To the Moon sets out to do one thing and does that one thing remarkably well: the game tells one of the most emotionally enthralling stories in recent years.
Narrative in games has come a long way since that short cutscene played between some stages in the original Pac-Man. During the past few years, there have been some games that do a remarkable job of telling deep, though-provoking stories. Some of the best examples include titles such as Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Bastion, Braid and Portal, among others. To the Moon definitely falls under such rare category, for it’s one of the best written games to ever grace the medium.
In the game, you assume the role of two doctors: Eva Rosaline and Neil Watts. The introductory moments show the two characters as they arrive at a house in the middle of nowhere, carrying a mysterious box. Soon enough, the doctors are introduced to all the residents: there’s caretaker Lilly, her two children Sarah and Tommy and house owner Johnny. Johnny is lying in bed unconscious; he’s about to die.
Minutes after arriving at the house, the two experts take out some weird-looking machinery from the box and set it up in the man’s bedroom. They were sent by the Sigmund Agency of Life Regeneration and their mission is to get inside Johnny’s mind, spot a desire and build a whole world around it. Once this has been done, the man’s memories need to be altered and shaped which would allow him to fulfill his ultimate desire: go to the Moon.
The way in which this story is told is outstanding. You gradually traverse through the man’s memories from the most recent memory to the earliest one. You meet his family, you witness the precise time in which he meets the love of his life, you see him deal with tragic moments and so on and so forth. To the Moon deeply explores themes seldom discussed in video games (love, death, loss, regret and fate, to name but a few,) proving that there’s no need to invest millions of dollars to tell a touching story. Thus, it’s humbling to see that such a small indie project has managed to do so in such an impactful way.
The player’s main objective is to collect sets of memories by exploring different objects and places. These memories are used to break the shield of mementos. Mementos are items of particular sentimental significance and the way in which the player unlocks them is by undertaking some simple grid puzzles. These mini games work quite well and they never overstay their welcome, but they tend to be too simplistic. Still, this isn’t a game that can be measured in terms of mechanics. To the Moon is about being part of a mesmerizing story, meeting endearing characters and being immersed in one of the most entrancing worlds ever created.
Maybe this description gives the impression that the game is always tragic and poignant when actually, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Doctor Watts is constantly making jokes and every time he’s about to move to one of Johnny’s memories he tries to perform a Hadouken or a Kamehameha in the silliest way possible. And there lies the true essence of the dialogue. There’s always a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, therefore, the characters say something witty at times and something heart-wrenching at other times, adding a unique layer of authenticity. But no matter what they say, they are always sincere.
Additionally, this self-aware style of humor is constantly tearing down the fourth wall. For example, when one of the main characters tries to fight a little squirrel, the game adopts an Active Time Battle-style of gameplay for a few seconds, making the player believe that this is in fact a 16-bit RPG. Since the game looks like one, this is a brilliant way of addressing the situation in a very amusing way. At that particular moment, not only does the game make fun of itself, but also from player’s expectations.
As previously mentioned, To the Moon has been built using the RPG Maker engine. As a consequence, the art style is very reminiscent of 16-bit RPG games such as Legend of Mana and Chrono Trigger. It’s baffling to see that someone has managed to create one of the most intensely memorable video game stories with what appears to be a very restrictive shell. After all, the developer had to create emotional resonance out of anime-looking characters that have very limited animations. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is simply superb. Among the different pieces that compose it, there are some dramatic and really unsettling songs.
Unfortunately, To the Moon isn’t without some flaws. One of the most prominent ones is the overall puzzle design. The mini games at the end of each section may represent a nice coda, but they tend to be overly simple. The game addresses this by overtly providing the minimum number of moves required to complete each puzzle, but there’s no tangible reward to doing this apart from your own personal satisfaction. Additionally, the game has a tendency to be pretty linear and straightforward.
To the Moon sets out to do one thing and does that one thing remarkably well: the game tells one of the most emotionally enthralling stories in recent years. But that wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the inclusion of endearing characters, legitimately funny moments, a mesmerizing soundtrack and witty dialogues. In the end, if the developer’s idea was to tell one of the most sincere and sweet stories to ever grace the medium, he has definitely succeeded in that endeavor. Play to the Moon and you’ll remember it for years to come.