By Marty Mulrooney
To The Moon is an indie RPG/adventure game created by Freebird Games. Set at an unspecified point in the near future, the player controls two doctors – Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts – whose job it is to traverse through the memories of dying clients and fulfil their final requests. Their latest assignment: rewrite the memory of an elderly man named Johnny before he draws his final breath. His last wish: to go to the moon…
To The Moon has a premise that evokes comparison with films such as Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, plays like an adventure game and looks like an RPG. It makes many pop culture references along the way too, but by no means is this a game without an identity of its own – To The Moon tells a story that is unique, sensitive and above all, extremely moving.
The player takes control of Dr. Eva Rosalene – professional and mature – and Dr. Neil Watts – who is pretty much the polar opposite, but has his heart in the right place. As the game begins, they arrive at the huge cliffside house of dying widower Johnny – but not before accidentally killing a squirrel with their car. Fate perhaps? Once let inside by the housekeeper, they begin utilising a technology that will allow them to step inside Johnny’s head using special helmets and slowly work their way backwards through his life via his memories.
The gameplay itself is admittedly basic and mainly consists of clicking on items throughout Johnny’s memories to collect them – these ‘memory links’ are symbolised on screen once collected in the form of coloured orbs. The player must then find a ‘memento’ and feed these collected orbs to it so it can be activated. Finally, a simple tile puzzle must be completed before the player can jump to an earlier memory featuring this same ‘memento’ – for example, an origami rabbit or a jar of pickled olives.
To The Moon is essentially an RPG without the combat – a hilarious spoof fight sequence featuring Dr. Watts even offers a sly nod towards this fact near the very beginning of the game. Furthermore, although this is certainly an adventure game in terms of exploration and its point-and-click controls, there are no real puzzles or inventory items to speak of – the challenge is extremely low. So why even bother playing? Because, regardless of whether you choose to class To The Moon as a game or an interactive story, it offers one of the most engaging and well-crafted gaming experiences of the year.
The story being told transcends its own medium – this is a tremendous story for a video game, never mind an indie release from a relatively unknown studio. It rivals the very best stories currently being told in the form of books, graphic novels, films and television shows. Working backwards through Johnny’s life and watching his marriage, teenage years and childhood in reverse is utterly memorising – each jump backwards revealing yet another hidden layer as the game deals with such tender topics as mental illness, financial storms, marriage, love and death.
Yet the biggest triumph of the game is how the twists and turns that are gradually revealed slowly make your mission become a somewhat reluctant one. Johnny may have his regrets – don’t we all – but his life was truly beautiful despite the tragedies that tainted it. Thus the moral core of the game and its story is brought to the fore – should Johnny’s wish for his memory to be irrevocably rewritten be respected even if it means losing all of those once in a lifetime moments that should never be forgotten? There is truly no shame in admitting that the narrative of To The Moon is a tearjerker – at the very least brimming, watery eyes are guaranteed.
Kan Gao and Freebird Games have released one of 2011’s best games with To The Moon. It has no voice acting and arguably no gameplay either – the only real negative I can pinpoint and undoubtedly a deal breaker for some – but the storyline offers more than enough incentive for the player to continue playing onwards for the four hours it will take to complete. The absolutely stunning soundtrack, featuring a haunting main piano theme and a poignant final credits song with vocals by Laura Shigihara, is well worth the low asking price alone. This is yet another shining example of an indie developer, free from the shackles of a mainstream gaming studio, weaving pure magic. A lovely game with a story so well told that the minimal gameplay can surely be forgiven – buy this game and let yourself be moved by pixels and sprites that have taken on a life of their own.
9 OUT OF 10