To the Moon
Genre: Adventure, Visual Novel
Publisher: Freebird Games
Developer: Freebird Games
Release Date: November 1, 2011
It’s always interesting when a new game comes out that tries to do something different with the medium. With last year’s indie hit, To the Moon, actual gameplay was basically scrapped in favor of telling an emotional story. Many fell head over heels for this, and it even won “Best Story” in Gamestop’s 2011 “Game of the Year” awards. It’s clear that the game struck a nerve for most. Unfortunately, it seems everyone is grading on a curve here because of the medium and not for the actual quality of the game.
To the Moon tells the story of a dying old man who has a lifelong dream to go to the moon. In a setting not unlike that of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there is a company that allows artifical memories to be constructed, letting its recipients live out their dreams. Two employees of Sigmund Corp. — Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts — are sent to help this old man get his one wish.
In order to do so, they have to go back through his actual memories in reverse chronological order by picking up “mementos” along the way. This allows the scientists to learn about the man’s life while discovering exactly why he wants to go the moon. Without getting into spoilers, it isn’t a happy story, as the old man has suffered from a number of traumatic events throughout his life. In fact, by the end, this becomes a bit of a tragedy, with a few scenes included specifically to tug on the ol’ heartstrings. Unfortunately, these big reveals feel forced, and I felt little empathy for the old man, who wasn’t much of a likable fellow.
The game’s dialogue, mostly between the two scientists, is laughably bad. Neil, in particular, is a poorly-written character who acts incredibly immature — to the point of sheer annoyance. The writing is full of weak attempts at humor, as well as references to internet slang and acronyms that will surely be dated in a few years. In short, it comes across as amateur, and it is a significant cut below the films and novels that undoubtedly influenced it.
As for the actual gameplay, there is little. It mostly consists of walking around different areas in the old man’s life, talking to characters and picking up random “mementos” throughout. There are also half-assed attempts at sliding puzzles between each stage of his life, and they never increase in difficulty. There are a few diversions here and there, such as a brief “whack a mole” mini-game and a segment that involves riding a horse, but they just feel tacked on, and they add little in terms of entertainment.
While I am willing to overlook certain gameplay limitations if there is a good narrative to back it up, To the Moon lacks in both areas. It’s clear the emphasis here is on the story, but it cannot hold its own when compared to other dramatic works. Are we so starved for quality plot devices in video games that we are willing to grade anything resembling something different on a curve?
I will give the game credit for its aesthetics. Despite using the dated RPG Maker engine, the 16-bit graphics work well in this setting, and I enjoyed the throwback to days gone by. The original music score is beautiful and fits with the game’s more serious moments wonderfully, even if the title theme is played a bit much.
I hate to talk down an indie game, especially one that tries to differentiate itself from the rest, but To the Moon doesn’t come close to reaching the stars it so desperately seeks. The in-game writing, highly praised by most, would get laughed at in any other medium, and the actual gameplay is far too simplistic. At a brief four hours, at least the game doesn’t overstay its welcome.