The Backlog: To the Moon

With AAA title like Grand Theft Auto V coming out, the time of the Backlog is coming to a close. In this second to the last installment we look at To the Moon. If you missed Michael's look at Hotline Miami, check it out here.

I’m a sucker for good stories in games. It doesn’t have to be the most detailed story with fully realized characters but any game that can reach out and touch those tender heartstrings is a game I’ll play and most likely love. This year has had its share of story-based games and after playing Gone Home I felt vulnerable and strangely longing for more sad stories, specifically in games. That’s why when I went to Twitter and read people’s reactions to Gone Home I was foaming at the mouth to hear a lot of them mention To the Moon. Whatever this game was I had to play it. Over the course of two nights I played through the game in its entirety and fell in love. The world, the characters, the story, and the gravity of it all made me want more.

To The Moon tells a tale that is not unlike Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you’ve seen the film then you’ll be familiar with the idea of dreams, thoughts, and how the human race might interact with those intangible topics one day. You play, or “play”, as a pair of doctors who take part in a very specific and peculiar practice. Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts change lives and give their patients whatever dream they want to come true. This could be as mundane as reclaiming a lost love or as wondrous as becoming the award winning scientist you always dreamt of being. This being a rather heavy task to accomplish Eva and Neil work at it through dreams and memories. Instead of changing the person’s life they change the person’s memories and thoughts at very precise times in their memory stream. By going through the patient’s memories they are able to eventually reach back into the childhood of the patient and change a specific moment to create the necessary course of events to accomplish their goal.

Personal interaction is not only a consequence of their job but a requirement. The two doctors experience personal moments, explore personal traumas and fears, and dig deeper into a patient’s mind than most people would ever want to go. Fights with loved ones, coming of age moments, and deeply personal stories permeate the game world and you’re along for the ride at every moment. Neil and Eva’s case for To The Moon is Johnny, an elderly man on the verge of death whose dying wish was, of course, to go to the moon. The gameplay that moves the story along isn’t challenging by any means, and I wouldn’t want it to be. Most of the time you walk Eva and Neil around an area, looking for memory fragments, and letting the story expand in an organic way. The doctors typically invoke a sort of “ghost mode” so they can’t be seen or heard by the memories they walk though. This leads to Neil cracking wise about the people around him and Eva constantly trying to rein him in. Though Johnny’s story is the focus of the game side stories bubble up around Eva, Neil, and the family that has been living with Johnny for his final days. The personal interactions between characters feel right and every conversation will have you laughing, thinking, or sobbing.

Perhaps To the Moon’s greatest achievement is that it accomplishes the transference of emotion so well even with its 16-bit art style. To the Moon looks and feels like a game straight from the age of Chrono Trigger and yet the characters are expressive and lifelike. This is accomplished by combining the right music, character actions, and dialogue to create 16-bit characters that feel more human than any member of a Call of Duty squad. Neil’s constant referential humor aids in deepening his character as he is no longer just a doctor but a troubled individual who uses humor to hide his true emotions. Eva, a by-the-book worker, also changes over the game’s time and Johnny himself receives the biggest facelift of all. Learning Johnny’s life story from end to beginning is a wonderful experience and the more that opens to you the more you become attached.

I can’t praise another thing about To the Moon without giving a nod to the soundtrack. The game’s creator, Kan R. Gao, is also the mastermind behind a beautiful soundtrack that aids in the game’s deeper moments. Events that are already eye opening and emotional are doubly effective when a sweeping piano score comes ringing in at just the right time. Other times are effectively aided by calm music that always fits the mood to a T. Gao’s masterful work on the soundtrack alone is reason enough to give the game a try, but there is also so much more to it all.

To the Moon would be a serious and depressing title if not for the constant chit-chat between its protagonists. At first I found Neil’s humor to be annoying but soon enough it was my only comfort in a world that was filled with loss and hardship. His references to Dragon Ball Z and Hulk comics made me feel like I could laugh when I really wanted to just sit and sigh. I don’t want to turn anyone off with that comment, To the Moon is sad at times but it’s completely manageable. Humor is perhaps the most underrated feature of To the Moon as moments like an impromptu battle with a squirrel permeate the serious and brooding atmosphere that otherwise would be too heavy.

I can’t say much more about To the Moon without giving away any story details that are better left to discovery. With its use of clever dialogue and deceitfully deep characters To the Moon creates a story and a world worth experiencing. Games like this come along every now and then and they take the term game to a different level. While there isn't a true “game” to play or beat there is a story to experience that wouldn't work in any other form. Sure, you could write out the events of To the Moon and craft a novel or short story, or take the events and create a movie but a game is different. To the Moon proves that the gaming medium allows for a closer and more intimate experience with its characters and its world. While the story is beautiful and emotional it’s the players closeness to it all that makes the experience unlike any other.

That does it for this week's entry of the Backlog. Check back next week for one final slice of backlog goodness. Until then, tell us what you thought of Too the Moon in the comments below.