Wot I Think: To The Moon

By John Walker on November 3rd, 2011 at 10:48 am.

Sniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiff.

Kan Gao’s To The Moon first came to our attention thanks to Laura “Plants Vs. Zombies theme” Shigihara. (I do hope for her sake she can lose the moniker soon.) Her involvement with the game’s music got us to take a look at early footage, and then it became something I desperately wanted to play. I was right to. No surprises here – this is an incredible game, and I’m going to tell you Wot I Think it is that makes it so.

I’m a wreck. I can’t delay telling you: To The Moon is a truly wonderful game. It’s the best game I’ve played this year. It’s a pixel-graphics indie adventure, mostly made by one guy, with a preposterous premise, and yet after spending the day playing it I’m emotionally exhausted. I’m not sure whether to write a review, or curl up in the fetal position and hug a pillow.

I’m pretty terrified of describing it wrongly, and putting anyone off. Which is an odd state of mind after 12 years of this silly job. So I’ll do the traditional, and give you the premise:

At some point in the future, there exists a technology that allows people to backtrack through a person’s memories, such that they can create a complex timeline of their past, and implant new memories that create others, which create others still, that allows a person’s wishes to be fulfilled. Albeit only in their memory, since the events never took place. It’s a service that’s provided, by the company involved here at least, to those who are dying. It’s granting a dying wish, without the patient having to get out of their bed.

There are two characters controlled as you play, Drs Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, frequently alternating between the two, although they’re almost always together. They arrive at the house of an elderly man named John, who has recently fallen into a coma, and has only a day or so to live. His dying wish, as arranged with the company when he was more healthy, was the visit the moon. Why, he doesn’t know, but that’s what he wants to have done.

John lost his wife, River, two years back. Since then he’s been living with a home help and her two children, and feeling pretty bereft. But the only way you’re going to encounter John is through simulacra constructed within his own memories, which is where you’ll spend the majority of the game.

But before you get there, there’s so much more background here. The arrival of the two doctors begins with a car crash, as Neil swerves to avoid a squirrel and plants the car firmly into a tree. From this point on kicks off the banter between the two that will accompany you throughout. Neil is brash, unsentimental, and can’t miss an opportunity for a joke. (When told “too soon” he replies, “It’s never soon enough.”) Eva is officious but gentle, keen to spot romance in a situation. Their non-stop jibing of each other quickly demonstrates a very believable years-long friendship, and also establishes the game’s early focus on comedy. A focus that’s going to shift.

The process by which the memory implantation works is somewhat contrived. A construct of the person’s most recent memories is created, and from that space you must find five objects that are distinctively remembered by the patient. Once found you’ll be able to use a more significant memory, usually a personal object, to link back to an earlier memory. Which more or less involves going around a scene and clicking on objects. Although it’s not nearly that facile. This is all accompanied by the game’s excellent writing, as well as the discovery of the importance of those items, and the roles they play in a narrative that’s going to be spelled out to you backward. Once the key object is unlocked, you then (for some reason) have to solve a simple tile-reversing puzzle, and can then travel to the next memory. I’m not sure why those puzzles are in the game, but they’re innocuous enough, and aren’t going to trouble anyone.

To tell a story backward requires great skill. (Obviously it’s the written law of the universe that one must mention Memento at this point.) It’s an inevitably muddling experience for the player, so to keep things feeling like they’re flowing forward, while only ever travelling backward, demonstrates some remarkable writing talent. From the start of the game you’re presented with unexplained themes, such as the locked basement room in John’s house that’s filled with white origami rabbits. And the one other paper rabbit, the one that’s blue and white. (Which just thinking about now makes me sniffle a little.) There’s the confusion of elements of John and River’s relationship, suggestions of illness, awkward, hurtful secrets, and atmospheres of regret. As you jump back through John’s lifetime, the puzzle pieces start to fall into place. But what’s perhaps best about this game’s story is how much is left for you to fathom for yourself.

Not in that, “It’s for you to decide” bullshit way, that so many writers lazily fall back on. But rather, because in each memory all the participants but you have the prior knowledge, they speak in such a way that you’re left scrabbling to fill in the gaps. The further you get, the more is confirmed, but all the way through you’re left room for your own interpretations, sometimes later confirmed, sometimes left ambiguous. The result is a game that constantly feels like it’s respecting your intelligence, even though it later fills in the gap. For the whole game I guessed at the significance of that blue and white rabbit. River, in one of John’s most recent memories, had pleaded with him to understand its deeper meaning, and he couldn’t work it out. I noted down at the time, “The agony of the meaning of the rabbit.” By its eventual reveal, well, I was broken.

