A heartbreaking, bittersweet gem
By Terry Randolph
Developer: Freebird Games
Publisher: Freebird Games
Release Date: November 1, 2011
Platform: RPG, Point and Click, Interactive Novel
Platforms: Mac (played and reviewed on, PC, Steam)
Love is beautiful in its broad, complicated spectrum of concepts it encompasses that’s hard to express within a singular word. It’s amazing how warm love feels just by the thought of that special someone, and also just as mystifying how painful it can be. It leaves us vulnerable at times because we can’t completely comprehend it even when it seems we’ve grasped it. Love is friendship, happiness, sadness, anger, vulnerability, comfort and intimacy. It is simultaneously strength and weakness, independence and dependence all mashed together. It can last us a whole lifetime and grow every day, or be a fleeting moment on our journey of life. Love can take on various forms far from what we’re taught to expect, but that’s what makes it all the more endearing. It’s a powerful word that’s heavy with the weight it carries but can feel light when it escapes our lips to the person that means the most to us. To the Moon, develop by Freebird Games, is a beautiful game that touches upon these quandaries in a beautiful way.
It’s hard to describe the story without giving too much away. but I’ll try; in the future exists a technology allowing people a “second chance at life” to fulfill any lasting desires or dreams. How? Scientists are able to dive into your memories, find your desire or wish, and travel back in time to your earliest memory to link that desire with your childhood. There, your childhood self begins to live the life your wish for, racing towards its end at the present moment. However, because your brain is rewriting your life, it ceases to maintain any bodily functions. Therefore, this technology is used for those on their deathbed to allow them to die after being fulfilled. In this particular job, players experience this technology through Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts. Their client is a man named Johnny Wyles, whose wish seems simple enough; to go to the Moon. The problem is, he doesn’t understand why, and it is up to Eva and Neil to find out while traveling back in time.
At the heart of To the Moon, and to its strength, is its ability to tell a story that’s unafraid to show every facet of a relationship; most notably the parts that we don’t often see in media. Relationships, while beautiful, take work to maintain between both parties. The road was never meant to be easy, and it sometimes requires cracks in order to grow stronger. John’s story is a poignant tale dealing with guilt and regret, two pervasive feelings that can mire our perceptions of the relationships we have. At the same time, the story doesn’t allow these feelings to saturate the events of the story, but hang subtle in the background as a driving force for the plot. Overall, the writing handles these weighty topics with gusto and doesn’t dump them on the player and continue to do so for the length of the campaign. However, while I admit that the story can sometimes get delve a little into cliché, sappiness or cheesiness, the truth is that our lives are peppered with these moments as well. It further adds to feeling how natural the progression of the game is. Not to mention, the game does a great job providing some fun exchange between our two main characters to give us breaks from the somber, serious tone of the John’s story.
Therein lies the other strength behind this game; the story is very character driven by a memorable cast. No dialogue ever goes into the pratfalls of “exposition-heavy” dialogue that writers (even myself) can fall into that can take away from a player’s perspective. To the Moon instead allows the player to pick up pieces and put them together as the game goes on. Character interactions give us insight into the dynamics of their relationships while also allowing us to get to know them at the same time. Each character has a purpose and handle it well to create a memorable cast.
For any great story comes a matching atmosphere to bring brevity to the story, and To the Moon does a remarkable job at that. All of the music, composed by Laura Shigihara (who worked on Plants vs. Zombies) is beautifully somber. There’s a lot of complexity and subtlety behind the tone of the songs, but they ease naturally into the background as an enhancement of the experience. It also does a good job foreshadowing of how the tale will play out. The 16-bit sprite artwork pairs well with the story and harkens a feeling of nostalgia that seems fitting given the story’s concept.
The story is told over the course of 3.5 – 4 hours and could be easily finished within one to two sittings. I can understand how some people might find that a little on the short side, but I’m ok with the length. One of the big problems I have with current gaming is when studios will “pad” the story in order to prolong the life of the game. Most of the time, it ends up with awkward objectives, incessant backpedaling and serve little-to-no purpose in the game. The opposite can be said about To the Moon; it is concise and to the point. Events in the game are meant to be there in order to tell the story, details that you see in the game aren’t in there just to be there and later disappear. Characters are there because they have a purpose and they serve it well. Overall, it proves that storytelling can be an effective medium to create a memorable gaming experience.
Now, the point of contention that could ultimately be divisive among players is the fact that this game plays more like an interactive story. Essentially, game play is simple; point and click in the direction you want your characters to move, click on objects that change the look of the cursor and solve the occasional puzzle to move on to the next segment. There is no challenge in terms of game play and can feel as if there’s none at all. However, I think that Freebird Games wants to place more emphasis on telling a poignant tale that’s engrossing, and to me the simple point-and-click nature of the game serves well. The game is also very linear; you are allowed to explore areas but within certain parameters. The player is traveling from point A to point B, and it will not allow you to do otherwise. Some may find that frustrating or not like that at all, but I think with To the Moon it’s a good thing. Open worlds are fun to explore and provide plenty of hours of fun, but it would detract away from the story and the pacing that’s been established.
The length of the game is rather standard for an indie-developed game; I finished the game in about 3 and a half hours. What I really like about the length of this game is that it’s pretty straightforward and has little to no excess in content. One of the biggest issues I have with current gaming is the fact that a lot of stories oftentimes feel padded in order to prolong the life of a game. Sequences of backtracking, or added exposition that serve little purpose in the grand scheme of things oftentimes detract from the game. While it does raise questions that are always pertinent (such as what justifies the price of a game? Does length of a game?) it isn’t necessary. I feel that a game is an experience that shouldn’t have a time length; instead, the focus should be on providing a journey that leaves a lasting impression on the player. That’s the thing I loved about To the Moon: every sequence has a purpose and serves it well in order to bring this tale to life. Details are there out of necessity and aren’t thrown away after being given to the player.
With all that said, there are some issues that are hard to overlook when it comes to the game. Controls can sometimes be a little frustrating in their delayed response. Through my play through, I had a few moments where the game froze on me and I had to quit out to start back up again. While I enjoyed the writing, there were times when characters fell into the constraints of archetypes that was slightly noticeable. Are these major problems? No, not really. They’re noticeable but hardly take away from the experience of the game.
Is To the Moon a game for everyone? No, definitely not. In fact, as I write this I find it hard to recommend to many people. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not a good thing either. Because this is a beautiful game that touches upon universal themes that can resonate with anyone; love, loss, guilt and regret. It delves into the trials and tribulations of a relationship and handles them so well. The game also shows you the power that words can have us and the damage they can leave behind. It’s a game that takes you in for an emotional journey and leaves a lasting impression on you. Most importantly, it shows the interspersing of how dreamlike and real love can be. This is a tale of regret; a desire of wanting to start life over to do things right again. That’s because love is a power, beautiful thing to have and can oftentimes take us to places we’d never expect.
If you feel To the Moon is up your alley, it’s currently being sold in the Humble Bundle X package and is worth the price you put down on it. If you’re reading this after the sale ends, and still want to pick up the game, check out the developer’s site.