“To the Moon” Review: Video Games Can Tell Stories, Too

Today I played the most magical video game… because it made me cry a little bit. I had heard that To the Moon was a tear-jerker, but I rarely experience that sort of emotional response to a video game. Excitement, euphoria, feeling like a badass, getting giddy over plot twists and epic moments and character interactions — that’s all part of the gaming experience. But getting a few tears out of me goes deeper than all that, which is why books and movies that do manage to make me cry are so memorable for me. They’re quick to climb their way to the top of my favorites list, and I’m always eager to recommend them to others… so I couldn’t wait to write a review of Freebird Games’ To the Moon.

Written and designed by Kan “Reives” Gao, To the Moon is an unassuming sort of game. It has retro pixelation like an old 16-bit game, click-to-move maneuvering, text-only dialogue, and no sounds other than the piano score in the background and a few minor sound effects. There’s very little gameplay other than moving characters around and clicking dialogue. To advance to a new level, you complete a brief puzzle — nothing exceptional. But to be fair, this minimalist execution provides a perfect contrast to just how much the game says, or maybe how much it means. To the Moon isn’t afraid to push its quiet story to the forefront, and it’s proof that sometimes less truly is more.

A True Storytelling Game

In the game, you control two doctors — Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts of Sigmund Corp. — who enter the house of Johnny Wyles, perched on a cliff near a lighthouse. Their job is to alter the memories of dying patients so they die believing that they achieved their dreams. Johnny Wyles wants to go to the moon, though he can’t explain why. The doctors’ task is to travel through Johnny’s memories and figure out how to implant the desire to go to the moon at a young age; that way, Johnny will start down an alternate life path, become an astronaut, and go to the moon… at least in his dying memories.

Traveling back through Johnny’s memories, you learn more about his wife’s death and her experiences with Asperger’s syndrome (though the game doesn’t spell out the condition’s name). It’s very much a love story about two people who feel like they only fit in (or stand out) with each other. But when the doctors make it back to Johnny’s earliest memories, they discover secrets that threaten the love story, if they are to succeed in altering Johnny’s memories so his wish comes true.

I can’t give away too much more about the story, because the magic of this game is unraveling Johnny’s past and seeing what happens with the artificial memories. When the story starts to come together toward the end — and falls apart at times, too — I was genuinely surprised. It has a major Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind vibe; in one part, the memories start to jumble, with rain falling inside a classroom and a bed in the place of a desk, much like the memories began overlapping and flickering in Eternal Sunshine. But To the Moon’s story is one I had never heard before, and I love the unexpected.

The game is also full of humor. Some of the bickering between Rosalene and Watts is a little corny, but references to everything from The Lion King to those little digital pets of the ’90’s to Doctor Who made me laugh out loud. The dialogue is stilted at times — for instance, Johnny as a child used words and phrases only an adult would use, in my opinion — but the story is fresh and poignant enough to completely make up for that. Even small things, such as being able to “randomly” delete NPCs in the memories if you feel like it, make sense as the story unfolds. There are no loose ends in this one.

Music with Presence

Besides the story, the real star of the game is the music, composed by writer and designer (and Renaissance man?) Gao. It’s no wonder Steam sells the game and musical score in a pack, if you don’t mind paying a little extra for the songs; the music has real presence. The piano works are not only background music but also feature in the story as Johnny writes a song for his wife, and the caretaker’s children play the piano while the doctors explore the house. Sometimes playful, sometimes nostalgic, the songs are definitely key elements in evoking emotion. You can listen to some of the score on Youtube here.

Minimal Gameplay

As far as gameplay goes… it’s very basic. And I liked that. It’s a refreshing change of pace from most games, especially since I play a lot of RPGs for the story rather than the combat.

The gameplay consists of moving the doctors around levels, collecting memory links and looking for a memento that will transport them to the next memory. In between levels, you complete a short puzzle, overturning blocks to reveal an image underneath; it reminded me of a 2D version of a Rubik’s cube, but much less complicated.

There are a few fun moments, such as a level toward the end that has Watts dodging obstacles and throwing trees at zombies. I also loved a part at the beginning that had Rosalene getting ready to deliver ninja moves against a squirrel, with a health bar suddenly appearing and the music picking up pace… only to find out the whole thing was a little spoof on combat-style video games. (Naturally, the children who were with Rosalene were appalled that she was thinking of attacking an innocent little squirrel.) If you love picking up on references, this game has them in droves.

In short, the minimal gameplay kept the focus on the storytelling, which worked well. And even for people who love good gameplay, at four hours of game time, To the Moon is worth downloading to spend an evening getting lost in Johnny’s world, if you think of it like watching a great film.

Games with Heart

Agro is one of the most loyal horses ever not to really exist.

