To The Moon tells a personal tale of life’s tragedies that every human experiences, specifically death and unfulfilled wishes. If you passed on with one regret, that one item you never crossed off your bucket list, what would it be? Confessing feelings to the women of your teenage dreams? Making amends with an old friend? Riding the world’s tallest roller coaster? (That last one might only be on my list.) Johnny, To The Moon’s protagonist, dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but maturity and age quelled that boyhood fantasy. Now John lies in his lavish home, bedridden and counting the minutes until the life fades from his body forever.
The Sigmund Corporation exists for this sort of occasion, however. The story occurs several decades in the future, where MP8 audio format has already been invented and specialized doctors can alter people's past memories to realize their final ambitions, albeit solely within in their minds. With help from Drs. Neil Watts and Eva Rosalene, John will undergo his fabricated wish through a machine similar to the Animus. Although this method of memory reinvention may be invasive and controversial, is a life ended upon happiness not better than anguish?
Who will be there for you in your final moments?
Normally the process would be hassle free, except Johnny cannot remember why he wants to journey to the moon; some dormant feelings and repressed memories inhibit his recollections. To implant his aerospace illusion, the doctors must retrace the steps of John’s memories from his recent gray-haired remembrances all the way back to his pre-teen days of middle school.
From there, To The Moon takes expectations of what games should be and jettisons them to Earth’s closest celestial body. Kan Gao’s vision plays like an interactive story, allowing gamers the slightest control to move the narrative forward. You learn to understand these characters vicariously through Neil, Eva, and their many text boxes, a side effect of the 16-bit aesthetic. The developers also keep the environments grounded in a believable present – a lighthouse, John’s wedding, a horse ranch, the movie theater, and middle school – despite the sci-fi nature of memory alteration.
For the sake of calling To The Moon a game, Freebird Games calls upon point-and-click adventures to sally players forth from sequence to sequence. In each scene, Neil and Eva gather five memory links integral to John’s current thought. Collecting these links reveals a memento that ties the present memory to a past one (the next one, if that makes sense). The duo then activates these bizarre items, such as a platypus doll, jar of pickled olives, and origami rabbit, to leap farther into John’s past, rooting deeper into the motivation behind his dying wish.
This doll plays into the relationship between John and his wife, River, but what does a stuffed platypus have to do with forgotten promises and neurological disorders?
But first, each memento’s significance must be deciphered. This means flipping tiles to piece together the object's picture. These minigames never increase in challenge (unlike Assassins Creed’s Truth puzzles), nor do they award players for unveiling the image in fewer moves. However, it takes special consideration to unwind a narrative in reverse, and Freebird Games defies the odds. The writers never reveal too much information or too little, so you, Neil, and Eva always know the next logical step in the puzzle while being kept in the dark. By Act 3, all the fragments fit into an onslaught of revelation after revelation.
Other moments of actual gameplay – like the poorly conceptualized zombie-shooting sequence late in the story – do more harm than good, as if the developers reached a stop in their creative flow. Even a Whac-A-Mole carnival game barely functions with mouse support. I level another complaint against the exploration, too. For doctors with a dwindling amount of time to grant their client’s desire, they rarely pick up the pace beyond a brisk walk, meandering about each location until you discover the one interactive memory link that provides the next bit of dialogue.
And for 16-bit creations, the characters sure have a lot to say. Dr. Neil’s fascination with video games, anime, and comics contrasts his less nerdy colleague, and shattering the shields around mementos with Hadoukens, Hulk Smashes, and Kamehamehas earns him constant verbal reprimands by the more restrained, more composed Dr. Eva, who wants to finish their job and move on. As such, their work methods frequently butt heads, but their sibling-like bickering also lessens the emotional impact of what could have been a heartrending narrative. Neil’s sardonic remarks about every sappy, cheesy, and romantic recollection plays up his antisocial personality, yet his inability to remain quiet during these more solemn circumstances downplays their resonance.
The timeline overhead indicates how far into John's past you've ventured.
Yet these two only support the actual main character: Johnny. John asks for some privacy of his innermost thoughts during the group’s initial meeting, except Neil and Eva cannot guarantee their secrecy. Players will experience the physical hardships and mental lows of love, marriage, death, drug use, and psychological disorders through the eyes of one man, and all you can do is watch.
In that regard, To The Moon tells a good tale, never letting the player influence the outcome. But depending on how well players relate to Johnny, To The Moon evolves into something greater: a sincere, affecting story of heartrending emotions. Gamers that share similar toils of economic burdens and relationship stress may find themselves reaching for the nearest tissue.
As a young man without financial problems or health concerns, however, I found no familiar ground to grab on to. The game’s attempts to extract some heartfelt response came off as lacking, as the 16-bit presentation limits the amount of expressions the characters convey. Final Fantasy VI set higher standards with just pixelated eye-widening, and someone should have told To The Moon that facepalms lost their humor ages ago.
If you enjoy symphonic melodies, you too may not stop listening to the soundtrack after completing To The Moon.
Humor aside, the soundtrack consistently impresses. One score written for John’s wife, River, becomes a recurring theme. What begins as an off-key performance between two children matures along with the story to set the more adult tone. Kan Gao knows how to tap into one’s heartstrings through serene piano harmonies. Written text can be just as, if not more evocative than spoken words, though you’ll find the music more relevant to the game’s somber attitude than Neil’s Lorenzo von Matterhorn (How I Met Your Mother) reference, or John’s enjoyment of Animorphs.
To The Moon weaves a web of life’s most sought answers, matters of heartbreak and suffering coalescing into a thoughtfully paced story. Really, how do I describe such a memorable tale without ruining the poignant twists? Few games leave lasting impressions of characters and their mortality, and fewer still broach the subject with as much acumen as Kan Gao, founder of Freebird Games. If I had paid $10 to watch a four-hour drama, I would be content, yet the needless gameplay additions never match the message that To The Moon sells. I expected a genuine emotional breakdown by the game’s end. The tears could have been there, and the tears should have been there, but the tears never came.
Publisher: Freebird Games
Developer: Freebird Games
Release Date: November 1, 2011
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)