To The Moon (PC)
Developer: Freebird Games
Publisher: Freebird Games
Release: November 1, 2011
You've never played an adventure game like this before. We explain why To the Moon has one of the most memorable stories in modern gaming. This review is best read with some music. Just hit play, and move on to the next page.
THE ENDING ISN’T ANY MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE MOMENTS LEADING UP TO IT
Imagine you have the option to change the past as you remember it, to fulfill a desire you abandoned long ago. What would you do with the power to erase mistakes, or the power to craft brand new ones? Would you raise children and impart your love and wisdom to them? Would you fight harder to save a failed marriage, or pursue an art education instead of a business degree? Would you even choose to alter anything at all?
This miracle, this mental sovereignty, is a scientific reality in To the Moon. For a fee, the Sigmund Agency of Life Generation can grant a death wish and make passing on a bit more comfortable. A duo of experienced technicians use a special machine to enter the mind, traverse memories, and make changes that feel entirely real to the client. John Wyles is the latest person to request this special service. He doesn’t want wealth or power. He just wants to go to the moon, though he doesn’t understand why.
FLUIDS TEND TO ESCAPE FROM MY EYES
Doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts are the talented, experienced, and jaded protagonists assigned to the Wyles case. Eva is prompt and professional, and she clearly respects her clients’ time. Neil is a goofball who won’t think twice about cracking jokes or complaining that his equipment is heavy, though he’s in the same room with a dying man and a grieving care taker. Perhaps the most peculiar thing about these two is their total lack of amazement regarding their own work. Memory alteration is technical and scientific, sure, but it’s nothing short of magical. However, it’s clear that this is business as usual for our good doctors.
It would be easy to write this pair off as a set of overused character tropes. One partner is all business, the other a comedic companion. Typical, right? I’d be inclined to agree, but only for the first ten minutes of the game. As the two work deeper into Johnny’s memories – from old age to childhood – they experience touching, genuine moments that leave a lasting impression on the pair. It’s exciting to see these humanizing events shape and mold Eva and Neil into radically different people.
To the Moon carries an emotional weight rivaled by few other games, but to explain exactly why would be a huge disservice. Each of John’s memories – from chatting with friends in a bar to getting married before a rustic lighthouse – is well and powerfully written. I was overjoyed as the silhouette of two sprites rocked slowly beneath the night sky. Then I bounced with laughter as the two toppled to the ground. “Ow, my ass,” he says. “Well you stepped on my toes,” she replies.
Despite all its emotional moments, To the Moon does a fantastic job of not beating you with the sappy stick. There’s plenty to internalize and plenty to cry over, but there are also references to Animorphs, Dragon Ball Z, and The Incredible Hulk sprinkled liberally but carefully throughout the tale. I welcomed them because they felt real. Who hasn’t made a joke during an intense or awkward moment to ease the tension?
HONESTLY, I DON’T THINK THIS ANIMAL HAS A RIGHT TO EXIST
There isn’t a lot of “game” in To the Moon. It’s almost exclusively a point-and-click adventure with a handful of brief exceptions. To move deeper into John’s memory, for example, you must gather five energy orbs and a memento. Before activating said memento, you must uncover it by flipping tiles to complete a picture. These challenges are familiar and elementary. They will not slow you down.
But playing To the Moon for its gameplay is like playing Tetris for its story.
It’s clear that Kan Gao and the rest of the folks at Freebird Games want to tell us a story. Sometimes gameplay is used to further enhance a story, sometimes it isn’t. Both ways are great. But what sucks is when clumsy or unnecessary gameplay detracts from the tale its creators are trying to tell. Save for a clunky one-minute combat scene in a crowded hallway, the interaction between the player and the game is nearly invisible. For this type of game with this type of story, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
THE WORLD WOULD BE A LOT MORE BEAUTIFUL IF PEOPLE JUST REMEMBERED FACES MORE
A man with no body recited the line above to me. I found it especially pertinent – the perfect way to send off this game.
So many games want us to care about their characters. Many grab us by the collar and shake us around, screaming “Care about us! Like us! Look howdynamic and interesting we are!” They assume that because we have our hands on a keyboard or a controller we owe them something. We don’t.
After you finish To the Moon, I implore you to go play a supposedly character-driven game and take note of what you hear. As dozens or hundreds of lines of dialogue pour over you, you might realize that those characters aren’t actually saying anything at all. Nothing human. Nothing of substance. Nothing that you’ll remember in a week or a decade. To the Moon earns our smiles, our laughs, and our tears. It’s proof that great writing and music can create a storm so perfect it will stay with us forever. I will remember Johnny’s face. I will remember his wife, River, and his doctors, Eva and Neil. I think you'll remember them too.
Gaming would be a lot more beautiful if more games just had faces worth remembering.