The title “Deliver Us The Moon” is a telling one. We can glean, for instance, that we are not in for the sort of lunar larks that Sinatra crooned of. There will be no time to play among the stars. It sounds more like the demand of a deluded, cheese-obsessed king. Only when we hear it spoken, with a hint of desperation, by a cool, computery voice, do we get its full meaning. In the future, Earth is done for; lashed by dust storms and tinged with rusty clouds, it looks more like Mars. The moon, it turns out, is being used as a backup generator, beaming a newly discovered energy back home, via satellite. After a mysterious blackout, the earth stops receiving power, like an adolescent cut off from his allowance. You, a lone astronaut, are launched into space to diagnose the problem. Not quite a delivery mission, then, but something about “Plug the Moon Back In” just isn’t as resonant.
The developer is Dutch studio KeokeN Interactive, founded by brothers Koen and Paul Deetman. In a press release, Koen Deetman laid out the inspiration that spirited the game’s development: “My brother and I have always asked the question ‘What would it be like being an Astronaut’, and Deliver us the Moon was our way of living out our childhood dreams.” Does it succeed? Well, I don’t know—I’m not an astronaut—but I can report that it has a pleasing gravity. I’m a sucker for hard sci-fi; give me dulled metal and matte-finish panelling any day, and would the odd equation-covered whiteboard kill you? It’s nice to see the sweat that goes into the sci, when we get a helping of fi. Last year’s Observation was a fine lesson in anti-luxury, a sober reminder that “space station” is a rather inflated term for a cramped network of cream-white piping. You travelled through it like toothpaste.
No such oozing is required here. Exploration is offered up in a number of ways. There is the view through your visor, favoured, especially in zero gravity, as the corridors become coffin-narrow. These sequences have you wading through the air, as if through a pool, with lazy grace. Most of the game is in third person, and sees you jogging in a slow, space-suited clomp. Then, there is your companion, a floating robotic beach ball vested with a dutiful AI, whom you pilot, in first person, through circular vents—the better to give locked doors a coaxing zap from the other side. The hallways—belonging to a base called the Moonhub—are spacious and authentically bland, hosed of human trace. Save, of course, for the delicately strewn clutter that clues you in to the puzzles: scrawled door codes, story beats cached in e-mail chains, etc.
Here and there, you uncover scraps of backstory through crackly recordings. You might be reminded of the genial ghosts of Tacoma; only, that game’s developer, Fullbright, imbued each of its characters with his own colour—fixing the personalities in your mind like the tinted shapes of Thomas Was Alone. The problem with the figures that emerge in Deliver Us The Moon is that they don’t emerge. They remain half blotted-out by boring writing, and by the time their motivations deblurred my attention had slipped out of orbit. Perhaps, for games enthralled by space, that’s the point. You could argue, quite reasonably, that mutiny on the moon should be the subject of considerable thrill, but when games take us up there—and a developer performs the unenviable task of untethering us convincingly from the Earth—they can hardly be blamed if our small, pitiful narratives pale and drift in the process.
The plot is powered by fuel—specifically, the search for more of it—and play follows closely behind. Your quest is measured out in acronym-encrusted objectives, such as, “Retrieve an ASE unit to gain access to the MPT control center,” and mostly these entail slotting what seems to be a giant Duracell into various sockets. Is that what astronauts will be doing, years from now? Maybe the Deetmans, in pursuing their awed inquiry, have hit upon a tedious truth. In any case, the game they have made is well worth playing—for anyone who looks to the stars—if only for a single wondrous scene. About halfway through, you have to wrangle an antenna array, which means driving a buggy across the surface. It was there, cruising over a silvery, cratered plain, that I realised the mission was a success. The moon, for a few moments, was delivered.