To the Moon

Posted by Joseph Lindell.
First posted on 07 April 2012. Last updated on 12 July 2012.
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To the Moon
The sunrise over the lighthouse is majestic.
To the Moon
A sad moment dawns on River's windswept grave.
To the Moon
The proper tiles need to be flipped to activate the memento.
To the Moon
Johnny is getting younger.
To the Moon
River, the redheaded girl, knows the answer.

In To the Moon, the independently developed hybrid adventure and role-playing game from Kan Gao of Freebird Games, you play as Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neal Watts, a pair of scientists from the Sigmund Agency of Life Generation with a most unusual day (and night) job—they grant dying wishes. The game appears to take place sometime in the not too distant future, when there is a technology—unfortunately not too well explained in the game—that allows scientists to copy a client's memories, replay them backward, implant the dying desire in the earliest memories, and then transfer the desire back to that client so that the client will remember a life where the desire had been fulfilled. Here, the client is John Wyles, who prefers to go by the name Johnny. Johnny has a dying wish—to go to the moon. Yet strangely, he does not know why. In the game, the player must be a detective, traversing backward through the dying man's memories in order to understand his wish and to grant it.

At the heart of To the Moon shines its story. While the game likely draws inspiration from movies such as Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it still manages to create an experience that is wholly new and wholly real. Full of raw emotion and existential questions, the game is a love story that will be savored long after its completion. In fact, playing the game again is a good way to piece together the threads of story that creep from the mystic chords of Johnny's memories.

The few characters in the game have a 2D look harking back to classic role-playing games such as the original Legend of Zelda. Their faces can barely be seen. They make few gestures or movements. They are not voiced; instead, all dialogue pops up in little comic book style boxes sprinkled with liberal dashes of punctuation. Nonetheless, they have a real presence in the game. Perhaps this is because the troubles that buffet the denizens of the craggy, windswept cliff upon which most of the game takes place are the travails of the human condition. It is easy for the player to identify with the ethical dilemmas (and often inane humor) of the game's protagonist doctors, to empathize with Johnny's pain and confusion, and to feel River's distance. Moreover, it is perhaps their very silence that speaks volumes. Without voices, it is up to the player to imagine their tones, read into their words, and touch their souls.

Yet, there is little to the game aside from its story. There are no inventory puzzles to solve, no meaningful dialogue choices, and no sleep lost over how to make progress in the game. Gao himself has acknowledged that To the Moon has the story of an adventure game but the look and feel of a classic role-playing game. Built using RPG Maker, To the Moon is not a traditional adventure game—it is meant more to be experienced than played.

The game is played using the mouse or keyboard. The player walks through limited locations in Johnny's memories, collecting significant objects to serve as memory links. In each memory, the player must collect 5 memory links and then uncover a memento that will assist a transfer backward into a prior memory. Before activating the memento, the player must solve an abnormally easy puzzle by flipping over the correct sequence of tiles. In almost every memory, the player must repeat the same steps in order to experience the continuing story. There is an action sequence toward the end of the game, in which the player must both shoot and avoid; like most of the gameplay elements, however, it presents little real challenge.

Despite this, To the Moon differs from an interactive movie. In many interactive movies, the player watches carefully scripted events and controls the story by making decisions every once in a while that can affect its direction. In this game, the player's choices make little difference on how the plot unfolds; instead, location exploration draws the player into the game world. The player traverses the same locations again and again while noting what has changed and what has stayed the same, sees familiar objects in new contexts, and understands later conversations from the perspectives of earlier exchanges. By allowing the player to experience Johnny's memories in reverse and to learn a new fact here and another tidbit there, the game artfully leaves it up to the player to put together and make sense of what has been seen and learned. To the Moon draws the player into the tale in a way that an interactive movie often does not.

The graphics are touching. While they are limited and leave much to the imagination, that is not at all bad. When the sun rises over the lighthouse or a couple of young children gaze with wonder at a bejeweled sky, it is not difficult to marvel at the fact that Gao has done so much with so little. The original soundtrack, incorporating solo piano, electronic, and vocal elements, is rich, tear jerking, and evocative. A montage near the end of the game demonstrates that sound and cinematography can rouse a flat land of pixelated characters and backgrounds to vibrant life. With true understanding of his craft, Gao has managed to use his limited resources at precisely the right moment and in exactly the right way.

All that being said, as an adventure game fan, I want to see more puzzles in this game—not of the tile flipping variety, but traditional adventure game fare. I think that good puzzles need not detract from the story. For example, the game could have allowed the player to spend more time at each location, uncovering details in Johnny's story by using inventory items and by speaking with other characters. Likewise, the game could have permitted the player to switch between memories at the player's choosing or have puzzles requiring the player to recall details from particular memories in order to progress in others. Additionally, while the story in To the Moon is comparable in length to that in a longer adventure game, the game does not take very long to play (the game can be completed in only 4-5 hours) because of a lack in substantial gameplay elements. Puzzles could have been incorporated to lengthen the game, allowing the player to savor and digest its weightier parts. Since the ending of To the Moon suggests that Gao intends to make more games in this series, I hope he incorporates more adventure game elements into sequels.

To the Moon is a gem which trumpets the virtues of simplicity. I have always believed that tight writing and masterful attention to detail can do so much more than a big budget production to capture the imagination and tug at the heartstrings. Lighthouses are not only a prominent feature in To the Moon, but the game is itself a lighthouse shining its beacon for other games foundering on the shoals of story. I look forward to more lighthouses from Gao and Freebird Games.

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