I wonder if there is anyone who has not played or seen a playthrough of To The Moon at this point. While RPG-maker games come in a huge variety, To The Moon was similar to titles like Yume Nikki or Ib, in that it was rather a story/thematic-driven title with exploration involved and not a traditional RPG. To the Moon was developed and published by Freebird Games, with the game-designer Kan Gao doing most of the work. I still have fond memories of playing this game from my earlier days at college. Simply locking myself in my room, studies were going adequately, got my favorite snack, and ready to dive into a rollercoaster of emotions, yet with perfect progression. Kinda like its theme-song. Does that make it a good game though?
A dying breath tells so much
Our story revolves around Johnny Wyles, a man on his deathbed with one last wish to make his life feel complete. While it is hard to do so in his current state, a corporation known as the Sigmund Corp offers the possibility to create an artificial memory for people on their last legs. It is a controversial move, but one Johnny wishes to partake in.
Those taking up the task, are the two employees who are also our protagonists: Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts. With the help of Johnny’s maid and her children, they discover a lot of strange events that have been occurring in the house. Diving into the unconscious Johnny’s mind, Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts finds the latest memory of Johnny and interact with that version of him inside there, in order to ask what he desires and why. Johnny’s wish is straightforward: he wishes to go to the moon. However, he has no idea why. In order to make this artificial memory feel completed, Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts travel further back into Johnny’s memories in order to find the root for his wishes in order to make it become fulfilling.
This is where I simply fell in love with the story: the depth it goes into with the theme of memory and thoughts of death. It never explicitly says something is right or wrong, but showcases various sides & ideas. Johnny has had a troubled life with things he could not understand, and our duo discusses these with light commentaries, making no scene become pretentious or overlooked. All thoughts and ideas surrounding the events you will witness get their moments to shine, such as when Johnny’s marriage is shown, with Eva sharing negativity to what she deems as a mistake, while Neil asks why can’t good moments still be treasured. Themes of death, memory vs facts, connection and loss, and much more, are explored, but never with a clear answer. Just discussions and perspectives, which is a fantastic approach in order to let the player make their own thoughts, with the game only asking the right questions with some insights to pros and cons.
That is not to say that the story itself is not compelling, which could not be further from the truth. The best part is that this story is wonderfully told. A favorite is just the subtle hints at the twists and turns that will unfold, be it through the connections of objects Johnny’s memories he deems important, or what you might witness in the backgrounds. This also ties to the fantastic progression overall, as you are always spoonfed answers on some questions that will lead to more questions. With the fact that you are going further back to the roots and trying to decipher what is going on or going to happen, is simply a clever way of progression and I love how you can create solid theories from the beginning, but it all comes together perfectly in the end.
This is also helped by the great personalities all the characters come with. Be it the simple man Johnny with a troubled life, his deceased wife River who seems trapped in her own world despite Johnny’s clear, distant connection, or our duo’s contrasts. It could easily have led the last part to be a silly buddy-cop duo, but To The Moon takes this concept to a grand level. Both are serious about their work, but Rosalene is sterner and takes some risks, while Neil is rather playful, yet careful to not destroy any work. This makes every character have a distinct personality, as they are vast, but never overplayed. This makes them all relatable and unique, which in turn makes them memorable and human. It really says something when I don’t always agree with a character’s choice, but do understand them.
This also comes from the excellent dialogue-sequences where everything is simply told superbly. There is always a line of dialogue that feels worthwhile, be it for furthering the plot, pondering philosophical questions, or just for a good laugh. In fact, while To The Moon deals with a strong and touchy story, it is not afraid to make you chuckle or outright burst out in laughter. These are also paced well between moments of drama or even the lighter moments to make you smile, making it all feel sincere instead of just being used as a cheap gag. Jokes come from events in the story, silly bickering, or even nods to the gaming culture, such as how this is made with an RPG-maker.
The inspiration for this title seems to have come from Kan questioning mortality after his grandfather fell into a life-threatening condition, which I can definitely see. However, instead of being only an emotional journey or preaching what is right or wrong, Kan takes a mature approach to talk about these thoughts calmly and collected through a story, and it is magnificent. It is no wonder it won so many “best story” awards in 2011, and even “Indie of the Year” by Indie DB’s editors choice. I simply have qualms with this story, and honestly can’t nitpick it either. It really shoots for the sky and touches the moon, with an emotional journey that will make you laugh and cry for all the right reasons.
Story Score: 10/10
After a quick joke about the engine it is using, you will quickly realize that To The Moon is an exploration game with slight puzzles involved. You might then ask why it is not described as an adventure-title or even a point-and-click since you can control everything by only using the mouse (or the keyboard). This is because both are sadly lackluster.
