Let’s face it. I love video games as much as the next guy, but if we really want to see the medium move forward in maturity and complexity, developers will have to start expanding their scopes in storytelling and thematic material, or else we’ll be stuck in the glut of perpetually saving the princess and shooting brown people forever. And while we have made significant strides with games like Catherine, Heavy Rain, and Braid bringing us experiences unlike any other, we’ve still got a long ways to go. And it will be hard for new original ideas to come out of the woodwork when a game like Modern Warfare 3–the ultimate in gray, “realistic”, brown-people-massacring military pandering–is not only the fastest selling game of all time, but also the fastest selling entertainment item in general…ever.
Thankfully, however, the indie game department has allowed for anybody with a unique voice and a knack for programming to let their creative visions shine, with games like Braid, Limbo, and Bastion becoming mega-hits on XBLA and PSN, and small flash games like the works of Thomas Brush getting some recognition.
Today’s indie darling that wishes to expand the thematic material in video games is To The Moon, a game created with the on-the-cheap RPG Maker software, that tackles the story of two scientists who utilize the technology of implanting artificially crafted memories into the minds of elderly people in their deathbeds so they can “live” the desires they never had. To do this, Dr. Watts and Dr. Rosalyne must travel backwards, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style, through the memories of the slowly dying Johnny Wyles to find the source of his desire to become an astronaut and go to the moon.
I hate to sound like a hipster douchebag, but I actually heard of To The Moon long before Phil Kollar’s excellent write-up. I didn’t see any trailers, all I saw of the game were some screenshots of the game and a detailed description of the game’s premise. And that was enough to sell me on it. Upon hearing the Kaufman-inspired premise and learning of the game’s emphasis on mature thematic material including mental illness, the relationship of an old couple being traced back to its origins all the way to childhood, and the harsh realities of life causing a man’s dreams to crumble before him, I was so in for this game. It was exactly what I wanted, a game that dealt with mature themes in a poignant way. Sure, it was made with RPG Maker, but I can deal with gameplay limitations so long as the story is good.
Now, upon completing the short, four hour experience, I am incredibly mixed. As much as I’d like to recommend this game to anyone due to its ambition and its high-points, I must acknowledge that To The Moon is a maddening game. There were times when I was playing one of the most emotionally affecting, heartfelt, and achingly sentimental interactive stories I’ve ever experienced, but there were also times when I was being subjected to ridiculous amounts of schmaltz, horrendous dialogue, and incredibly out-of-place webcomic humor that would’ve even made Tim Buckley cringe.
Let me give you fair warning, dear reader, that this review is not going to critique the gameplay of To The Moon, for not only is it not the point of the experience, but also because it is so practically non-existent and unobtrusive that it isn’t worth critiquing. Since the game wishes to be treated as an interactive story, I am going to be criticizing that story the same way I would the story of a film, novel, or television show: With depth, regard to all of its themes, and deep analyzation. If you think I’m being too harsh on the game, remember that I’m giving this game the same level of thought I would any other work of art, which is more than can be said for a lot of today’s gaming journalism these days.
With that in mind…I don’t even know where to begin…
When I said that there were moments of genuine emotion in To The Moon, I meant it. When the game decides to fire on all-cylinders with its subject matter, it can be powerful, to say the least. The way it depicts the relationship between John and River is heartfelt, tragic, and most importantly of all, feels genuine and real. Everything involving these two characters are the game at its strongest. To me, it reminded me of movies like The Notebook and Atonement, films that are incredibly sappy and overtly sentimental, but still ultimately work because you can buy into the core relationship.
However, let’s compare To The Moon to another movie that might not seem appropriate for comparison: Donnie Darko. Many have described Richard Kelly’s mind-bending directorial debut as “one of the greatest teen movies ever…with a bunch of sci-fi bullshit thrown in”. And if that is true for Darko, then To The Moon is one of the best video game romances ever…with a bunch of sci-fi bullshit thrown in. Except while the sci-fi bullshit worked in Donnie Darko‘s favor because it was enigmatically ambiguous, the sci-fi bullshit works against To The Moon because it seems slightly unnecessary.
However, let’s get to the root of the sci-fi bullshit…sorry, I’ll stop referring it by that term. Firstly, while the interactions between John and River feel genuine and heartfelt, if a bit on the maudlin side of things, the interactions between the two scientists, Dr. Rosalyne and Dr. Watts, are contrived and unfunny. The two provide commentary on the many different memories that they sift through, which leads to some “hilarious” banter between the the live-wire Watts, and the straight-faced Rosalyne, who has to put up with her pill-popping, insensitive blowhard of a partner. There were moments where I’d be incredibly moved by a scene of John consoling to River, which would then be interrupted by a “witty” remark that Watts makes about landing on his ass after falling off a lighthouse, or even worse, references to Street Fighter, The Incredible Hulk, and Dragonball. It felt like strips of a bad webcomic were being spliced into frames of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is the equivalent of Schindler’s List being periodically interrupted by an out-of-left-field musical number.
