To The Moon Review

The video game as a storytelling medium is often overlooked or straight-up ignored. Primarily, this is because video game stories are terrible, so it’s hard to fault anyone who looks at even the most compelling of action games or the best of what first-person shooters have to offer and comes away bored or underwhelmed.

But there’s a lot of potential in storytelling, and many games find a niche and exploit it. Uncharted is a great example – its stories don’t always make the most sense, but they excel in that summer blockbuster style, with some phenomenal characters. Video games can be incredible tools for telling stories by bringing players into those events as they evolve and unfold. The best games give players an opportunity to become part of the story, turning the unfolding events into a conversation between player and developer.

But there’s something to be said for straight storytelling in video games. Linear gameplay delivering a preset story might turn the player into a puppet, but it can be an interesting experience. That’s the road the indie top-down title To The Moon takes – it reminds more of an old-school 16-bit RPG than anything current on the market, but even that’s not a fair comparison.

To The Moon might look like Chrono Trigger, but it lacks even the barest of RPG gameplay elements. It’s a vehicle for conveying a story – a movie in which you steer the characters around environments. That it’s a compelling and mostly well-told story makes it a fun journey to partake in, but it’s important to know that this isn’t a title that’s going to challenge your dexterity or your brainpower.

To The Moon (PC)
Developer: Freebird Games
Publisher: Freebird Games
Release Date: Nov. 1, 2011
MSRP: $11.99

An emphasis on story isn’t a bad thing, though. To The Moon is about a pair of scientists who work for a company called Sigmund. It provides a singular service to its clients: using a special machine, Sigmund Corp. scientists are able to implant memories in the minds of people, which allows them to remember their lives differently than they occurred. In the case of this client, an old man named Johnny, wants to travel to the moon. Sigmund dispatches doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts to Johnny’s house to implant them memories.

There’s one catch, however. Sigmund only works with patients on their deathbeds, because the memory implantation process severely shortens life. Basically, there’s one shot at giving patients their desired outcome.

So To The Moon is primarily about Rosalene and Watts as they wander through Johnny’s life. The majority of gameplay, at least in the game’s first act, has players wandering through different scenes searching for “mementos.” These are objects that appear in multiple memories throughout Johnny’s life, and the doctors are able to use them as bridges to move deeper and deeper into Johnny’s psyche. They need to get to Johnny’s earliest memories in order to successfully implant the desire to go to the moon and have it affect how Johnny remembers his life, and that means moving backwards from his most easily accessible memories to the most difficult.

From a gameplay standpoint, that means a lot of wandering around in different rooms, going up to objects and pressing Enter to see if they’re interactive. Some objects give a little bit of information and a “memory link.” These links basically fill a bar at the bottom of the screen, which is necessary to activating the memento. Links can be gathered from objects or people as well as from just moving to different areas or watching scenes unfold in the memory, and while I’m not exactly sure what they are in the fiction of the story, in practice their purpose is getting you to investigate Johnny’s memories and learn as much about him as possible.

The overall story of the game, really, is that of Johnny’s life. At first you’re trying to divine why he wants to go to the moon, but as time goes on the story really becomes about understanding the man and the events that shaped him and his relationships. It’s pretty compelling, and developer/director/writer Kan Gao’s story clips along and is generally very solid. Told in progressive backwards-moving scenes, it unfolds much like Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, with a similarly brilliant means of delivering twists and information.

Pulling players through the story is the goofy relationship between Rosalene and Watts. Rosalene plays the straight role in the pair’s comedy duo, with Watts taking on the goofball role (a note on the man in the game’s menu refers to him as “village idiot”), and their lighthearted banter is often funny, although not hilariously so. They effectively lighten the load of the drama unfolding in Johnny’s life, and Gao has done a good job of balancing the two elements and making the characters compelling. But they’re not the stars of the show, and Gao smartly makes them touchstones and comic relief, while making sure they don’t hog up the spotlight.

But as far as gameplay’s concerned, there’s not much to go around. Searching scenes for memory links is about as deep as it gets, with the occasional simple puzzle to solve in order to “prepare” mementos for travel. Mostly what you’ll be doing is walking around the game’s top-down scenes, trying to get to the location you need to be in to trigger the next scene or the next bit of dialog. The biggest weakness of the game is actually just trying to get around some of these scenes. Rosalene and Watts don’t move very quickly, and you’ll often find yourself running into an object blocking your path – like a rock or a flower – and needing to backtrack and find another way through.

It’s totally minor, but in a game where there’s not a lot to do except watch, it gets a little bit frustrating that you’ll find side-paths that go nowhere or discover you need to backtrack because a piece of shrubbery inconveniently blocks your way. If you’re not a fan of a game in which you’re essentially a puppet to the story with very little to contribute, To The Moon could bore you.

But Gao’s writing is, for the most part, tight and fun throughout the game’s four-hour runtime, and the plot and setting are compelling the whole way through. Coupled with the game’s old-school art style and a phenomenal piano-based soundtrack, To The Moon is a short and sweet, if thin, gameplay experience with a story that’s worth seeing and reading. It might be a little more film than video game, but it’s nice to see a game pursuing a satisfying story over other elements and succeeding in capturing it.

Pros:

  • Deep, engaging and emotionally involving story
  • 16-bit art style
  • Very cool premise
  • Solid price and run time

Cons:

  • Not a lot of gameplay
  • Could be boring for players who aren’t interested in a lot of reading
  • More of a movie than a video game in some ways

Final Score: 80/100

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