Throughout this journey, you will have to explore in order to further the story, and once you are inside Johnny’s memories, you will have to find 5 memories important to him, be they objects, events, or scenery, which will yield an orb each. Once that is done, you need to find this area’s Momento, and use the five orbs on it. If it is an item you haven’t seen before in Johnny’s memory, you will be asked to solve a tile-puzzle as well. After this, you can dive further into his memories. The occasional tile-puzzles contain a setup of a maximum of 5 by 5 tiles, where a picture is hidden. Your goal is to flip a line of tiles in order for the pictures to come clearly forth. There is an ideal amount of steps as a side-goal, though no penalty if you use many turns or reward if you use the required amount.
The tile-puzzles are fine and a nice brain-teaser, even if they are easy to decipher and get repetitive due to the lack of variety. What is the real issue, is the exploration. It is sadly just shallow, as areas are small to the point of linearity and you are never met by interesting puzzles or obstacles to overcome. There is not even a run-button and with how slow your character moves (with the exception of the second to last stage for some reason), it is a hassle to move around, sadly. Sure, there are nice sceneries and events connected to the story, but what you actually do is not much more than what a walking-simulator might provide you.
This is a shame, as while I do not mind taking in the atmosphere and being engaged in the world at my own pace, there is something to be said when the interactivity is on par with hitting play on a DVD-menu. Besides the tile-puzzles, I can only think of seven other minor events with none lasting long enough to be worthwhile. You will have one part riding a horse, but that only makes you go quicker in a smaller area. On the contrary, two different occasions will have you search out for clues and, while short-lived, actually showed promise by being alright puzzles. Then a shallow connect-the-objects puzzle comes late in the game that is so blatant, you would have to be blind in order to not be able to solve it. The last additions to this variety of gameplay-mechanics were just an annoying obstacle-course and whack-a-mole. The two last ones really did not work thanks to stiff controls, and I began to wonder why not actually go for more puzzles or better exploration?
With other RPG Maker titles that have not centered around combat, exploration or puzzles was a huge contender for getting further in the game and keeping the player hooked. Here it is the bare minimum of that word. I do not mind that To The Moon wishes to be a linear and story-focused experience, but there is nothing in between that makes me excited, besides a repetitive and easily solved tile-puzzle. This is where it makes me sad, as there could obviously have been something here due to the groundwork of exploration and two okay puzzles, but what we have is nothing more than a 4-hour stroll in terms of a game. I didn’t even know it had an encyclopedia until my 4th playthrough.
Gameplay Score: 2/10
Memories of a lifetime
I simply love the use of RPG Maker XP here, as there is a fantastic amount of variety to make this life of Johnny feel like one with plenty of stories to tell, small and big. We see him at school, in his neighborhood, at a clinic, out with friends, and more. Each area has different setpieces to make them memorable, and all characters have a distinct design to make them memorable. The pixelart is wonderful, with a strong and diverse use of colors that pop out strongly. I also love the details of how characters have subtle animations to reflect on events, as their emotional sprites are well implemented to make everyone feel alive.
The film-grain and washed out colors used for old memories of Johnny are two of the many wonderful touches, as they are nice effects similar to rewinding a VHS, which is clever. There are other details like this in the game, such as coding for when traveling deeper inside Johnny’s mind by scrambling the object he remembers in a fitting matter. Elements like critters roaming and strong sound effects from events occurring, also make this journey atmospheric and immersive. The lovely hand-drawn art that pops up also fits with the in-game presentation, similar to how box-art from an early Super Famicom RPG might do to the actual game. However, one thing that struck me, is how much the camera pans to give a fitting view of an event, with our duo, for example, hiding carefully in a corner. It really makes it feel like you are enjoying a movie, instead of exploring inside a game. It is just an interesting observation that I believed worked for such a story-driven title.
Then we have the music, which consists of strong instruments to give you a rollercoaster of emotion. All are presented strongly, be it the piano for the theme music, the music-box that is simple and cute, or the violin to match dire situations. None of the tracks became dull thanks to the variety and providing a clear beat to make the songs build up progressively with nice notes to highlight sadness, strength, or what emotions the characters are feeling. It is a wonderful soundtrack that hits my heartstring all the time, and used perfectly. I especially love the theming of the intro-song, and how it changes subtly throughout the game.
Presentation Score: 10/10
With even downloadable free minisodes and purchasable comics for both this and the sequel, it is easy to see that Kan Gao has touched many people’s hearts with what he created. However, this is clearly not a great example of interactive media, but rather a great show, making the immersion not really game-related. In fact, Kan Gao announced in 2018 that he was going to make a movie adaptation of this title, and honestly, I believe it would work just as well, if not better, as a cinematic title, as the interactivity is on a low level here. The immersion does not come from interactivity, but from what is shown.
However, until then, what you get here is a fantastic story that is filled with emotions and philosophical questions, bound together by atmospheric visuals and a fantastic soundtrack that subtly showcases theming. If you don’t mind being taken for a rollercoaster ride of emotions, rather than being in control of the journey, you will definitely have the time of your life.