succeeded. I guess that's not the point of the game anyways. I got a much more fulfilling experience with To the Moon, and all I needed to give was about four hours and ten bucks. On this scale, To the Moon is evidently a much better deal than Assassin's Creed III, although it all depends on what you're looking for from your game.
Technology ages; an experience does not.