So yes, if I can be unpleasantly self-indulgent for a moment, I do have something of a reputation for crying at games. It’s a reputation that’s not really earned. I can think of two games that have ever made me cry, and have a nagging suspicion that there’s a third I’m forgetting. In 30 years of playing games, it’s not a common factor for me. But add another to the list. I sobbed twice during To The Moon. And then a third time when I told my wife why. I share this information in the knowledge that I’m underlining the endless teasing the follows, because I think it’s crucial to explain why To The Moon is quite so significantly good. I don’t want to tell you anything of the story beyond those opening scenes I’ve described, so letting you know quite how moving it becomes is excellent short-hand. In fact, I think the most recent teaser trailer for the game does an excellent job of capturing the overall mood.

None of those scenes are in the game, by the way. But that turn, that moment when things feel different, that’s something the game keeps achieving over and again. To do it once is impressive – to be able to shift the mood from silliness to heart-wrenching sadness so many times demonstrates incredible skill. And it sustains this for a long time. The game lasts a decent five hours.

To The Moon takes on old age, regret, mental health, and love. It’s about the role of ambition versus reality, and what’s worth sacrificing. It’s a properly funny comedy, and a hanky-requiring tragedy. Games this effective are rare beasts, and when it’s disguised by such simple graphics (albeit with wonderful animation, and such detail), old-school Japanese RPG presentation (something it brilliantly jokes about very early on), no voice acting, nor photo-realistic expressions, it’s something of a feat. What it does have, however, is incredible music by creator Gao, including a perfectly used piano refrain that so brilliantly scores much of the game. When there’s so much meaning to be found just in the choice of notes used in the music, you know you’re onto something special. And at the end there’s a song by Laura Shigihara. (Oh, and in my first post about the game I made a snide remark about wishing one game’s theme didn’t have a single strain of a violin in it. I’d just like to say that I’m a wrong idiot, since a single strain of a violin caused my second bout of sobbing – its use was extraordinary.)

To The Moon is incredibly special. I implore people to play it.

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137 Comments »

  1. Fistulator says:

    John, I do not know if it was intentional, but there is a link in the all of emotionally in the first paragraph that takes you to a drug store. It is weird and makes me feel scared.

    • Durkonkell says:

      How odd… You are correct. I wonder if RPS should check their security and change passwords. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that John would just accidentally insert.

      EDIT: The link has now been obliterated, and I got to see the excellent RPS 503 page. I think it would be best if John eased back on the Asda rum.

  2. Melf_Himself says:

    So it’s like a cross between Total Recall, Inception and The Notebook…. got it.

  3. BatmanBaggins says:

    This game needs to be made into a movie, or something. I just finished it, and, well. Jesus.

    Then again, I’m a sucker for stuff like this (some of my favorite films are Eternal Sunshine, The Fountain, etc).

    • end0rphine says:

      I agree completely :)

      I’ve also seen (and loved) those movies and thought the same thing. More so sunshine and memento.

  4. returno says:

    I enjoyed it (yes, I paid), and I’m glad I experienced it. However, it isn’t fair to call this a game. It is more like an animated comic book with a tiny bit of exploration and a few trivial mini-games in it. The mini-games could have – and probably should have – been left out. The developers should have gone all in on the story-telling, animated comic book angle. The exploration was more like turning pages in a book, not really serious find-and-click-on-the-widget stuff you’d see in a typical adventure game – not at all.

    It was a really nice experience – could have been a bit better if the developers had abandoned the “game” aspect and just told the story.

    DON’T READ FARTHER IF YOU DON’T LIKE CRITICISM OF A BEAUTIFUL STORY

    The ethics that are displayed by the old man in this story, and the ethics of the “scientist” characters deserve harsh judgement. There is nothing that would justify destroying someone’s memory to make them happy. This is not happiness, this is the destruction of the only thing that really means anything – a person’s life experiences – good or bad. This is all we, as humans, have. If we try to alter or destroy our memories using drugs, alcohol, or high technology, we are destroying our selves, our spirits, our souls. Sometimes being human sucks, no doubt. But we must somehow deal with this to maintain our humanity.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I disagree, but nicely put. Interesting argument this.

    • Reives says:

      Aye, I think returno touched on a very, very valid subject. I can’t say whether or not I personally agree with its specifics, but it’s definitely something to be explored.

    • Sardukar says:

      Yes, what returno said is basically what I said to my wife after finishing the game, only I used, ah, harsher terms. She disagreed, saying it was akin to overdosing someone on pain meds as they go, so they have rapturous dreams.

      I think the very final bit shows the treachery of such techniques, though. Malleability may prevent or ameliorate suffering, but such suffering creates strength and humility. If you learn.

      If you offered to edit my memories in order to please me at the end – or any other part – of my life, I’d be hostile. I earned this. This is who I am. I’m not an astronaut and, really, neither was John. It devalues to treat him as other than he made himself.

  5. LennyLeonardo says:

    I know all there is to know about the nakige.

  6. end0rphine says:

    Damnit John you made me cry.

