To the Moon is built on the RPG Maker XP engine, which is used to create 16-bit 2D role-playing games, in the style of Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. However, unlike a typical RPG, To the Moon has no battle system (aside from a joke battle near the beginning), inventory system or party system. The game’s focus, being a more story-driven game, is around puzzle solving, interpreting information from the subject Johnny’s life, and finding ways to get deeper into his memories.
Gameplay is primarily about exploring Johnny’s memories to find significant objects and collect energy from them to strengthen the memory and connect to a more distant one, from Johnny’s old age leading back to his childhood. Occasionally, the player will have to explore Johnny’s house and the surrounding area for certain clues, if they cannot gather enough energy from a certain memory, or don’t know how to proceed to a further one.
Once the items are all gathered and the player has seen all the memories, they can connect certain objects that exist across two different memories to move freely between them. At this point, the player can begin manipulating the memories, by changing around characters, objects and events, to make Johnny believe he had achieved his dream of going to the moon.
Sigmund Corp. uses a technology that can create artificial memories. They offer this as a “wish fulfillment” service to people on their death beds. Since these artificial memories conflict with the patient’s real memories, the procedure is only done on people without much time left to live.
Sigmund Corp. employees Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts are tasked with fulfilling the lifelong dream of the dying Johnny Wyles. Johnny wants to go to the moon, although he doesn’t know why. The doctors insert themselves into an interactive compilation of his memories and traverse backwards through his life via mementos. With each leap to an important moment in Johnny’s memories, they learn more about him and what brought him to his current position in life. Upon reaching his childhood, the doctors attempt to insert his desire to go to the moon. Supposedly, Johnny’s mind would create new memories based on that desire, and Johnny would die believing he lived without any regrets.
However, Johnny’s mind does not create the new memories as planned. Dr. Watts and Dr. Rosalene must solve the problem to fulfill Johnny’s dying wish of going to the moon.
I was excited to see this game release from when I heard about it awhile ago. It borrows from the style of the 16-bit video game generation of yore, and shows the story of a man on his deathbed, who signs up for a program that can help him relive his life in order to achieve his wish.
His wish? He wants to go to the moon.
If you’re anything like me, you’re going through the first two hours of the game, basically at the brink of bawling like a baby (don’t clump me in with those emo kids), with the last thing on your mind having anything to do with the moon. It’s a complex story, and the culmination point of it seems farfetched until you let the entire story play before you, and you recognize the beauty of it all.
Let me tell you something. Beauty is a perfect word to describe it. The storytelling is masterful, and complex, and charming. The characters are lovable. You play as the two scientists who assist the man in the pursuit of his dream, and often act as the comic relief for emotionally tense situations. Other times, they show as glimpses of characters who themselves have dark and secreted away emotions and struggles.
The graphics show how aesthetic and detailed something can be when you focus that graphical attention on a style which is otherwise considered to be outdated. If you can masterfully produce something in 16-bit graphics, then you can see it as masterful as someone who built a complicated 3D system. The difference is that you have a much harder time showing a masterful presentation in 3D that ages well, since the medium is constantly being updated. The odd place of this current-day 16-bit presentation looks easily as masterful as the most detailed presentations of 16-bit classics.
In short, I loved it.
So, here’s the part where I provide some criticism. The game looks very much like an old turn-based RPG classic. It plays like a point-and-click adventure, and much of the actual ‘gameplay’ is a set of sliding puzzles. The intent, it seems, is to focus much of the attention of the player to be on the story (which, as previously stated, is a strong point worthy of being pointed toward), but after all is said and done, one wonders about how necessary it was to have the title called a ‘game’.
Could the presentation have survived without the gameplay mechanics? The sliding puzzles, certainly, but one of the best things about a video game over, say, a book or a movie, is that you have the ability to interact with the world to get the most out of the storyline. There were a few things that I admired that could have only been done through use of gameplay- notes which get altered by untrustworthy narrators, and the like, but beyond that much of the exploration is required to progress the game, and the interactivity between the player and the environment is slim.
In fact, the game ‘reads’ much like a visual novel. You do macguffins, and it makes story happen. But they jokingly acknowledged it several times, and clearly made an effort to keep it at a necessary minimum. To be fair, the turn-taking RPG itself stuff itself with macguffin’d tasks and elements. I dare you to tell me that the actual ‘gameplay’ in a Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior game is good. Enjoying the battle element out of a turn-taking RPG is like liking calculators and Excel spreadsheets for the thrilling gameplay. You do a thing, which makes you feel like you’re progressing.
But, gamewise, is there a better way to include gameplay into a title which wants to focus as much as possible onto the story? Because of the detective-like elements of gameplay, and the articulation of the scientists would be better utilized with some of the elements which made Phoenix Wright into a game. I mean, sure, I don’t know anything more about law than I did when I started playing the games, but I sure as hell felt like a lawyer. Some of the clues to the mystery of the man you are helping might be better solved if a gameplay mechanic forced the player to draw some of the conclusions itself.
