Shining as beautiful and melancholy as a moonbeam.
January 15, 2012 – It is rare that I hear about indie games from mainstream video game press outlets, as it takes a great deal of time and effort to cover the AAA blockbuster titles of the industry, but thankfully “To the Moon” caught the attention of the gentlemen over at Gamespot – so much so, in fact, that they dedicated a whole podcast solely to this title. Doing something that significant and unexpected certainly gave the game some much needed attention.
And this is truly a game that deserves eyes. This is a title that earns every bit of love, perhaps more so, than any of the big sixty-dollar games. It is a game of power, heart, charm, humor, drama and humanity. For all its flaws, this is a game that lifts the medium beyond mere entertainment into the realm of literary art.
Wow, that sounds like unreasonable hype. But before we get to the story of the game, which is the true star, there is some very important missing context. “To the Moon” is a game that creates and destroys typical expectations. The gameplay is sparse and minimal, the difficulty is either brutal or a cakewalk, and the graphics practically demand the gameplay to match that of the classic 16 bit Japanese Role-Playing Games of the Super Nintendo days, when it is anything but – which leads to a very self-aware joke early in the game that is simply priceless.
Of course, those same graphics have other effects. They are beautiful, but simple. Nostalgic and comfortable, yet capable of magical and unexpected things. Perhaps their greatest asset is the fact that they require involvement, imagination and the attention of the player to fully grasp them. In much the same way that books gain their power through the enhancement of the imagination of the reader, so too these graphics demand the reader to embellish the scenario. While a fully rendered 3d graphics engine might have been able to convey more direct emotions through digital acting, that sort of magic requires a budget. Under the circumstances, the graphics are not only practical, they are ideal.
The gameplay, however, is where expectations fall apart. In truth, “To the Moon” is barely a game, instead it would better be described as an interactive experience with light puzzle elements. The gameplay consists almost entirely of using the mouse or the movement keys to move around environments and click on people or objects to interact with them. It is a point-and-click adventure in a traditional sense.
Meanwhile there are puzzle sequences that consist of flipping clear tan tiles to try and get rid of them. At first the puzzles are infuriatingly difficult, primarily because the game makes no effort whatsoever to explain the goal of the puzzle. Furthermore, even though there are instructions on what actions you may take, they aren’t thorough enough, and make little sense for some time. However, once you’ve figured the instructions out, the puzzles become simplistic. To the point that completing them takes seconds.
Needless to say, the gameplay is the weak point of the game. There are places where the gameplay doesn’t live up to its potential, such as the puzzle sequences, but it utterly fails in others, specifically a sequence late in the game that turns the mechanics from point-and-click into a sort of crude sidescrolling shooter. Presumably this was to add further interactivity and game-ness, but while the moment fit the story, the controls were weird, a bit out of place, and it didn’t feel like the same care and attention had been paid to it as the rest of the game.
The story, meanwhile, more than makes up for these flaws with a powerful tale about human relationships. It is exceedingly rare to find a game that has a story to tell at a level of literary merit. “To the Moon” is one such game.
As a reviewer, it is a scary thing to praise something you love too much. All too often, good or great works can be over-hyped to the point that no amount of quality can live up to it. And that is my greatest fear in praising this story. The story is not particularly flashy. It does not involve epic stakes, or winding tales of far-off lands. Instead it deals with regular people. Individuals with daily problems, and their relationships with one another. And yet in these simple topics, the game developer has managed to find deep and emotional drama that feels authentic, subtle and very, very real.
But for as grounded as the story is, it does rely on a science fiction premise – one that seems at least partially inspired by the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” In the near future, scientists have the ability to attach a machine to individuals, and then enter their memories to witness them. They can them simulate these memories in the machine, manipulate them around, and then transmit them back to the individual who will take these new memories to be their actual memories.
It sounds complicated, but the essence of this story element is this: there is a company who can be hired by people on their death beds to come and manipulate their memories so that they will remember their deepest desire had come true. If a dead-beat janitor wishes to have his memories changed so that he thinks he actually lived his dream of becoming a rock star, they can do that.
The Importance of a Platypus
Two of these scientists, Dr. Wyatt and Dr. Rosaleane, have been sent out to the bedside of a dying old man, Johnny, to change his memories so that he can die happy. In short order, it is revealed that his deepest wish is to go to the moon. The trick is, he doesn’t know why he wants to go to the moon. So to grant John’s wish, the scientists head out on a journey through his memories to discover why he wants to go to the moon. What follows is a fascinating deconstruction of Johnny’s life, his relationships, his emotions, his qualities, and his flaws told in reverse.
The story addresses numerous themes. How hard communication between people really is. How much of our relationships are built around assumptions, faith and hope that we are somehow understood. The importance, but also the frailty and danger of memories. The effects that past events have on the present.
In many ways, this game could be the subject of a dissertation. The more you look into it, the more everything in the game is obviously a symbol that reinforces the themes just as they figure in so seamlessly into the plot, and ultimately show the player something about humanity as a whole. Like any excellent story, there are layers of meaning that simply aren’t as obvious until you’ve thought it over once or twice, and that is, in itself, enough reason to come back and play it through again.
The structure of the story itself is also particularly brilliant. Since one of the primary themes of the story is how much early events in our lives can shape everything that comes afterward, it allows John’s very earliest memories to become a sort of climax in the tale – a turning point whose revelations put everything that comes after into sharp clarity, and charts the way forward once more, as the scientists grapple with what to do.
