Review: To the Moon

I don't often feel in the mood to write about any single movie, book, or video game - my only other 'review' being more of an exercise in what not to do to food (see: McDonalds Seared Chicken Burger) - but for the only video game to have ever made me so very close to crying, I think I can make an exception.

To the Moon

PC video game, $11.95 USD, developed and published by Freebird Games

To the Moon

I discovered To the Moon when I was going through RPG Fan's list of top RPGs of 2011. It won the indie category with a lot of praise going towards its story. I never heard of the game before, but to have what RPG Fan were calling the best story of any video game this year, it intrigued me enough to read their full reviews on it, as well as find out what other people were saying about it.

For those who don't know (and to stop my dad from making some terrible joke about how RPG is a programming language), RPGs in the video game world are short for 'role-playing game' - a genre of video game where you assume the role of someone whose progression through the game is typically determined by classes/specializations (what kind of traits you want your character to have), statistics (assigned numbers to each of those traits), and story.

Now that I've told you that bit about RPGs, you can forget it all because To the Moon has neither classes nor statistics - it's basically an interactive story that just happens to be made with a tool called RPG Maker, so I don't know whether the RPG classification is really all that justified.

With that out of the way, To the Moon's premise goes something like this: in the future, people can be granted their dying wish thanks to a technology that allows doctors to create artificial memories in the patient, thus granting them the memories of having done something that never actually happened.

In this game you take the role of 2 doctors, Dr Eva Rosaline and Dr Neil Watts, as they grant their latest patient, a dying man named Johnny, his wish to go to the moon. Johnny isn't entirely sure why he wants to go to the moon, so with only a day or 2 to live the doctors dive into Johnny's mind and retrace his memories back to his childhood to plant in his childhood self the ambition and drive to become an astronaut, and ultimately to go to the moon.

Telling a story in reverse isn't easy, and the last time I came across a reverse-story in the movie Memento, it messed with my head for the first couple of minutes. But like Memento, To the Moon, manages to pull-off this reverse narrative, teasing your own assumptions and experiences to fill-in the blanks and treating you to a different form of suspense - instead of the usual "what happens next?", you're instead left wondering "why/how did this all happen?"

It's in unravelling Johnny's life that a heart-felt human story takes place, and just to re-iterate so many other reviews of the game out there, it truly is one of the better written stories I have had the pleasure to play through. There's nothing 'grand scale' or 'sweeping epic' about it; it's just a story of a man and a life filled with friends, places, struggles, love, and loss, and it's in uncovering each of these memories through the doctors' (and your) eyes, reliving each emotion as it takes place, and piecing together the life of the man that is Johnny that the game really shines.

I'm trying to think of an example in the story, but mentioning anything beyond the initial few minutes feels almost like a spoiler since so much of what the game makes you feel is in discovering who Johnny is for yourself. Every little discovery isn't spelled-out for you, leaving you to come to your own conclusions and encouraging you to read between the lines, making each and every discovery your own.

Because it's a story about a life, many of Johnny's memories can hit quite close to home, so I found myself pretty emotionally involved. I would sympathize with Johnny quite a lot - laughing with him over a dinner with friends, mentally putting a hand on his shoulder when the situation got bad, and urging him forward when he struggled with nerves in the moments before talking to a girl. I've been there, I'd find myself thinking, I know how you feel...

As for other aspects of the game, the music is probably the next strongest part about To the Moon, helping only to add to the emotion that you're probably already experiencing. None of the pieces are too busy, and most are written around a simple piano motif that was stuck in my head (in a good way) for days afterwards.

There is no voice acting, but in this game that's hardly a negative. The characters of Dr Rosaline and Dr Watts are so well-written it's like reading the witty banter between long-time friends. The things they say tend more towards the light-hearted side of things which, in a sombre tale such as this, is a good way to balance the tone of the game.

As I've mentioned, the game was put together using RPG Maker, so the game looks a lot like a top-down 2D adventure from the Super Nintendo era of the early 90s. Heck, even my widescreen monitor would complain whenever I'd load the game, telling me I shouldn't be running it at such low resolutions. Regardless, the 2D graphics still manage to set the scene, and To the Moon makes use of the 2D to paint some pretty good-looking scenes, even those that you visit over and over again in Johnny's memories, without feeling repetitive or copy-and-paste.

As a game though, it's very lacking in the ever-important gameplay department. Controlling the doctors is done primarily through the mouse (click on a spot on the ground to walk there, click on some object to investigate/interact with it), and some basic puzzle solving that feels incongruous at first is the only thing that stands between you and the next of Johnny's memories. The mouse controls didn't seem all that responsive, so I found myself reaching for the keyboard whenever I could (left hand on the arrow keys, right hand on the mouse to scan the environment). This left me in a bit of an awkward position though with both of my hands nearer the right side of my desk.

From the comments: "This game deserves at least TWO FUCKING OSCARS"

The strength of To the Moon lies entirely in its story, and wow is it a story to be experienced. Supported by the beautiful music tracks (some of which I learned is composed by Laura Shigihara of Plants vs Zombies fame) this game will tug at the heart strings and, not so much refuse to let go, but rather you'll find yourself giving them up to the game to see where it will take you. More of an 'interactive novel' than RPG, this game took me just over 4 hours to complete, but the impression it's left on me has stuck and, in the several days since, still refuses to leave.

And yes, at one point it did almost make me cry. I remember when it happened, my cheeks and eyes started to feel funny and I brought a hand up to them thinking, What the hell, what is this feeling? before rubbing at my face and shaking the feeling away. Was I about to cry?

I've never had a video game do that to me before.

9 out of 10.