Like anyone, I love talking about my favorite games, but I don’t often write about them in a significant way. Each cherished game gets a quick and dirty paragraph or two before I move onto the next. That’s not my intention here. Although I might fall into that trap, one of my objectives with this blog is to dig deeper into games (and more, hopefully) I love. Less sizing up the entire tree and more appreciating specific leaves.
It’s not something I’m used to. While such thoughts may swirl haphazardly in my mind, getting them onto WordPad in a somewhat coherent manner is a whole different challenge. In other words, I’ll be doing as much exploring my own writing abilities as I do exploring my favorite games. Hopefully this doesn’t devolve into a crazed collage of random thoughts.
This article’s focus is on the indie title To the Moon.
To the Moon is, well, barely a game, at least in the conventional sense. Yes, it was created in RPG Creator, and thus doesn’t look that different from, say, Final Fantasy VI or Lunar: Silver Star, but visual similarities is where the comparisons end. To the Moon features only one battle, which lasts mere moments and only exists to point out the lack of battles going forward. Instead, the gameplay is comprised of searching fairly small environments for a handful of random items, and then completing a simple puzzle that may only requires seconds to pass.
That’s okay, because you’re not here for the gameplay. To the Moon is all about the story, making it more comparable to a visual novel. Granted, even that might invite unwelcome expectations as, unlike many visual novels, To the Moon features no branching paths, no meaningful dialogue options, and no alternate endings. The only reason to replay is to experience the story — the same exact story — again.
At this point, I should probably mention that To the Moon only costs $10 on Steam, although I strongly urge interested parties to spend the extra few dollars to grab the phenomenal soundtrack. I’m a sucker for piano music, and To the Moon’s soundtrack never leaves my iPod. Never.
Fortunately, the story is phenomenal. It’s simple, beautiful, and tragic.
Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts aren’t your regular, run-of-the-mill doctors. Using special technology, they dive into their terminal patient’s mind and plant a false childhood memory about whatever the client wishes. With that new memory, the client’s existing memories change to reflect the difference, allowing him or her to die having gained whatever they wanted — or so they believe.
Johnny Wyles wants to visit the moon. He’s not sure why, though. So Eva and Neil dive through Johnny’s memories, starting from his more recent ones as an older man nearing the end and heading backwards, through numerous stages of Johnny’s life. Along the way, Eva and Neil encounter memories of River, Johnny’s late wife, and her peculiar habits. Of course, things don’t go according to plan, so the doctors race to send Johnny to the moon, at least in his own head, before he dies.
Since we start at the end of Johnny’s life and travel backwards, we’re shown a seemingly random collection of memories, but lack the proper context to appreciate their meaning. These scenes appear to offer little in the way of accomplishing the prime objective of sending Johnny to the moon, but like any good story, they serve a purpose. We learn more about Johnny and River, but the picture of their lives is incomplete.
We’re not sure how, but something isn’t quite right. It’s a mystery that’s more interesting than just getting Johnny onto the moon, but solving it brings unintended consequences that further heightens the drama. Solving that puzzle just introduces new problems and situations. I won’t spoil anything here, but check after the spoiler warning below for a summary of the story.
To the Moon has a modest presentation, usually featuring only a handful of 2D sprite-based characters walking around. The story — and emotion — comes from the dialogue, both what’s said aloud and what’s left unsaid for the audience to ruminate over. I’ve never cried at a game, but To the Moon came the closest by far.
From here on, I’m diving into the entire story of To the Moon — including the ending. Even if you don’t care about spoilers, I still strongly recommend buying To the Moon and enjoying the story yourself. I mean, come on! $10 is less than going to the movies.
As I mentioned above, To the Moon is a tragedy.
We eventually learn that Johnny’s interest in traveling to the moon developed during a carnival where he first met River, the girl who would later become his wife. By the end of that night, the two children made a promise to meet again at the same location one year later, or else on the moon if something kept them apart. And something did happen: Joey, Johnny’s brother, died. Shortly after, their mother used medication to block Johnny’s memories of that tragic day. His memories of meeting River suffered the same fate.
Years later, Johnny and River meet again, fall in love, and marry. While River still remembers that night at the carnival and the promise they made, she’s unable to say anything to Johnny directly due to an unnamed condition (heavily hinted to be Asperger syndrome). Instead, she attempts to jog his memory through indirect means, like creating an army of small, paper bunnies. Being unable to grasp the significance of River’s actions, he instead views them as her peculiar habits, as do we.
River spends their entire marriage trying to revive the memory of their first meeting. She dies without ever accomplishing that task.
Yet I wonder how many people recall her futile attempts at memory recall by the story’s conclusion, after Eva and Neil successfully finish their job. As Johnny in the real world passes away, he now has the memories of being an astronaut and flying in a space shuttle to the moon. Not only that, but his brother is alive, having grown into a writer. Eva even manages to alter Johnny’s memories in such a way that River becomes an astronaut alongside her husband. They fly to the moon together.
River holds her hand towards Johnny as the shuttle cuts through the atmosphere. He takes hold of her hand just as the elderly Johnny flatlines. It’s a touching moment within a triumphant scene, but a moment that only exists in Johnny’s mind.
The reality — River trying her damnedest to remind Johnny of that night at the carnival and dies having failed — still happened. The frustration, sadness, and regret that she undoubtedly felt can’t be erased. It’s a depressing thought, but I love that the visual of a rocket launching from the planet into space has that undercurrent of sadness if you’re willing to look.
The story still ends with our heroes — Eva and Neil — succeeding in their mission, but it’s a hollow victory. It’s easy to imagine these doctors feel a similar disappointment, too. Their jobs involve granting momentary happiness, their efforts evaporating within moments. I know that creator Kan Gao is working on a direct sequel called Finding Paradise, which brings back Eva and Neil, and I would love for him to explore what the characters think of their profession.
Even if he doesn’t, I can’t wait for the sequel. I loved To the Moon so much that, despite being barely a game, I still consider it one of my favorite games ever. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a tissue to wipe my eyes.