I approached To The Moon bearing expectations of a fairly cutesy aspiration story, formed neatly around older, wholesome NES adventure foundations. My expectations were proudly recalled, packaged and stored away as one of the most touching narratives I’ve been presented in a video game greeted me warmly. While the game’s struggling game-play redundancies drag it down at times, To The Moon’s sincerely wrapped narrative still feels like a full package.
To The Moon introduces itself in a lightly confusing manner, as players fill the shoes of doctors Eva Rosaline and Neil Watts whilst they trudge through cliff side landscape toward the home of their newest patient. The riddle of your purpose at this precariously placed home is quickly revealed, which only raises a few eyebrows and some more questions. Eva and Neil are employees of Sigmund Corp., a treatment group specializing in memory therapy. With the goal of inducing a desired memory in patients, doctors (and players, naturally) enter the memories of patients and reshape the remembered world. These introduced constructions are no passing moment of elation, comparable to waking restfully to the smell of coffee; but a permanent installment that quickly conflicts with the living memories of the patient, and more similar to waking from the burn of coffee just spilled on yourself. With this risk in mind, the treatment is reserved for patients on their death beds – only wishing to leave behind a world that had fulfilled their deepest desires. In the case of Johnny, Neil and Eva’s new patient, that dream was leaving this world behind. His dream was to go to the moon.
Taking the first steps into Johnny’s mind places Eva and Neil at his most recent memory, to be used as a sort of stepping stone for the rest of the journey. From this focal point, the doctors must navigate back a memory sequence at a time until eventually reaching their goal – Johnny’s childhood. This process is achieved by identifying and cataloging five key features of the memory, then using them to unlock the sequence’s own “Memento”. These mementos are, simply put, the facet of the memory that resonated most with Johnny at the time. Rather it is a soccer ball, a surprisingly important stuffed platypus, or any other recognition wielding worldly object. The notion driving these mementos is a simple, solid one. The way certain imagines, smells or activities can tap the play button on certain memories rests as firm knowledge to anyone who might be playing this game; so, it makes for an easily identifiable and – and times – powerful mechanic.
Sadly, the mechanics behind the traversal of each memory sequence are rife with simplistic redundancies that can sometimes leave the game dragging its feet. Searching the memory for the five key details used to unlock the memento bears no mystery about it. Players are pointed almost directly in the direction they should be going, with an occasional extra tid-bit here or there. Unlocking the mementos themselves proves just as simple. Once activated, the memento appears as a picture-revealing mini game; in which players must flip rows and columns of individual panels to eventually reveal the whole picture. The process is a light brain teaser at best while players first learn the system, and the par for the course (saying “minimum moves required: six” or something along those lines) keeps players from over complicating things for themselves. With how surprisingly long the game is, there are plenty of memory sequences – some far more exciting and important than others. So, these game-play features wear out pretty quickly, but often times move rather quickly and multiple memory sequences can be hashed out in thirty minutes or so.
All knocking of the mechanics aside, they serve their clearly intended purpose. Game-play’s purpose, at its bare bones, is to provide a memorable, lasting experience for players. How games go about achieving that goal provides the medium with a level of diversity unique the entertainment industry. As To The Moon is an incredibly narrative driven game, the game-play is not intended to be the innovative and imaginative hook that keeps fans of the game excited and interested – it is the story. The admittedly redundant mechanics of the game keep players from swallowing too much of the story at once, risking some of the tales resonance, in a fairly efficient way. Sure, the method is less appealing than Sword & Sworcery’s “Hey, take a break?” approach, but it works.
Upon first stepping into Johnny’s home, players are greeted with a warm aesthetic aided by the soft mid morning glow of sunlight steaming through windows and the docile melody of Johnny’s house keeper’s children playing the piano. The visual pieces and musical cues go great lengths in setting the tone of each moment To The Moon has to offer. As players venture up the stairs to their bed ridden, unconscious patient the soft comforting piano tunes drift off in place of dimmed silence and mourning illuminated only by the coned rays of corner lamps.
Each of the various set pieces hold very suitable visual and musical appeals keeping them individualized. Upon first retreating into Johnny’s memory, I noticed that the world took the faded tone of an old Polaroid, as music cues became more obscure and anxious fitting the confusing and unpredictable environment. In this way, these sensory aids are based heavily on both comparison and how that comparison impacts players. The shifting in tone is consistently presented with a dynamic change from calm, treble notes to the harsher and often times tortured side of the game’s eloquent soundtrack. Yet, the juxtaposition is often not simply resigned to shifts in cinematic tone; but, strewn as a much broader and heavier motif.
The largest, and most resonating comparison for myself came in relation to To The Moon’s other central motif – Johnny’s complicated relationship with his wife, River. The first steps into Johnny’s home – as I earlier stated – were greeted with the soothing, content melody played by two children: their own rendition of Johnny’s composition for his wife, “For River”. As the odyssey through Johnny’s memory continues, players learn of an unnamed illness (the illness being left without a title felt much stronger than slapping a concrete diagnosis on River’s all ready enigmatic figure) plaguing River’s mind that led to the slow decay of her relationship with her husband, and to her eventual death. The travel backward through the tragedy of John and River’s love, from bitter end to joyous start is what makes the comparison I speak of so monumental. Midway through the journey, players witness Johnny’s unveiling of “For River” to his long ill wife. While the version of the song played by the children beheld a child-like whimsy, and calm achievable only by a player ignorant of worldly pains; Johnny’s version rang thick with a deep longing for what he had lost that slowly descends the piece’s opening joy to a somber, dilapidated crawl at its closing. Seeing how clearly the song represented the journey of their relationship, and how the originally heard version symbolized quite well my expectations of charm and little else at my approach of the game, settled as one of most touching personal moment’s I’ve had while playing a game.
Unlike with its game-play, To The Moon’s willingness and ability to bank on the power of revelation through constant comparison never dried up. All the way to the final, near tear wrenching moments of the game I found myself regularly caught defenseless by what the narrative was offering. The tale of Johnny and River’s life together was, on its own, a rich and organic feeling undertaking. The chemistry between Eva and Neil, as well as other characters throughout the narrative added not only valuable context, but a branching sense of a fully realized world revolving the central characters.
To The Moon’s charming sense of humor and unabashed ease with tossing around pop culture references (from Dr. Who and Animorphs down to Dragon Ball Z) kept the serious, and at times quite gloomy overtones from feeling too self-serious. And so, with John and River’s tale being told, restructured and sent to the moon in a heartfelt and memorable way; I am able to walk away from To The Moon satisfied, and looking forward to the next installment in this world.