Having sat unplayed in my Steam catalogue for months and months, To the Moon finally received a proper runout and I finished it last night. A short game, but one that grabbed me from the title screen, where an exquisite tune plays out and immediately makes you swoon. Hearing it you just know there’s something special coming, and that expectation was more than fulfilled by a game of rare heart, tenderness and emotional maturity.
It starts with a fairly well travelled premise, but with a twist: in the near future, technology has enabled dying people to do the one thing they have always wanted to experience, to fulfil the dream they could not in life. But instead of providing a one-off virtual reality scenario, hired scientists retrace the patient’s memories using charmingly retro-looking headsets and plant, Inception-style, the impulse to achieve the elusive dream for him/herself. The patient then grows up motivated to attain the goal before he or she passes away, so that in effect a whole life is re-lived to a different conclusion. In To the Moon, the patient is Johnny, now in coma and a day or two away from death, and the scientists Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts. As per the title, Johnny’s wish is lunar travel, but his home help Lily notes that the old man has been curiously unable to explain why he wants this. The two doctors are then tasked to travel through Johnny’s memory, from just before being bed-ridden all the way back to childhood, trying to fulfil the terms of their contract by making their client want to go to the moon, while encountering some unexpected past events which throw their mission in a new light.
The setup allows the developer, Kan Gao, to tell Johnny’s story backwards, and what is slowly unveiled is a moving tale of a lifetime’s love between him and his late wife, River. As Drs. Rosalene and Watts find the memory items – a book, a backpack, a stuffed platypus, and so on – which link one era of Johnny’s memories to the next, what initially plays out is a troubled marriage between a devoted yet frustrated husband and an oblivious wife afflicted with mental illness. Delving deeper, the doctors are increasingly perplexed by Johnny’s dying wish: they don’t find any evidence for him wanting to be an astronaut at all, instead coming across a number of meaningful yet cryptic dialogues and mementos which create a pervasive feeling that some important event is missing. Rosalene and Watts travel through each timeline via some limited point-and-click adventuring plus small bouts of puzzle mini-games, but these never take centre-stage and are mostly in service of allowing means for user interaction with the narrative. As Johnny’s life is peeled away layer-by-layer, and we get closer to the real reason for his desire to go to the moon, things build up for a payoff that packs a truly poignant emotional punch.
A potentially mawkish premise is made consistently fun and engaging by the wonderful wit and humour of the two scientist characters. An early gag pokes gentle fun at the 16-bit era JRPGs with which ‘To the Moon’ shares aesthetic kinship, while the banter between Rosalene and Watts are sharp and affectionate, inducing genuine laughter as well as a real sense of camaraderie. The pixel-based graphics are charming and expressive, while leaving enough for our imagination to fill in the gaps. Probably the most noteworthy is the music, by turns soaring and intimate, bracing and wistful. Also written by Gan, the soundtrack is more than just a pretty complement, but an essential part of the game. It’s as crucial to the work as, say, Simon and Garfunkel were to The Graduate, and carries the game whenever the dialogue or the visuals hit (self-imposed) technical walls.
Alongside the aforementioned Inception, comparisons have been made with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Memento, but the movie that To the Moon most closely resembles is the Japanese film Love Letter by Shunji Iwai, both in its use of the gradual reveal and the luminous marriage of music and narrative. But there’s something uniquely profound about Gao’s treatment of the game’s main themes. Johnny’s regret isn’t motivated by self-pity over past failures or envy of youth; River’s illness isn’t overplayed or sentimentalised, and the unintrusive way her side of the romance is introduced gives the game’s denouement a terrific emotional crescendo. Then there’s the sheer poetry of the lighthouse motif, which is best left unspoiled. It’s astonishing, then, that Gan was just 23 when he made this.
To the Moon was praised at the time of its release as ‘a game-changer for video game storytelling’, an accolade that was also given 2 years later to Bioshock Infinite. The two games share, intriguingly enough, some important similarities, but they represent the opposite ends of the argument for grown-up narrative in games today. Bioshock Infinite has faced criticism for its excessive violence and the fact that all the shooting and looting get in the way of its brilliant storytelling. On the other hand, To the Moon was decried by purists as little more than a visual novel. You could say that one day soon a game that strikes the right balance will be released and herald a new age for the medium, but for me To the Moon is a perfect little thing: a game designed to tell a beautiful story, and a beautiful story that can only be told as a game. It would lose its essence as a book or a movie, and like other standard bearers for game narrative such as Ico and Dear Esther, it is the act of your interaction with the characters that makes it truly special. I feel – and hope – that this is one of the possible futures for interactive entertainment. It doesn’t have to displace traditional games, which seems to be the absurd fear of some of the more hardcore fans, but it can and should be a new way for talented artists to tell their tales.