For five years, Freebird Games have made it their mission to create interesting alternative takes on the classic RPG formula. Their latest creation, To the Moon, is as much (if not more so) an interactive storybook as it is a game; although clearly a game by definition, the term fits somewhat loosely as a vehicle for telling a deep and incredibly moving story powerfully by one of the most elegant musical scores in recent memory.
The concept of To the Moon is simple on the surface: two scientists have been hired to delve into the mind of a dying elderly man named Johnny and plant the memory that he’s fulfilled his life’s wish: to travel to the Moon. To do so, they must hop backwards in time through his memories, uncovering layers of meaning and personal importance attached to seemingly mundane things, like origami rabbits or silenced clocks.
It turns out Johnny’s spent most of his life taking care of his now-deceased wife, River, who suffered a curious affliction which made her different from others and at times addled her mind. The game can be described as a “life triangle” between Johnny, River, and the unrealized dreams they’ve both had of their lives.
Downward Is the Only Way Forward
As the two doctors delve deeper into Johnny’s memories, traveling back through major events in his life – like the construction of his house, his wedding, or his first date – nuances of the characters are revealed little by little by tracing the origin or meaning of certain items from Johnny’s memories back to their beginnings. The game places a lot of importance on motifs that recur throughout the story, like jars of pickled olives, a stuffed platypus, or the Hans Christian Anderson classic The Emperor’s New Clothes. As mundane as these items seem, they are all eventually paid off with surprising pathos. By the end, even though the dying Johnny is technically lying unconscious in bed throughout the entire game and neither speaks nor acts, he has come to life by way of the player experiencing his memories with him as he relives them.
The core gameplay of To the Moon may put some players off. While the game certainly looks like a throwback to old RPGs, it’s made clear very early on that there will be no monster encounters, combat, or grinding. There is neither equipment nor an inventory (aside from the notes your characters take as subjects become more fully explored). More reminiscent of point-and-click adventure games, you navigate the doctors around the real world or the world of Johnny’s memories, looking for the necessary memory fragments that will open the way to the next memory. This is usually done by walking around the environment and interacting with the objects and characters you find. Everything serves the same purpose: to keep the story moving at a steady clip, free of interruptions that break the immersion.
While many will doubtless appreciate the great story told in To the Moon, it’s best to be clear about what you’re getting into. The pacing of the story would be very at home on portable gaming devices, as each memory episode is fairly short, generally consisting only of a few screens of exploration and dialog. Some pixel hunting is inevitable during these segments, and jumping from one episode to the next requires players to solve a quick flip-tile sequencing puzzle. But the game never quite commits to either the RPG, adventure, or puzzle genre, instead choosing to float along comfortably in a limbo of its own creation, keeping its focus on story and character.
A Quantum Leap
Freebird Games’ trademark 16-bit sprite-based JRPG graphics are used to great effect in the game: the world of To the Moon and its inhabitants comes alive remarkably well in lush, vibrant colors and attractive sprites. Navigation is handled with either the mouse, keyboard, or a combination of the two, and moments that break up the gameplay – such as having to ride a horse at one point, or running through a hallway dodging booby traps – are simple and intuitive.
While the game’s look gives it an appealing nostalgia, the script and musical score are the true highlights here. Kan Gao, creator of the game, has crafted a lovely musical score that heightens the emotional draw of the game immensely – I found myself humming the game’s repeating main theme after just an hour or two of gameplay.
The characters are just as memorable as the music. Drs. Neil Watts and Eva Rosalene both at times act as comic reliefs, and display maturity and compassion at others; generally, one will be the audience’s voice, reacting to the other one’s actions in a satisfying manner. Johnny, on the other hand, is the true hero, and rarely have I found myself rooting this much for a video game protagonist, from his little victories like asking out the girl of his dreams to his great quest to travel to the eponymous Moon. Knowing that he is actually lying on his deathbed throughout the entire game tinges the experience with a sobering sadness for the inevitable ending. As Mr. Gao aptly puts it (through Dr. Rosalene): “The ending isn’t any more important than any of the moments leading up to it.”
“You Never (@#%block Someone in the Middle of a Kamehameha!”
The game mixes a good amount of humor with its engaging drama, eventually letting players uncover those memories of Johnny’s life that were so painful that they’ve been mentally blocked off even from himself. Sprinkled throughout the game are also several real-world references, which serve to both date the game and anchor it firmly in our reality. Cultural waypoints, such as the Animorphs young adult novel series, or the fact that Dr. Neil will tend to yell out “Hulk Smash!” whenever he breaks through a memory barrier add a good bit of characterization all on their own.
The Final Verdict
To the Moon is an extremely lovely piece of storytelling with many mature themes. Ostensibly a game about mortality, it is even more so about what happens when life takes some unexpected turns; the way life – and our interpersonal relationships – shape who we become. I cannot praise Mr. Gao’s story and soundtrack of hauntingly beautiful piano enough, and both have found a permanent place in my heart.
At the same time, the game is not for everybody. It focuses on what it does well – story – and leaves all other gameplay elements for other games to attend to. Naturally, this makes the game somewhat on the short side (my initial playthrough took me just over four hours). But in the end, this length can be broken into short gameplay segments, and serves its purpose to provide an extremely satisfying experience. At a price point of $12, this game should not be missed by any who are open to something outside the frag-, gore-, and grindfests out there.