To The Moon – Review
Many may balk at the idea, but videogames are the main reason I ever wanted to become a writer in the first place. Evenings spent obsessively watching Blackadder, Futurama or The Simpsons in my childhood may have planted the seed, but it was years of gaming that caused it to bloom. It’s an especially difficult thought process to communicate to others, particularly when you take into account that storytelling in the medium is, in many ways, still in its infancy, and looked upon derisively by others who maintain that stories are best told through television, film or novel. The potential has always been there, and the interactivity that games provide allows not just a deeper investment in the unfolding events, but also an avenue into storytelling that simply can’t exist in any other medium.
Though I often find myself in short supply of examples to recall in such discussions, Freebird Games have given me a new title to champion in the form of To The Moon, which contains one of my favourite stories in a videogame in recent memory. I just wish they’d given me more of a game to enjoy it in.
To The Moon takes place in an unspecified time in the future, as the player takes control of Dr Eva Rosalene and Dr Neil Watts, two of Sigmund Corp’s finest, as they travel to the home of an old man named Johnny Wyles. The purpose of their visit is strictly business; Sigmund Corp specialises in the field of memory construction, more specifically the creation of artificial memories that can be implanted into a person’s mind, allowing them to live out an entire other existence. This system is problematic though, as these new memories are permanent, and clash with the former lives of recipients in a way that their bodies cease to function. As such, it’s mostly used as a sort of wish fulfillment for those on their deathbeds to live out what could have been, and Johnny is the service’s latest customer. His wish is a simple one – he wants to go to the moon. However, when Eva and Neil travel inside his memories and push him for a reason for his lunar desires, Johnny is completely at a loss to explain why.
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself a little here. In order to create these false memories in the mind of the customer, the scientists first have to gather information on their clients, then travel through their memories in reverse-chronological order until they reach childhood. It’s at this point that they’re able to instill the soon-departed’s desire for an alternative life, replacing their authentic memories before their last breath. To do so, Eva and Neil must interact with Johnny’s memories, finding memory links that can be used to break down the barriers to mementos that will then permit them to jump back to an earlier stage in his life. This cycle continues until childhood is reached and the ties to earlier moments dissipate, with the only recourse to plant the idea into the child and watch as their final wish comes true. However, Johnny proves to be a special case, and despite me having to fight every urge to explain why, I simply can’t without destroying the fabric of the story. What I’ve explained should be the most anyone should know about To The Moon before they assume the roles of the Sigmund Corp. scientists before they set out on what becomes the journey of a lifetime, both literally and metaphorically.
As the credits rolled, I found myself scrambling to tell others what they were missing out on, which became a task in of itself as I struggled to conjure a description that would do the story even a fraction of justice. The shortest sell I could give To The Moon is that “it’s like Inception mixed with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but the opposite of that, combined with the opening of Up, backwards, but that’s only the first half, and…“, which as the ellipses suggests, ends up with me just gushing endlessly about it. I even feel that description underestimates just how brilliant To The Moon gets, and that’s performing the near-criminal act of comparing it to other products, as Freebird have crafted a masterful storytelling tour-de-force that is simply unlike any tale ever told before.
There are moments and ideals constructed that can’t be replicated by any other medium, yet the story is one that transcends the “for a videogame” label and lands firmly in the “ever” category. To The Moon contains one of the greatest stories I’ve ever been told, regardless of the method it’s delivered. Rarely has a tale managed to make me laugh, smile and well up with tears so frequently and in such equal measures. Even as I write this review, the game’s events ravel and unravel in my head indefinitely, swinging my mood like a furious pendulum, as I find myself laughing all over again, or desperate to replay a particularly powerful section of the game, or throwing on the soundtrack and letting the memories whisk me away like the events have played for the very first time.
Perhaps those memories wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful were it not for the soundtrack, which serves as a perfect compliment for To The Moon. Never before have I felt that the music to a game has been so purposefully and deliberately crafted to match every single moment, but each composition is a match made in heaven when paired with the ensuing content. There are significant motifs perpetuated within, with particular segments of music re-emerging throughout your time-traveling exploits that serve to punctuate key moments in Johnny’s life and simultaneously cast your mind back to previous revelations. Perhaps most fiendish is its seeming ability to make you under-estimate, as every time I found myself growing accustomed to its offerings, the soundtrack would pull out something out of the bag that would leave me in awe all over again. Its ultimate moment comes during one of the game’s saddest sequences, when heartbreaking events are suddenly backed by a song so perfectly suited that it almost sent me bursting into floods of tears. I’m not often a fan of primarily piano-based compositions, but To The Moon did everything it could to make me feel like a fool for this, as it skirts effortlessly between more retro stylings and tear-jerking piano masterpieces that are often beautiful in their simplicity.
