To the Moon is not your typical video game. For one, there’s very little gameplay, focusing instead on story, character development, and mood (the latter helped by some excellent music). For another, it uses 16-bit graphics in a top-down view (think old-school JRPGs) instead of a 3D, immersive environment ala Skyrim. And finally, the best way to review it is not to approach it as a game, but as an experience, much like a great novel or movie. When Richard Wagner revolutionized opera, he called his pieces “musical dramas,” to signify how they were different from what came before. In the same way, To the Moon is better described as an Interactive Media Experience (IME), rather than a video game. Still, to keep things simple, I’ll refer to it as a game for the purposes of this review.
To the Moon takes place in the future, where a procedure allows people to live out one wish, through the creation of false memories. Since these memories conflict with actual memories, this device is only used on patients who are on their deathbeds, as it causes the person to die soon after “living out” his or her wish. You play as Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, whose job it is to enter the memories of the patient, starting at his or her last accessible memory and working their way backward, ending at the earliest accessible memory. In the game, their patient is Johnny, an old man who is two days away from death. He lives next to a lighthouse with his housekeeper, Lily, and her two children. His wish is to go to the moon.
Even before they enter his memories, Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts discover some odd things about their patient, starting with the numerous origami rabbits hidden in a room in the basement and at the top of the lighthouse. As they travel through his memories, they must find five memory links in order to break the barrier surrounding a memento. In order to activate the memento, they must solve a tile-based puzzle. Once activated, the memento brings them to an earlier memory. Once they plant waypoints in all of the memories, they will return to the most recent memory, then link the waypoints together. This linking will plant a desire in the patient as a young child that will cause the wish to come true.
The game is split into three acts and contains a lot of humor and aping of other genres (I particularly liked the “fight” against the squirrel-gon, Final Fantasy style). It also contains something else that is rarely found in video games: a great story. In fact, sometimes I wished there were less of a game element to this game. I didn’t mind the tile-based puzzles, but when, late in the game, you’re fighting zombies with plant projectiles and trying to avoid spikes that keep changing their location, I found myself getting frustrated when the mouse-led controls weren’t allowing me to move as precisely as I wished. Plus, while this sequence was constructed as a delaying tactic, it went a bit long, especially in a game in which you can’t die.
Unlike other video games that employ them, the cut scenes are the game in To the Moon. If the play mechanics seem a bit clunky at times, it’s because they are only there to get you to an earlier memory and another explanation for Johnny’s wish to go to the moon, or another revelation about his relationship with his wife, River, or another reference to his love of pickled olives. There is such poignancy in the later explanations for things that seemed odd or strange early on in the game, and at least a few surprises, some quite shocking. Also, Johnny’s interactions with River, his friends (Isabelle and Nicolas), his mother, and Lily, are appropriate to each scene in his life, without falling into the trap of overexplaining an important plot point for the player’s benefit. Even more impressive, the two doctors also grow as the story develops. At first, Dr. Watts seems to be in the game solely for comic relief and appears less empathetic that Dr. Rosalene, but he becomes a more three-dimensional character as the game develops, while Dr. Rosalene makes some choices that seem to be out-of-character late in the game, yet make sense when you reach the denouement.
I must also mention the music. I remember other instances when the music in video games has been as gorgeous or as expressive as it is in this one, but never have I heard it used so effectively in conveying the emotion in a scene. It’s so effective, that when it appeared at one point late in the game, I cried. In fact, the emotions I felt upon playing through this game are ones I reserve for the most powerful of movies.
Whether To the Moon is a great video game, a great IME, or something else entirely, it’s worth taking 4.5 hours out of your life to play. Kan R. Gao, its director, designer, and music composer, has created something rare in the annals of video game development. He has created a work of art.
You can buy the game here (or play an hour of it for free!): http://freebirdgames.com/