Pixelhunter – To the Moon


Canadian indie designer Kan Gao’s To the Moon is a poignant, elegant narrative experience characteristic of a recent wave of indie games that are light on mechanics and big on heart. Adopting the aesthetic of 90s Japanese RPGs like Chrono Trigger (with which it also shares a time travelling narrative), Kan uses this stylistic touchstone to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia that’s much deeper than what could be produced from just a simple pixel art style.

To the Moon started life on Kan’s website in 2011 having been made independently using RPG Maker XP, before gradually gaining a fanbase and critical acclaim and eventually landing on services like GOG and Steam. A short game called A Bird Story is in the works which is set to accompany To the Moon. Kan’s games feel very personal, and if the writing occasionally feels slightly clumsy it’s with the same inimitable charm that marked the choppy localisation and whimsical sentimentality of the JRPGs that he is clearly influenced by.

Like so many things the lighthouse, named Anya, will gain more significance as the game goes on
Like so many things the lighthouse, named Anya, will gain more significance

The story follows two argumentative scientists, Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, who arrive at a mansion in the woods where an old man named Johnny Wyles lies on his deathbed. They have been recruited to travel into his memories, tracing them back to his childhood where they can plant the seed of a desire to travel to the moon; the man’s dying wish. On paper the game sounds like a love song to Christopher Nolan, with the idea of implanting memories from Inception, and the manner in which the story is conveyed is very much like the structure of Memento. Each small memory vignette plays out with minimalist intensity, before the player is tasked with finding a memory trigger to delve deeper into the man’s past; as we burrow deeper down, like a psychologist, we begin to discover the edges of a mystery and the significance of the pieces of symbolism abundant in the game.

Johnny Wyles on his deathbed
Johnny Wyles on his deathbed

This borrowing of the structure of popular high concept movies is just as deliberate as the use of the old school JRPG visuals. Just as Audrey Niffenegger’s incredible novel The Time Traveller’s Wife unconventionally moulds sci-fi tropes into a heart wrenching love story, To the Moon uses its lofty concepts to convey themes of empathy and loss far more effectively than it could if the story were told in sequence. The game constantly introduces foreboding elements, that only gain true relevance when we witness their origin, in particular the colourful origami rabbits that festoon the old house. Like the memory triggers that you hunt for in each scene, even the most innocuous object can suddenly become charged with meaning and the game’s central mechanic plays on this, forcing you to hunt each scene for five fragments that can be used to activate the transition by solving a simple tile puzzle.

As the scientists work their way backwards we find out about Johnny’s difficult relationship with his wife River, who seems to suffer from a severe form of autism, possibly Aspergers, which causes her to be distant and unable to communicate her desires directly. We’re constantly reminded that what we are witnessing is a simulation, which explains Dr. Watt’s initial cynical, unfeeling response to each situation, yet never-the-less he begins to care about Johnny’s story in spite of himself, and, as he is the player’s surrogate, so do we. River’s condition, whilst sensitively handled, is a counterpoint to the player’s growing connection with the characters as the game makes its way towards its bitter sweet conclusion.

To the Moon aptly demonstrates that you don’t need hyper realistic graphics and a team of thousands to create an emotionally resonant experience.

Kan Gao recently teased the sequel to the game on Facebook with this amusingly irreverent image
Kan Gao recently teased the sequel to the game on Facebook with this amusingly irreverent image






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