Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // All images sourced from Freebird Games (freebirdgames.com)
While it might be a bad week to be American on the internet, there’s a silver lining for us “games-as-art” people. Finding Paradise, the much-awaited sequel to developer Freebird’s beautifully devastating To the Moon, dropped on Steam yesterday without much preamble.
For those of you who never played To the Moon, first of all, how dare you deprive yourself of such a beautiful experience, and second, you can jump into Finding Paradise without much trouble. While I definitely recommend playing To the Moon first, that’s more because the first game is an outstanding exploration of the often-neglected emotional potential of the medium. It appears Freebird intends for the To the Moon series to continue beyond Paradise, so the minor tangential connections between games are probably setting up story beats for future installments.
Note that Freebird describes Finding Paradise as the second full episode in the series. There are three shorter pieces (A Bird Story and the two Sigmund minisodes) which I am unfamiliar with. I plan to rectify this oversight on my part soon.
Directed, designed, composed and written once again by Kan Gao, Finding Paradise tells another emotionally wrenching adventure of Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, two doctors who “grant wishes” in an ersatz way. As employees of Sigmund Corp, Rosalene and Watts act as the attendants of Death’s door, easing patients across the final threshold by editing their memories and allowing them to have the life they wanted instead of the life they led flash before their eyes. The patient this time is Colin Reeds, a retired airline pilot and amateur cellist who wants to be satisfied with his choices as he dies.
So far, so To the Moon, but Freebird complicates their proven narrative formula in a couple creative ways to make Finding Paradise a very different experience. In this case, as in all cases, “different” is not synonymous with “bad.” First and foremost, Colin specifically asks that the good doctors leave the broad strokes of his life intact, and only tweak the fine details. His regrets are many but minor, nothing that seems to merit the radical overwrite of the Sigmund process. His paradoxical request is made even more difficult once the player starts spelunking through Colin’s memories and discovers a certain major player in the story of his life is conspicuously absent from its finale.
The structure of the game also reflects these differences, as Colin’s brain proves to be a fickle, frustrating thing that refuses to cooperate with the Sigmund machine. Rosalene and Watts bounce between periods of his life in unexpected ways, the anomalies steadily becoming more prevalent as Colin draws closer to death. The story of Colin’s life is equal parts heartwarming and heartrending, and the twists and turns are set up masterfully. The game’s structure toys with the player, letting you think you know what’s coming next only to subvert your expectations, and it all builds organically to a quietly devastating climax. That’s about all I can say without trespassing on spoiler territory, and that’s more than enough.
Now that I’ve gushed over the story and hopefully piqued your interest, the logical next question is “what about the gameplay?” Finding Paradise is a game, after all. Unfortunately, things aren’t so good on that front. Like To the Moon, Finding Paradise is effectively the poetic offspring of a point-and-click adventure game and a SNES RPG. You control Watts or Rosalene as you explore various areas, looking for the items to interact with that trigger the next instance of story. This formula gets broken up a little bit near the end, as a few endgame sections take the form of genre parodies, but I found these moments the weakest parts of an otherwise stellar game. They’re jarringly inconsistent in tone with the slow, melancholy pace of the rest of the game, and they’re of no real consequence. If you fail these sections, you can retry them without penalty, which makes them nothing more than roadblocks between story beats.
Luckily, the aesthetic presentation of the game cycles back around to praiseworthy territory. Like To the Moon, Finding Paradise is absolutely gorgeous. It’s a real demonstration of how beautiful 16-bit sprites can be. And more importantly, how emotive. Small gestures— I’m talking three to four pixels of movement— convey more meaning than most expensive triple-AAA models. And once the anomalies interrupt the regularly scheduled programming, the game only gets better looking. The dream-logic of a school hallway leading into a forest is as fabulous to look at as it is true to the mechanisms of memory. And that’s only one example of dozens!
The score also deserves special mention when it comes to the overall experience of Finding Paradise, as it really sells the emotional weight of the story. Fitting for a story about a musician, the whole game is underscored with Kan Gao’s amazing compositions. While there are a couple of overwrought tracks that try to tug your heartstrings a little too hard, they’re few and far between. And the featured song- courtesy of Laura Shigihara- closes the game out perfectly. There’s a reason Freebird claims to exist at the intersection of games and music.
Now that I’ve explained how wonderful I think Finding Paradise is, it would be foolish of me to neglect the big question hanging over this whole review- why does Finding Paradise need to be a game? What about the story couldn’t be told through a non-interactive medium, especially since the gameplay isn’t stellar?
This question also extends to Freebird’s first rumination on love and loss, To the Moon, and I think it’s not phased correctly. It’s not so much that Finding Paradise and To the Moon need to be games as much as it is the medium needs games like Finding Paradise and To the Moon. I love games— I wouldn’t write so much about them if I didn’t— but they’re a fundamentally immature art form. We’re only starting to getting over our fascination with guts, gore, and sexualization and move on to real explorations of genuine humanity. It doesn’t matter if Finding Paradise fundamentally needs to be a game— what’s important is that artists like Kan Gao are starting to tell more mature stories using the medium. There’s a real emotional heart to Finding Paradise, and it’s every bit as resonant a mediation on the human condition as any novel, film, play, or other form of “high art.” So many games ask us to kill, to revel in our power, to be the best, but those aren’t the only questions this medium can ask. Kudos to Freebird, and Ninja Theory, and Infinite Fall for asking much harder questions. These games want us to be vulnerable, to be emotional, to let the stories penetrate the walls we build around ourselves and change us for the better.
All of this is to say maybe Finding Paradise doesn’t necessarily need to be a game. But I’m certainly glad it is.
While I wholeheartedly recommend Finding Paradise, know that my recommendation comes with a pretty big asterisk. This is not a game for everyone. I wouldn’t even define the game as “fun” in the traditional sense of the word. No, Finding Paradise is all about demonstrating the emotional and thematic possibilities of a medium which usually only asks the player to feel anger or frustration. This is unabashedly capital A-Art instead of lowercase e-entertainment.
Finding Paradise is available for PC, Mac and Linux on Steam, GOG, and The Humble Store. Radio silence on other platforms right now, but if my relatively ancient Macbook can run the game without problems, your computer can do.