When it comes to video games, I seldom cry. In today’s market, over-saturated with emotionless shooters, it’s a rare event that any game can move me to tears. Not that I don’t enjoy shooting foreigners in the face. Every now and then, however–and by every now and then, I mean once or twice in my life–a game will bring together every element so perfectly that my eyes start to water. To the Moon, an adventure game from Freebird Games, did more than that. I sobbed. And I’m not embarrassed to admit it, because when you play it–and you will play it–you will sob too. Hell, I sobbed not once, but twice, during the 4 hour, 640×480, one-man, pixellated game.
Narrative is a concept that often loses out in favour of things like graphics or gameplay, as the latter can sell far more copies than the former. That’s why it takes an indie game like To the Moon to show us the effect a narrative can have when done right. In To the Moon, the fourth game from Kan Gao, a technology has been developed that allows the insertion of artificial memories into a person. Drs. Rosalene and Watts work for a company called Sigmund Corporation, who are hired by patients on their death bed to allow them to fulfil their dream–they insert the memory of doing so into the patient’s head. To the Moon sees Rosalene and Watts attempt to fulfil Johnny Wyles’ dream to go to the moon.
To do this, they need to know the original motivation the client had that caused their dream. Why did Johnny want to go to the Moon in the first place? Rosalene and Watts travel through his memories, starting from immediately before he was on his death bed right back to his childhood, in order to find out. While this is usually a routine task, the doctors encounter mysterious circumstances regarding Johnny’s youth that they need to work around in order to fulfil their contract and (artificially) send him to the moon.
I’m not sure it needs to be said, but in case you’re unaware, it takes a huge amount of skill to successfully write a narrative that goes backwards in time. In every situation that the doctors find themselves in, everyone has knowledge of the past apart from them, apart from the player. This is a story-telling strategy that can be (and indeed has been) fucked up very easily, yet To the Moon pulls it off with mindblowing ease. Every step back into Johnny’s past divulges the smallest part more information, allowing the player to piece together the meanings of certain things said in the future–well, in Johnny’s future, but in your past.
Judging by the previous paragraph, I’m sure you can work out my opinions on the writing in To the Moon. It is absolutely fantastic. Within a couple of minutes of starting up the game, you can already determine the relationship between the protagonists, purely on the basis of their humourous banter. Throughout the story, objects you initially thought were unimportant return in Johnny’s past in ways that can only be described as true genius, such as his love for pickled olives.
The speed with which the mood of the game can alternate between such contrasting emotions is also fantastic. One minute you could be laughing out loud, while the next you’re on the verge of breaking down and sobbing. At one point near the start of the game, Dr Watts takes on a squirrel in a classic RPG-style battle, before being berated for animal abuse. The skill with which the characters and the situations are handled is nothing short of sublime, as is the subtle guiding of the player. Nothing is ever shoved down your throat–it would be easy to run through To the Moon without picking up on half of what the writer wants to put forth, which is refreshing in a gaming market of force-the-player-to-look-at-things.
To the Moon deals with some themes that most video games won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Love, loss, death, youth, heartbreak, disease, it’s all there in one way or another, and it could not have been handled better. Despite looking like a classic 90s JRPG, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that has more maturity when dealing with such heavy ideas, managing to pluck more than one heartstring in the process. The humour can feel a little out of place at times, though, and I often found myself wishing that To the Moon had enough confidence in itself and the story it was presenting to abandon the humour, on occasion. For the better part, however, it’s more than welcome.
But if you’re after a challenging RPG, To the Moon might not be for you. Every time you enter a new memory, you have to go around interacting with objects in order to find five “memory links” – specific items or moments that Johnny remembers from that point in his life. It’s not much of a challenge, but it can be frustrating at times. After finding the five links, you then need to locate a sixth item called a “memento” (hur hur, I guess all backwards narratives need to mention it at some point), and then solve a strange, out of place tile-flip puzzle in order to move to an earlier memory, all trying to induce a desire to go to the moon in old Johnny.
The gameplay itself isn’t strong at all, but it’s really not what is important. As creator Gao is keen to point out, players should go into To the Moon “without any preconceived notions of it being a game“. It’s really a sequence of cutscenes, some interactive and some not. This might put you off, but believe me when I say that it is an ideal mechanism to properly communicate the story–even the flip puzzles seemed a little silly and unnecessary, and they’re the most poignant example of “game” in this game.
And I haven’t even gotten started on the soundtrack. It’s largely piano-driven and composed by Gao, and is absolutely flipping brilliant. The simplistic “River’s Song” is used as a motif throughout the game–towards the end, even the first few notes will pull tears from your eyes. When the first few notes in the theme song “Everything’s Alright” (by Laura Shigihara of Plants vs. Zombies fame) kick in, seemingly sarcastically telling you that everything is alright when everything is in fact not alright…
All I can do is praise To the Moon. It will only cost you a few dollars and a couple of hours of your time. Watching everything unravel in reverse as it does here is an experience that has never before been accomplished in a video game, and likely never will again. Backed by absolutely superb writing and music, To the Moon is a must-play. I don’t say that often. But, then again, I don’t cry often, and To the Moon made me cry twice. In an hour. Once out of sheer sadness and once out of joy. As long as you’re okay with the limited traditional “gameplay” offered here, it’s a game that everyone should experience.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of To the Moon by Freebird Games.