I’ve talked about liking games with “brains” before, but it’s even rarer to find a game that can inspire real emotion. To the Moon dives into what makes us tick as humans and our longing for connection; even Johnny’s wish to go to the moon is really about love. I mean, it’s one thing for a game to pack in emotion — I’m thinking of RPGs with dramatic moments that are supposed to be epic or tragic, but don’t necessarily feel that way as you play –but it’s a triumph for a game to tell its story very simply and still evoke a strong reaction in the player.

Of course, lots of games have stories, but what sets To the Moon apart is that it isn’t an adventure game telling a story. It’s also not a game with a thin, cracking little story that halfway justifies all the shoot-’em-up combat (with the combat being the meat of the game, naturally). Instead, To the Moon is more of an interactive novella than an action-packed video game. I’m playing Planescape: Torment right now — an RPG known for allowing the player to avoid combat and instead work through the levels almost entirely through exploration and dialogue — and even that game has To the Moon beat in terms of violence and action. As someone who loves stories however they come, being able to interact with a tale via the video game format is pretty exceptional.

But To the Moon is not the only game to elicit an emotional response from me. There were a couple of key moments in Shadow of the Colossus — heartbreaking and then heart-mending that had me tearing up, and a sad scene in Mass Effect 3 inspired me to turn off the game to recover a little. Journey is another game that got me thinking and feeling as I maneuvered my character across those lonely landscapes. But with all its heartfelt simplicity, no game has been quite as imaginative and moving to me as To the Moon.


15 thoughts on ““To the Moon” Review: Video Games Can Tell Stories, Too”

  1. My friend told me about To the Moon. I was struck by the story and would like to play it, but I don’t have Steam and don’t plan on getting it at the moment. I’m in agreement with you about how books, films, and games become an absolute favorite when they have managed to move people in ways you never thought possible. I can think of a handful of books, films, and games that are my favorites mainly because I had such a strong emotional connection to the story and characters. I prefer to care about the story and characters rather than not care about them. It makes diving into something more worthwhile.

    1. That’s so true. It’s like in writing classes when professors talk about how you have to make readers care about who’s inside the car before the car crashes. Relating to characters and rooting for them just makes stories (and games etc) more interesting, too.

    2. If you still haven’t played it, and are still held back by the need for Steam, then be aware that it’s also available on the developers website. :)
      Again if you haven’t played it yet, I urge you to do so. Words cannot describe, my friend, words cannot describe.

  2. That sounds like a really interesting story, part Sunshine, part Inception. Out of curiosity, what was the ME3 moment (if you’d care to share)? I’m pretty sure I sat in sad silence for a bit, slumped in my chair, after a certain scientist salarian’s decision…

    1. Yeah, it’s really different than anything I’ve encountered, which I appreciate! In ME3, I agree losing Mordin was definitely sad, but the one that really got to me was Thane. He was like my character’s bestie and accompanied her through almost every mission in ME2, once he was on the squad. Even though it was clear Bioware was trying hard to pull at your heart strings with that one (and sometimes that makes things feel manufactured), I thought Thane’s arc was really well-done… a very different type of death than the unexpected ones I sometimes encountered the rest of the series. And that last scene with him was a surprise and really moving!

      1. Ah, that’s true, I agree. Dying in hospital is a very realistic thing, and I think that gave more weight to his decline, in a way. It was more human, in a sense. You felt it more because it hits home. Still, he dies a hero and, hopefully, with his son at his side. A good scene.

  3. I picked this up during the Steam sale and hope to tear through it this weekend. To be honest, I haven’t read this review yet because I know literally nothing about the game and want to go in that way, but your first paragraph is very encouraging!

    1. That’s the best way to go into a game like this! I didn’t give away any of the big plot twists here, but To the Moon definitely a game to enjoy spoiler-free anyway. And speaking of Steam sales… they are sort of ruining my holiday savings plan. It’s great. =) Hope you enjoy the game!

  4. Saw this game on sale on Steam. Saw this review. Checked your favorite games list. Went back on Steam and bought the game. I’ll play it tomorrow (it’s getting late here)….Can’t wait.

    So anyway : really great review.

      1. Well, good news everyone…. Loved it. Although it was a bit too slow-paced at some moments for me.
        Oh, here’s one that you should definitely try, if you like action-RPG with a great story : Nier. Wasn’t acclamed by the critics (mainly because of its graphics), but definitely in my top 5 games.

        1. That’s great, I’m glad you liked it! It is a little slow in general… I think of it as kind of a leisurely, rainy day game..

          I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Nier! I just looked it up based on your recommendation… didn’t read the story because I don’t want spoilers, but I did see something about “multiple endings,” etc!! Always a fan of good storytelling in games, so I will definitely rent this game soon. Thanks.

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