Blast from the Past Story Review: “To the Moon”

In honor of being named a top ten gaming blog by Jeffro of Castalia House, here is a review I wrote a year and a half ago about a sci-fi game titled “To the Moon”. It can best be described as a cult classic – fiercely loved by a core of die-hard fans (I would be one of them), and basically unheard of by everybody else. I cannot recommend it enough.

This particular review focuses on the story, and you’ll see why – there isn’t much else to focus on. Except, of course, for the soundtrack…but let’s not get distracted. I’ll wait for you to finish.

Ready?

And without further ado…

It’s the Steam summer sale, and that means literally hundreds of games are going on sale from prices ranging from as low as 10% off to as high as, occasionally, 99% off. So of course this means that by June 30th I’m going to end up with some cool new stuff to try out.

But honestly, though I’m still looking for deals, I’m not sure why I’m even bothering now that I’ve found and finished “To the Moon”, a little-known gem of an indie game with one of the best stories in a game I’ve ever seen – possibly THE best. Story-wise, it rivaled the experience I get after reading a great book. It was that good.

And a good thing too, because there’s almost no gameplay. It was made in an RPG (role-playing game for those who don’t know) engine, but it’s more or less an interactive novel. Gameplay involved collecting objects, a simple tile-flipping puzzle, and a hilarious but brief plants vs. zombies spoof at the end of the game. But that’s it – you’re here for the story and the story only. There isn’t even voice-acting, just written down dialogue. Basically, it’s an interactive novel.

I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers, but it won’t be easy. I’m doing that because I encourage everybody who likes good writing in general to play this game, not just gamers. These are the sorts of games that should be getting publicity, not the ultra-violent affair that was BioShock Infinite.

“To the Moon” stars two scientists, Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts. They form a classic “odd couple” dynamic, with Neil as the goofball who makes a joke out of everything and Eva as the serious, professional one who’s always rolling her eyes. Their banter is entertaining and you grow to like them and root for them very quickly. Their job is to go into dying people’s heads and change their memories so that they believe, before they die, that they have achieved their greatest wish. And their patient Johnny’s wish is, of course, to go to the moon.

The story is creative, well-written, at times hysterically funny, and at times profoundly moving. It moves at exactly the right pace and handles its serious subject matter with the perfect mix of humor and pathos. It is also, in its own way, an excellent mystery.

I’m going to get this out of the way here to avoid shoehorning it in awkwardly later: The game is really, really funny. I mean, hysterical at times. It’s probably the funniest game I’ve played besides the Portal games. Neil is the comic relief and he gets a lot to play with. The comic highpoint is a montage of Neil and Eva going through Johnny’s head and trying to “plant” a desire to go the moon inside of his memories, a totally ridiculous sequence that had me laughing out loud. It has everything from dumb puns to smart pop culture references (done badly they can be cringe worthy, but the game pulled it off), and all of it inserted in exactly the right places to keep the serious undertones of the game from descending into melodrama.

Taking its cues from movies like “Memento” and “The Matrix”, the game (I nearly wrote “movie”) follows Neil and Eva as they journey back in time through Johnny’s memories, searching for a way to link his desire to go to the moon from his later memories to his early ones. Early on the story sets up a LOT of mysteries, some of them really bizarre (“What’s with all the origami rabbits? What does a hackysack have to do with any of this?”). I was worried they were writing themselves into a corner, but with time and patience the mysteries are all solved in a more than satisfactory way.

The story focuses mostly on the relationship between Johnny and River, his late wife. Early on we learn that there’s something a little…”off” about River. We follow Johnny and River’s relationship backward through time, starting with River refusing treatment for the disease that ultimately killed her all the way down to their awkward first date back in High School. River never reacts to the world quite the same way everybody else does, and while Johnny means well one of the overarching themes of his life is his difficulty understanding River and empathizing with her feelings. As much as he loves her he’s obviously out of his element.

What’s up with River is a plot point I don’t want to give away, but it’s part of the reason the game is so great. It’s probably the most realistic and respectful portrayal of a mental disorder (I use this for lack of a better word) in the history of video games. It knows its subject matter well, and it neither sugarcoats it or makes it out to be overly destructive. It’s a fact of life that everybody involved with River (and, of course, River herself) has to deal with, and one of the tragedies of Johnny’s life is that he never really learns how.

The relationship makes up the core of the game, and of all the mysteries the biggest one really is “What on EARTH does any of this stuff have to do with going to the moon?”. Well, by the end of the game, you learn, and what happens after is absolutely heartbreaking.

The game isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions. If you could have the one thing you wanted most in the world, would you lose your memories to do it? How much is worth bearing to be with the one you love? And let’s not even get into the morality of the whole concept…that’s a post for another day, and an idea that I’d love to see Dr. Feser tackle [Author note – I am referring to the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher Dr. Edward Feser, who did tackle a subject similar to this in his article “Self control”, about the movie “Memento” and the Phillip K. Dick short story “Paycheck”].

So what we’re getting here is really a relationship put under a microscope. It’s a story that starts out complex but slowly progresses into a very simple tale of a man in love with a woman he can’t quite understand, trying to deal with tragedy but not sure how. The ending is profoundly touching, and I must say that by that point the player is EXTREMELY invested in Johnny and River’s happy ending.

If gaming is ever going to be accepted as a serious art form and not just something for nerds we need more ambitious projects like “To The Moon”. The story took an incredibly original concept and instead of taking it and going off in a cliche direction they took the opportunity to explore the effects of dealing with a loved one who suffers from a mental disorder. And on top of that, they handled their difficult subject matter in an extremely mature way. River was a complex character and her disorder was portrayed realistically, without exaggeration or sugarcoating. The humor and emotion of the game worked together in a pitch-perfect way, and when the emotional beats hit, they hit like sledgehammers. Oh, and by the way, it had the best original soundtrack for a game I’ve ever heard.

The video game world does not need “Half-Life 3”, or “Final Fantasy Billion”, or “Uncharted 4”. What gaming needs are games like “To The Moon”, games that aren’t afraid to go off in new directions and tackle the serious subjects. If games like this aren’t the future of gaming, they should be.

Two thumbs way up, and I urge anybody who likes a good story, and not just video games, to go and get this game. For three dollars, its sale price on Steam, it’s a better experience then you’ll get out of most books, and for the ten dollars it normally is it’s still a bargain. You can be sure that I will be following this developer from now on and eagerly awaiting the game’s sequel [Author note – since this review was finished the developer, who is working on a major sequel, did put out a mini-sequel set in the same universe, as well as a couple of DLC’s. For the curious, a brief review of the mini-sequel can be found here].