If thought Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition was a surprising palette cleanser to the lackluster The Incredibles, then I have to imagine this is an even stranger, grander change of direction. Yup, I followed up shooting pig cops in their bacon strip faces and quipping once amusing pop culture quotes with a heavy expedition through an ill man’s mind. In fact, I had wanted to play this last January, as that seemed to be a month where I was experiencing a bunch of those much-discussed indie titles, like Gone Home and Journey. Alas, that never happened, but here we are a year later, ready to give this four-hour tale of a man’s dying wish its due.
Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts work for Sigmund Corp. and have unique jobs: by entering patients’ heads and altering memories, they can give people whatever they want, with implemented memories affecting or creating new ones, all on a path to the desired result. Please note, this only happens through the memories, as you are not actually changing what happened in someone’s life. Think of it as…wish fulfillment. As far as I can tell, this service is mostly used for patients on their deathbeds.
In To the Moon, Rosalene and Watts must fulfill the lifelong dream of the dying Johnny Wyles, which is the game’s namesake: he wants to go there, though he’s not sure why. The doctors then insert themselves into an interactive compilation of his memories–think of the shared dreaming idea from Inception–and traverse backwards through his life via mementos to plant the seed of being an astronaut where best. Naturally, there are a few hiccups, along with Johnny’s quickly deteriorating health.
To the Moon is built on the RPG Maker XP engine, a program used to create 16-bit role-playing games in the classic sprite-based style of Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. That said, To the Moon is not an RPG. There is no inventory system or party system or way to gain experience, though the really quick joke early on about a turn-based battle against a squirrel was amusing. The game’s focus is more on puzzle solving; you do this by finding key memento objects which will allow you to go deeper into Johnny’s memories, and then collecting five pips of energy to break into it. Once you do, there’s a relatively simple yet satisfying tile-flipping puzzle. Later on, there’s a one-off section where you can shoot projectiles and have to avoid traps, but it doesn’t last long and is more cumbersome than anything. It broke a bit of the atmosphere, to say the least.
To the Moon‘s soundtrack, featuring a theme song by Laura Shigihara and the remainder of the piano-driven tunes by Kan Gao, has been praised by many critics. And rightly so. It’s soft when it needs to be, as well as deeply brooding and uplifting. When it swells, I couldn’t help but feel myself inhaling and holding my breath. The soundtrack is its own beast and a special part of the game, dictating the way scenes play out, since you can’t get a ton of facial reactions and such. When I first booted up To the Moon, I sat at its title screen for a few minutes, playing with the moonlight, but really mostly listening. It makes a fantastic first impression and never lets up.
I found To the Moon to be fantastic, and I’m annoyed I dragged my feet on it for so long. I wish I had been able to play it all in one session–it’s around four hours long–but I started it late in the evening and had to return to it the next night. The writing is smart, heartfelt, and funny all at once, save for a Doctor Who joke I didn’t grok, and everything gels together–the music, the graphics, the puzzles, the pacing. Yup, even that horse-riding section. Since I love all things memory-based, such as Remember Me and Inception, I did find the explanations for how the memory implementation works here a little contrived, but I went along anyway; it’s more about the characters than the science.
You really don’t come across that many games willing to tackle the themes of old age, illness, love, regret, sacrifice, and playing god, all while doing it in reverse, which is why To the Moon is exceptional. It’s a story worth seeing unfold.