To the Moon is a game that really stretches the definition of what we consider a game. It’s a short narrative with little player interaction and even less player impact on the singular story. It may borrow the aesthetic of a 16-bit RPG, but you won’t find random battles and experience points. It’s unusual to see a game in which you’re more or less a passive observer, because interactivity is one of the most valuable tools for making insightful, high-impact games. But To the Moon definitely proves that interactivity is just a tool, and compelling storytelling can just as easily make for a powerful experience.
In the not too distant future, Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts are specialists regularly brought in to treat terminally ill patients. They do this by easing the final moments with a rather radical treatment that relies on memories instead of drugs. Using a specialized machine, the pair can place themselves into the patient’s head to interact with their dying memories, then travel backwards through the patient’s life in order to spark some initiative and fulfill a final regret or wish. The patient of the day in To the Moon is Johnny, an old man who appears to simply want to go to the moon. Of course, it isn’t this simple, and as Drs. Rosalene and Watts slowly work their way through Johnny’s memories, they begin to piece together his unusual history.
The unique framework is a terrific and uncommon way to tell a story, but a good premise alone can’t carry a game. But the story is not only good: it’s heart-wrenching, and there’s no other way to describe it. The narrative is tremendously paced, hinting just enough at the overarching mystery of why Johnny wants to see the moon while also delivering wonderful twists and turns. Some are predictable, playing off the slow logic that comes from the foreshadowing, while others come out of nowhere and hit you right in the gut. The trajectory of Johnny’s life from old man to young boy allows for a richly complex narrative that easily compares and often surpasses other temporal stories like Memento, doing so in a familiar but new way. As cliché as this is, it’s an emotional roller coaster that veers from sweet moments to near horror. For all but the toughest or most cynical of gamers, this is probably one of the sweetest love stories ever committed to ones and zeros and you might just cry. No kidding, it does get that emotional.
But all of this is without many inklings of interaction. The good doctors are passive observers, advancing the narrative by scouring each memory for heirlooms, secrets and areas that can turn a possession of Johnny’s into a gateway to the next segment. They almost ever reveal themselves to to denizens of Johnny’s noggin, though you can eavesdrop to fill in the details and there’s plenty to observe. Aside from the main scavenger hunt there’s maybe two cursory choices that have no impact on the ending, a recurring puzzle minigame and a small handful of atypical segments, but that’s it. The question you need to ask yourself is whether or not you can set aside the interaction you expect from a game, and instead get caught up in the story. Just be sure to keep in mind that the story really is strong enough to carry the three hours or so it takes to beat the game, mostly by making To the Moon feel less like a game and more like a really terrific SNES cutscene.
On that note, the most gamelike aspect of To the Moon is the 16 bit RPG artwork. The game was built in the ever popular RPG Maker, using a ton of nicely detailed sprite artwork and a stellar original soundtrack to separate it from the vaguely negative stereotypes often associated with the engine. In all honesty the RPG framework doesn’t always feel like a great fit for the game, bringing with it too many connotations and engine quirks for a narrative that really doesn’t need to rely on nostalgia. However, the sprite work is extremely well done and certain high impact scenes genuinely transcend the style with a lot of charm and heart. We’ve certainly known that 16 bit sprites could make for some impressive cutscenes since the opera house in Final Fantasy VI, but To the Moon is a game dedicated to providing those sorts of moments again and again. Specific examples would be impossible without spoilers, but suffice to say the game handles these big story moments alongside the quieter character development. In the end it always comes back to the story. To the Moon might not have many other standout features beyond the writing, but the writing really is good enough to earn the game a free pass and solid recommendation.
Final Verdict: The general lack of player interaction is a bit of a problem, but To the Moon is still a terrific experience despite that. Top notch writing delivers an excellent story and unique premise that unfolds into an arc that manages to be uplifting and devastating, often at the same time. If you’re the kind of person who really appreciates a good narrative, you’ll be hooked.
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam PC version of To the Moon provided by Freebird Games.