With such praise being heaped upon the music and the story, you’d almost expect the pixel artwork to be maligned in comparison, as upon first glance some may be forgiven for thinking that it’d only serve to undermine their accomplishments. Though I initially found myself in that same camp, I found myself convinced to the contrary afterwards, as though the art may often seem simple, I can’t imagine another way that the story could ever be told.
There’s one particular moment in the latter stages of the game that would be thoroughly overshadowed if the entirety of the experience was delivered in a more modern or hand-drawn graphical style, and it’s another moment that reeks of deliberateness on the behalf of Freebird Games because, as a result, that one moment becomes one of the most stand-out, heartwarming and beautiful events in a videogame filled to the brim with them. Were the rest of the game presented in that style, it’d just be another event that occurs, but that momentary art shift fixates in your mind and takes a greater precedent, much like that one particular song mentioned previously. It makes the entire game come across as a masterful construction that can pick and choose its moments for the most impact, and succeeds so strongly that my mind is a wild cacophony of arguments for which particular scene stands out the most, and why.
Consequently, the question of what stands out the least is one that can be answered near-instantaneously: the gameplay. The reason why is equally soon-explained: quite frankly, there’s barely any to speak of. To The Moon may bill itself as a point and click adventure RPG, but each of those labels are a bigger lie than the last. Sure, you point at things and click on them, but its incredibly literal interpretation of the genre is akin to calling a PC-based first person shooter a point and click because you do that to kill the enemies in front of you. The ‘adventure’ tag is more loose-fitting, as the most it shares with other games in the genre is the fact that you go on a quest and complete it by traveling through a series of environments. Lastly, the most it shares with the RPG is that you assume the roles of the scientists, as well as a scene early on that pokes fun at the concept of role-playing.
The most interactive To The Moon ever gets is when you ride a horse for a few minutes, play whack-a-mole for thirty seconds, or a late-game sequence where you have to traverse a hall whilst throwing plants at zombies. Incidentally, two of those are the only times where the keyboard is used in lieu of the mouse, as even the ability to look at your menu, save, load and quit are assigned to the right mouse button. Progression from one memory to the next involves you moving around and interacting with objects and people in each environment until enough of the story is told that you can move on. Doing so then requires the player to flip tiles so that the blurry parts of each memento becomes clear, with an ideal and total move count provided nearby, though there’s no punishment or disadvantage if you rack up an insane amount of moves, but you’d struggle to do so as each memento can be cleared within six moves at most. Even then, that stops at the end of the first act, leaving you with nothing else to do for the remaining two acts but click away. In essence, calling To The Moon a point and click adventure RPG is downright disingenuous; at best, the game can be described as a slightly interactive novel. Actually, scratch that; at best, To The Moon can barely be described as a game.
And therein lies the most difficult part of reviewing it. To The Moon is a game in the loosest definition of the term – you click to move places, to touch objects and progress dialogue, and that’s the majority of the interactivity you’ll involve yourself in. However, everything else about the game is beyond incredible. The art style seems a bit ill-suited at first, but you’ll soon come to appreciate that it’s one of the only ways the story could have been told. The music may seem repetitive at times, but for the most part it’s utilised so brilliantly that it punctuates the best moments and does what it can to make them all the more memorable. The story is so powerful that it’s one of my favourite stories in years, regardless of medium; it made me laugh, it made me well up with tears, and it made me feel things that no game has done before. As a game it’s dismal, but as a story it’s a tour-de-force that everyone should experience.
Ultimately, that’s why I’d recommend To The Moon so heartily; at its core, it set out to tell a tale, and it succeeded so expertly that it couldn’t have been done in any other medium or method. There’s barely any gameplay to tell of, but the story needs that slight interactivity to reinforce itself and cement itself in your mind. In all good conscience, I can’t give To The Moon a higher score, as it so definitively lacks a crucial component that it would be an injustice to let it off. However, I couldn’t recommend this game to anyone enough, as it’s a masterclass in storytelling that deserves to be championed to anyone within earshot. I just wish that there was more to be played rather than witnessed, so it could stand tall as one of my favourite games, not just one of my favourite stories.Pros
- A stellar masterclass in storytelling
- A beautiful, haunting soundtrack that will linger in your mind
- Expertly paced and crafted to the point it doesn't feel short, even at barely four hours running time
- Full of memorable moments, whether they be heart warming or breaking
- The gameplay is so lacking as to be practically non-existent
Ignore the labels that To The Moon chooses to brand itself with, and you'll find yourself with an incredibly powerful story that simply cannot be praised enough. It is perfectly complimented by a magnificent soundtrack and an art-style that subtly does more justice than you'd believe upon initial glance. If you don't, then you'll instead find a title that thoroughly lacks gameplay and keeps the interactivity at the bare minimum. Despite this, I can't help but recommend To The Moon to the fullest extent possible, as within its confines lies a masterpiece begging to be appreciated by everyone.
Regardless of how you choose to define yourself as a gamer, you owe it to yourself to play To The Moon; it's all too rare that we're witness to a product that completely redefines how a story can be told.
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