Publisher: Freebird Games
Reviewer: Nick Stewart
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
Pentium 3 800 MHz, 512 MB RAM, 100 MB free HD space
To the Moon is, to be fair, not a new game. Released last year, this 16-bit-styled pseudo-sci-fi adventure has made enormous waves in the gaming community for its mature, emotional, and thoughtful storyline, which is about memory, love, and maybe even destiny. However, with its re-release in broader online distribution channels such as GOG.com, this powerful story is finding a new life—and rightfully so. It may not quite be a game in the fullest sense of the word, but To the Moon is easily one of the most memorable tales you’ll ever experience in this format.
The game opens as two memory scientists, Neil Watts and Eva Rosalene, are rushing to an elderly man’s countryside deathbed in order to help fulfill the task he’s hired them to do: deliver his dying wish by making him believe he’s travelling to the moon. This means working against a clock, measured in heartbeats, in order to enter a “living world” of his memories, working backward into his remembered youth until they’re able to implant a strong suggestion of becoming an astronaut. In doing so, his memories would then re-write themselves, allowing him to falsely “remember” as he lay dying that he has in fact been to the moon. In practical terms, this means watching through the eyes of two hired scientists as they relive the old man’s life from its end almost to its beginning, though this quest almost immediately becomes about his relationship with his now-departed wife. In many significant ways, it’s very much like the film Inception mixed with Memento: it’s a tale of a man’s life, framed around the evolution of his relationship with his wife, but told in reverse.
This may sound like a particularly vague description, but this is intentional; after all, to describe in any kind of real detail the plot of To the Moon is to massively deflate its impact on the player. Given the game’s length, this impact is precisely the point of playing it in the first place. Experiencing the story details as they unfold, slowly and gradually bringing additional context and warmth to every scene that preceded it, is exactly the reason to experience in the first place.
It’s something that, in theory, shouldn’t actually work. After all, the joy of love stories is watching how they start from a chance encounter and blossom into lifelong partnerships; logically speaking, going in the opposite direction means that you start with the most beautiful and complete expression of love, and end up at the beginning, where there is curiosity but little else. In a way, it’s like watching a happily married couple fall out of love, all while the protagonist is no longer a wise old man but a nerdy pre-teen. Moreover, Neil—the de facto comic relief —has a habit of endlessly spouting goofy, sarcastic quips that fall fairly flat for the first long while. Combined with the (admittedly fantastic) 16-bit-style graphics, you can’t help but remember every JRPG that tried way too hard to be edgy and funny but instead came off as badly written.
And yet, somehow, over time, it all comes together. The over-eager humor and back-and-forth between Eva and Neil somehow starts to hit its groove, the graphical restrictions melt away, and the head-scratching time-rewind narration actually manages to become even more tender, more sweet, more emotionally complex with every memory jump backwards. Context becomes richer, ideas become more mature, and the full breadth and scope of the game’s heart draw you in. Despite its wobbly beginnings and its under-four-hour running time, this is a story that will pull you in and force you to fight back tears as you consider the meaning of memory and love—a monumental feat for any form of media.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is in fact a vague structure of a game that has been built within the core of To the Moon, as pithy and paltry as it is. In order to hop and skip further back into the client’s memories, Eva and Neil need to find linking elements between one memory and another deeper in his history, which involves some small exploration along with some pointing and clicking. Once that linking item has been found, a small panel-flipping puzzle must be solved before you can move onto the next memory, though there’s no penalty for taking more turns than the required minimum. You’ll do this a number of times as the game goes on, but the lack of any penalty for excessive turns just reinforces the unending focus on the story.
To the Moon is a mature, complex, and beautiful treatise on the power of love and memory, built loosely into the frame and structure of a video game, which it very handily transcends. It may be short, marked with SNES-era graphics, and initially halting humor, but over the course of its handful of hours, the game weaves a tale that is as beautiful and memorable as anything you’re likely to experience this year. It bears certain sci-fi trappings, but only as much as is required to move the story along, and it’s never showy or flashy for its own sake: this is an economical story, one that rewards the player considerably for their time and attention. Even though it can scarcely be called a game, To the Moon is still nevertheless a stellar tear-jerker of an experience, destined for a very special place in the annals of gaming history.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)