To the Moon Review (PC)
“You’re the hardest thing I ever tried to get off my mind.” – the Marshall Tucker Band
I’m a reasonably intelligent man. At least I’m educated. I own a few books. Sometimes I wish videogames would respect that.
There’s no reason a game can’t make us think or feel in the same way movies and books can, but so few games have even tried that it’s easy to think otherwise. To the Moon, a heavily story-driven point-and-click adventure game, tries to single-handedly fill that emotional gap with compound miseries. It’s effective to a point, but haphazard writing and a late-game shift in focus make me long for a tighter script. To the Moon is a few drafts away from greatness.
Memory is at the heart of To the Moon. In the future science lets us travel into the memories of others, through which doctors can relieve current-day mental and emotional pains by constructing new memories. In To the Moon we control two such doctors as they travel through the mind of a dying man and witness the tragedies and successes that marked his life. It’s like Sierra On-Line turned Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind into a 16-bit RPG.
The memories we track down throughout the man’s life can be triggered by objects, like a stuffed platypus or Animorphs books (this game’s writer, Kan Gao, apparently loves Animorphs), or a location where something important happened in his life. Sometimes you can trigger a memory just by walking around enough. These memories usually reveal a little bit more about the man’s past and his relationship with his deceased wife. Learning that history and tracing the importance of recurring totems like the platypus and origami rabbits kept me enthralled throughout the game’s first act.
In an awkward but understandable concession to the fact that To the Moon is actually a game and not an interactive young adult novel, each uncovered memory fills a bar in a memory meter. When all five bars are full we have to solve a simple puzzle to move on to the next sequence. Both incongruous elements slightly take me out of the story whenever they occur.
The playable characters are also a problem. Neither of the two doctors are likable characters, and their poorly written dialogue and stock sit-com squabbles serve less as comic relief than regular mood-killers.
For most of the game the memories concern the patient’s late wife, a childhood love turned into a tragic plot device by health issues and mental disorder. Initially To the Moon deals effectively and understatedly with loneliness and survivor’s guilt, recalling the movie Up. As we go deeper into the past the game pulls in other depressing events that impacted the patient’s life, including memories that were suppressed since childhood. Continually stacking misery on top of misery dilutes whatever power the earlier memories once held. There’s also a weird aside about a doctor’s addiction that’s only mentioned once or twice. This scattershot approach to storytelling, along with the overuse of a pretty but maudlin score, makes To the Moon too blatantly manipulative.
In the end what we do in life usually means less than who we do it with. We can’t all be astronauts or best-selling authors or future scientists who implant false memories in the minds of dying men. To the Moon hooked me with its focus on the sweet and sad love between two imperfect people, but it unravels the further it strays from that story. The ending, in which the man’s memories have been rebuilt to reflect the most positive possible outcome for his life, aims for inspiration but instead is shallow and cold. To the Moon tries to find joy in a man dying with a head full of lies. It’s a disappointing and depressing conclusion to a game that stresses the importance of memory.
To The Moon was developed and published by Freebird Games. It is available for the PC.
Garrett Martin is the videogame and comic book editor for Paste Magazine. He’s totally okay with crying in public. Twitter him, etc.