    And no one makes me cry but me

  7. thatman says:

    I wonder if everyone cried when playing this game. I consider myself quite a sensitive person and even though I would foolishly refrain from crying in public I would have expected to cry on my own in front of the computer after reading the review. Not that crying or not makes a difference to the outstanding quality of the game, but I doubt whether or not having been told about John’s reaction to certain parts of the game modified my own experience. Anyway, I loved it and I love RPS a bit more and I too love John.

  8. ramer84 says:

    Played it and loved it. Thank you for imploring me to play this.

    The activation of the game is easy, by the way. Just pasted a code I got in an e-mail.

  9. bigredrock says:

    Oh my, that was beautiful. Thank you for covering it, John. I was a wreck during the entire scene where the significance of the rabbit becomes clear. And I was expecting not to cry at the violin, because I knew it was coming. And then it came, and I cried anyway.

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  11. Sivart13 says:

    Let me be alone here in the end of the comments in saying that I did not like it.

    This sort of thing thing maybe shouldn’t be called a “game” when it’s more of a clicking-based short story. Which is the same kind of thing Dreamfall is, so I can see that not fazing Mr. Walker.

    That being said, I support its existing. Maybe my experience was tarnished by having to play in several short sittings.

    Also no one has mentioned if anything changes depending on which doctor you choose in the beginning??

  12. Eight Rooks says:

    Let’s get the criticism out of the way first. Technically the writing’s mostly pretty mediocre – yes I am aware the creator might end up reading this but I mean come on, how swept up with the premise do you have to be not to notice the constant grammatical and spelling errors? No-one in the game, child or adult speaks like a real person bar one or two brief exchanges here and there. The comedy falls flat – the most it got out of me was a wry smile, and it was frequently actively annoying.

    Character development was all over the place, with people behaving like saints one moment, and jerks the next for no good reason – and I understood the story fine, thanks: there are clearly points where character traits are introduced all wrong, whether solemn moments or running gags – like, say, Neil mentioning his grandfather and Rosalene spitefully accusing him of doing it all the time to the point of boredom. What do I care? He’s clearly not done it while I’ve been playing.

    People don’t speak in consistent voices, either, particularly the children, who never settle on one particular age (the scenes in school are particularly bad for that). The visuals aren’t that great – Secret of Mana this ain’t – and any play mechanics are tiresome to appallingly bad. The one main sequence where it’s most like a game proper, near the end, was simply awful. It really, really would have been more effective as a book, a movie… it’s simply a glorified visual novel with lo-fi production values. I can see it was probably a whole lot easier to go that route, but Christ, it has its downsides. Game of the year? Not in a month of Sundays.

    On the other hand, it may not be good writing but it’s certainly pretty good storytelling. Pacing could have done with some work, and I’m not sure the ambiguity entirely works, but by and large the plot is quality stuff which comes together rather well. Floods of tears…? No. Seriously, no. It’s too flawed, manipulative and built on decidedly shaky ground for that, but it handles mature emotional themes far better than the vast majority of what the industry (majors or indies) puts out. It got a sniffle out of me, certainly. And while the comedy didn’t work I did appreciate it never got too straight-faced, in the end. Far, far better than the horribly over-rated Braid, that’s for sure.

    And for those of you decrying the premise or the ending is morally suspect, even monstrous – so you’re saying everyone must live with everything they’ve done wrong or left undone, even on their deathbed, feeling guilt, pain, regret and all the rest of it right up to the point where it can’t possibly matter what they believe they did with their lives any more? Who the hell are you to make that judgement? Presumably you’d be all for telling terminal cancer patients everything was fine, too? (And no, that’s really not that much of a strawman, sorry.) It’s far from the best exploration of these themes I’ve ever seen, but it’s much better than we usually get in games on any format.

    • caprisundad says:

      QFT. I agree with pretty much everything Eight Rooks said. To The Moon moved me more than any other game I can think of, but not nearly as much as certain novels and films have. Kan Gao obviously has some serious storytelling and design chops, but he’s really going to have to spend some more time on dialogue in future games.

  13. Branthog says:

    “Relational Disorder”.

    I read the wiki article on it which seems to be a long and drawn out way to classify “relationship problems” as a mental disorder.

    Gosh, I can’t wait.

  14. wiper says:

    Well, 21 days after purchasing this on John’s recommendation, I played this. Four hours later (early in the 22nd day), and I’ve finished it.

    And it was beautiful.

    I’m now going to buy more copies and force my friends to play it. And by ‘my friends’, I mean ‘all of my friends who enjoy stories, gamers or not’.

    Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention.

  15. Gassalasca says:

    Just reached the “Hello, Neil.” bit.

    Can’t remember the last time a game had me laughing so hard.

  16. Maelin says:

    I’m really curious, when was the extraordinary violin strain that caused the second bout of sobbing?

    This game is amazing, by the way.

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