Then there’s the sci-fi plot itself. If Donnie Darko had a brilliant set-up for its sci-fi elements that was marred by an ambiguous pay-off (Though I personally loved Darko‘s open-ended conclusion, just for the record), then To The Moon’s sci-fi subplot is a haphazard set-up that doesn’t really kick in until the final third of the game. Most of the game doesn’t even really involve too much of the concept of implanting artificial memories into a dying old man. Instead, rather, it opts for using the concept as a framing device for portraying the relationship of River and John in a backwards, Memento style way, slowly revealing clues of what caused certain things in the relationship to form. Which is all well and good, except it makes the sci-fi subplot more of an irritating distraction than a fluid component in the grand scheme of things. To be perfectly honest, the game would’ve been better off if it didn’t focus on the sci-fi aspect at all. If Memento can teach us anything here, it’s that you don’t need a memory machine to play the story backwards. Simply focus on what makes the game unique, i.e. it’s focus on an on-going relationship between John and River, and the extraneous sci-fi stuff can be saved for a story that suits it better.
The concept doesn’t truly pay-off until an admittedly devilishly clever twist involving a tragic incident in Johnny’s childhood that finally takes advantage of the memory-implanting concept and brings up some sweet revelations involving the origins of Johnny’s relationship with River, and his desire to go to the moon.
Unfortunately, however, this satisfying pay-off is for naught, because it leads to an ending that ultimately rings hollow. What should’ve been a moving emotional climax turns into something of a cheat because (aside from a ridiculously cheesy, saccharine vocal song) it refuses to acknowledge the moral implications of its concept. I haven’t compared the film to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind yet, which is definitely one of the game’s biggest influences, so I might as well start here.
Without spoiling either the film or the game, In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, writer Charlie Kaufman acknowledges the implications that something as severe and damaging as memory erasure could do, and makes a point to show the viewer the true importance of memory: That even despite all the bad times, they make us stronger, and provide lessons on how to get through life. The end of To The Moon, in comparison, doesn’t acknowledge the implications of giving this man false memories. I can see it working like the ending of, say, Tim Burton’s Big Fish, where it’s an amalgamation of all of the protagonists dreams and desires communing in one place to say one last good-bye, but it doesn’t work on that level either because it’s told through the perspective of the annoying scientists rather than getting more intimate with John (those last 7 words were poorly put together, I’m sorry).
What does end up working in the end, however, is the final shot of the game, which I will say is downright brilliant, not only because it hearkens back to what made the game good in the first place (i.e. John and River’s relationship) but because it actually does acknowledge the implications, it acknowledges that the memories implanted into John’s head are a lie, it brings in an undercurrent of heartbreak and melancholy that felt fittingly emotional, and it does all this and more with such a simple, beautifully executed visual cue, without any dialogue, that is nothing short of brilliant.
Despite all of my gripes with the game, I hate to make it sound like it’s bad. There truly were moments of real heart and emotion in the game that I’ll remember forever. However, there were also some other good things that I forgot to bring up…
The soundtrack (excluding a previously mentioned cheesy, saccharine vocal song) is lovely, teetering on the edge of maudlin, but still grounded in the game’s rich atmosphere. The visuals, despite being made with RPG Maker, can be stunning at certain times. One bit involving star-gazing was particularly beautiful. And one thing that most people might miss, the world building is very smart, with little things hinting at other aspects of the game’s near-future universe that are clever and even plausible. One detail that I really liked was when Watts is describing the game of Whack-A-Mole to Rosalyne, who’s never heard of it before because “it was a great game to blow-off steam before FPS was invented”.
But let’s do something I haven’t done yet: Defend something that I’m positive some people will complain about. Many people will describe the game’s attempts at tugging heartstrings to be “sappy”, “saccharine”, “maudlin”, “forced”, and other words that I used to describe the dreadful vocal performance that’s near the end of the game. To that complaint, I must reply with the ever so popular, “Yeah. And…?”
Yes, the game is ridiculously sentimental, there’s no denying that. I did, after all, compare it to The Notebook. But what makes it work is that it comes from a very genuine place in the creator’s heart. You can just tell that this story clearly means something to whoever it was that wrote the game, even the references to Animorphs and the terrible Street Fighter and Final Fantasy references point that out. You know what else is overtly sentimental and sappy? Forrest Gump. But it works because of how earnest the entire thing is. As sentimental as the game gets, at no point does it ever feel disingenuous.
Final Verdict: To The Moon is an emotional roller coaster ride. When you’re not being bombarded in some bad dialogue, unfunny humor, and obtuse sci-fi trappings, the game is an emotionally satisfying experience that, despite its many flaws, deals with issues that I don’t think any other game, indie or not, has ever dealt with as thoughtfully before. Is it worth the $12? Well…no, it’s incredibly short, doesn’t have much replay value aside from experiencing the story again, and it still has glaring flaws, but if it is ever on sale, or part of a humble indie bundle, I strongly suggest you at least give it a chance. An imperfect, but lovely little game.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the 20th time. You had the whole universe pegged, Clementine…
NOTE: There is a post-credits epilogue in the game that suggests that To The Moon is only episode one of what could potentially be a series of games following the memory-implanting exploits of Dr. Watts and Dr. Rosalyne by introducing what is, quite frankly, an interesting but dumb twist. Considering these two characters are the weakest parts of the game, and the twist doesn’t offer a whole lot of info on what could happen next, I’d suggest keeping your excitement levels cautiously low until more information is revealed.