The end of the game was a clear and complete story of the man whose life you explored. But what is opened to you is a very interesting world, prime with opportunity for further exploration. So long as the charm of the two scientists is not over-explored early on, I expect myself to be able to enjoy the sequels that the game’s conclusion certainly seemed to be hinting at. Hopefully I can man the hell up before I play them.
Extra Note: I want to give special commendation to the game To the Moon for including a character who has special needs successfully into the story. I won’t be too specific, since every single thing about this game should be experienced through the game itself, but all I want to say is that it was amazing to get a realistic human characterization without getting the ‘a very special episode’ feeling. Bravo. Collapse
by: Dave Yeager
“…an absolute game changer for video game storytelling.”
Imagine sitting on your deathbed, hopefully many years from now. Imagine remembering all of the joys of your life, all of the regrets, but especially the regrets. You always told yourself you’d do this one thing, fulfill this one dream, but there always seemed to be something in the way: family obligations, work, spending time with friends… but now you are out of time.
What if, for a fee, on your deathbed your memories could be altered so that, in your own dying mind, that dream had been fulfilled?
This is just the very tip of the iceberg for To The Moon, which I’m going to come out and say right up front is an absolute game changer for video game storytelling. Never before has the bar been raised so high.
You control Dr. Eva Roseline and Dr. Neil Watts, who provide the memory altering service described above. They have been assigned to a new case, an old man named Johnny who has built his home near a lighthouse. Johnny only has one or two days left to live, and has always wanted to go to the moon for reasons he can no longer remember. Dr. Eva and Dr. Neil have been contracted to make that happen in Johnny’s own memories so that he can die believing he fulfilled this dream.
The story is difficult to discuss without spoilers. But I’ll just say simply that if you are a person who cares about storytelling in video games, this game is required playing. Absolutely required. I am writing this review the morning after finishing this game, and my opinion may be influenced by the quick turnaround time, but right now I am pretty convinced that this is the best story I’ve ever seen in a video game. Ever. The dialogue is pitch perfect. Dr. Eva and Dr. Neil have the witty banter of a pair that has worked together for a long time, and hit all of the right notes providing the humor to break up an often a somber tale. The story of Johnny and his wife River unfolds with many twists and turns, some of it bittersweet, some of it absolutely soaring. But it isn’t all just humor mixed with sadness. There is joy – unabated joy in this game, the type of joy that makes a grown man like me cry in front of his computer. There is the type of wonder triggered by this game that only the best books and movies can provide, the types of things that make you look at life just a little bit differently for awhile, wondering how you ever took for granted how amazing it is to be alive, how amazing it is to exist. This game did that for me.
Aesthetically, the game reminded me immediately of Chrono Trigger. The graphics are not state of the art, but they are very beautifully done. My score reflects the fact that there are certainly games out there that look much more realistic, but these graphics serve the story well by never taking us out of the tale.
And the music – my goodness the music. This is the best soundtrack I’ve personally heard all year. Filled with wonderful piano melodies, the individual tracks shine on their own, but the different themes recur at choice moments in the story just like you’d expect of the best movies. Laura Shigihara of “Zombie On Your Lawn” fame from Plants vs. Zombies lends her considerable skill to the soundtrack, as well as her haunting voice in a candidate for video game song of the year in this author’s opinion. I can only hope she becomes better known for To The Moon after this performance. You’ll want to hear the tracks again and again, reminding you of the themes and choice moments in the game.
The game may look like Chrono Trigger, but it is decidedly not a traditional RPG. It is definitely more adventure game than anything else, as the doctors need to find various “memory triggers” inside Johnny’s memories in order to move backwards from his most recent memories to his earliest. You earn triggers by exploring and interacting with various things inside Johnny’s memories, but more of a gimmick to pull you through the story than it is pixel hunt. There is also a tile flipping game you’ll need to play several times when “priming” certain memories for jumping back. None of this gets in the way of the story at all and actually does play a very key element in keeping you involved. But anybody who needs Dark Souls levels of involvement will probably find themselves bored and annoyed by some of these sequences. Control is also a little dicey at times, and I found it a lot easier to move around with the keyboard instead of the mouse wherever possible as clicking repeatedly where you want go gets tiresome.
Against the scope of what has been accomplished here however, these are minor complaints. The game has been compared to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception, Memento and of course Chrono Trigger, but what comes out of these influences is something amazing and utterly unique. Those with patience will find 4-5 hours of storytelling that will entrance and move all but the most hard hearted of gamers, and will come out of the experience with many things to think about. For this writer, the chill in the air this morning was a little bit crisper, the sun a little brighter, and his sleeping wife a little more mysterious and beautiful thanks to this game. If that isn’t worth $11.99, I’m not sure what is.