The structure is also divided up by the aforementioned puzzle sequences, which always represent a transition to a memory from further in Johnny’s past. While these puzzles are nice metaphor for the process, it’s a shame that they couldn’t be better and more directly tied with the storytelling.
John’s characterization is the prime element of the story, but there are no wasted characters around him. Pretty much everyone has depth, intricacies, and flaws and charms of their own. The most important of these characters is River, Johnny’s deceased wife. The relationship between Johnny and River is central to the plot of the story, and also the source of some of the saddest and greatest moments of the game.
But Dr. Wyatt and Dr. Rosaleane are not cardboard cutouts either. They can be goofy, and oddball at times, being pretty much the sole source of the brilliant comedy in the game (which is used expertly to offset and emphasize the drama and tragedy), but they also go through changes as they experience Johnny’s life, wrestling with the ethics of their own actions, and the way they see Johnny and the other characters of Johnny’s memories. There are many other minor characters as well, but none are used lightly, often serving as foils for Johnny and River to accentuate their personalities and issues.
For all this, the ending will either strike the player as wonderful or a disappointment. I found myself loving it, even as it left me both happy and hollow at the same time. That hollow edge is what will drive some players to despise the ending, and it is hard to blame them. Every player’s reactions will be largely governed by how they interpret what happened, what they believe regarding memories, and quite frankly what they believe happens when we die. “To the Moon” asks complicated questions just under the surface of the events it presents, and there are no easy answers.
The music is wonderful and a terrific parring with the game itself. While I didn’t pick up on this particular note personally (I was introduced to the idea in the Hotspot spoilercast for the game, which I highly recommend after you’ve played it through), the music of the game actually parallels some of the thematic and personal elements of the story. River’s theme, through its repetitive nature, actually matches with her personality. It’s not only a beautiful score, it’s thematically appropriate, and thus brilliant.
It’s hard to do the game justice in a simple review. And of course that is the problem of reviewing great works of art – the ideas within the work cannot be as eloquently told in a summary fashion. These elements need to be explored they way they were laid out in the game to be fully understood. So the best I can do is to say that this game has flaws, it has minimal and weak gameplay, but for all of that, the story, through its excellent dialogue, humor and illuminating approach to examining the human condition, has become one of the best games of last year, one of the best stories in games and literature, and one of my personal favorites of all time.
STAR RATING: (4 Stars)
Four out of Five Stars
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
There is so much material that could fit under this section that I’m not sure where to begin, or end. In that regard, this section might seem a little bit stream-of-conscious (because it more or less will be).
I suppose I’ll start with the characters. Johnny, for all that he is the primary subject, is not particularly likeable for most of the game. He acts selfishly in many respects. It is hard for him to truly see what is going on inside of the people around him. In that, he is entirely relate-able. Yes, he’s selfish, but aren’t we all? And his selfishness isn’t unreasonable either. In many ways, he truly has given up so much of himself. That’s the whole reason he calls out to science for help. He feels hollow. He was never truly allowed to be himself.
This is largely because of what was done to him as a child. He was forced to forget the memory of his brother, who died in a terrible accident. This loss of memory may have driven out the basic facts from his mind, but the effects of that event are still very much entrenched in his mind. So when his mother, who is driven more or less crazy by the accident, calls Johnny by his brother’s name, it’s terrible. Not just because of the tragedy behind her delusion, but because it signifies something important. All his life, Johnny has been living out his brother’s life. He was trying, without realizing it, to fill the hole in his mother’s life left by his dead and forgotten (by him) brother.
When these things are finally revealed, I found that I didn’t hate johnny at all. I pitied him. He was a victim of his past, and his own forgotten memories – filled with emotions and sadness he didn’t have solid reasons for. He never really was himself. Which is why when he meets and falls in love with River for the second time, he never fully connects with her as he did in that one, brief and beautiful moment before his memories are erased.
And River tries so hard to help him remember...
The ending of the game, then, though it does still feel hollow, shows how that once those memories are restored, given the right circumstances, he once more connects with River. That final scene of their flight to the moon together, holding hands, is a wonderful image. Even if it wasn’t truly real, it was real in Johnny’s heart, and I think that makes a difference.
Of course this does nothing for River who at least was more mature and perceptive than Johnny, and so could see his love for her, even though she couldn’t express her own back to him. The whole situation around her medical condition, Asperger’s Syndrome, is fascinating to me. In many ways, despite this real problem that makes connecting with other people difficult, she is more successful at truly connecting with others than Johnny is.
This game made me cry multiple times. Tears-on-my-face-sobbing, too, not the bare misty eyes other games give me. When it hit home to me the pain and sadness, yet deep love these characters had, it would just do me in. It was so sad, and so wonderful.
I think that scene with little Johnny and River sitting on the log looking at the stars is one of those seminal moments in my gaming life. All gamers have them, those moments that define our experience with the medium that make us love our hobby. This was one of those for me.
There are so many more things I could go on about. The wonderful symbols of lighthouses and stars, the moon, and the endless origami rabbits, not to mention that dear old platypus… I could go on for hours I think. But I have to stop sometime, and that image of Johnny and River together as young, innocent children is the perfect punctuation mark on this marvelous game.