To The Moon - A Fleeting Memory

To The Moon is an ambitious game trying to deliver a poignant tale of regret, love, and the decisions that shape our lives.  The story is endearing and at times powerful, unafraid to tackle subjects rarely covered in video games.  Its execution, however, is bogged down, hamstrung by poor mechanics, systems, and controls.  As a result, the affecting narrative never finds traction, and ultimately falls flat.

Harkening back to the days of the Super Nintendo and Playstation, To The Moon has a simple aesthetic and art style.  It shares not only its looks, but also its play style and control with Japanese role playing games (JRPGs) of the late 80s and early 90s.  Developed by Freebird Games and released in 2011, To The Moon tells the story of Johnny Wyles who enlists the Sigmund Corporation to fulfill his dying wish.  Doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts are tasked to enter the memories of the dying man and implant a false memory that would have him live out his life without regret before his death.  To The Moon is like a less action-packed Inception, but told in reverse, as in the movie Memento.  The game explores Johnny’s most recent memories first, unravelling necessary exposition and narrative before thrusting further back in time.

To The Moon operates like a traditional JRPG, but without combat.  Exploration is the driving force that resolves the plot a piece at a time.  The doctors must find keepsakes in these memories to create connections to past experiences.  It’s a fun idea that flounders amidst poor execution.  Mementos and keepsakes are never clearly marked, forcing directionless exploration.  Controlling the characters in their aimless wandering rapidly becomes a chore, because which paths characters can, and cannot, move through isn’t always clear.  I found myself growing more and more furious with every futile mouse click.  There was even a section near the end of the game that completely switches HOW the game is played, going from meticulous point and click, to frustrating twitch based keyboard controls.

Traversing the environment was downright exasperating and felt like it was there to pad out the game and not advance the story.  Not having a clear objective of where to go or whom to talk to just felt … old, like something games have overcome in the last two decades.  If To The Moon were more about the moment to moment experience of playing, and less about the story it was telling, then this wouldn’t have been such a sore spot for me.  Unfortunately, however, the game tries to find a balance between gameplay and story, and the overall experience is hurt as a result.

To The Moon contains a beautiful love story full of genuine emotion.  This is made all the more heart-rending because, as the game constantly reminds the player, regardless of the failure or success of the protagonists the “real world” outcomes for Johnny Wyles remain the same.  Johnny Wyles is destined to die, and changing his memories will only allow him to die happy.  Such a proposition speaks to the choices we make and the people we become as a result, and also the regrets that we carry in our lives.  Will changing what we remember change who we are, and therefore what is real?  Living a life without regret is an enticing idea, and creating an artificial life full of “corrected” memories a fascinating concept.

I must also applaud the game for tackling such complicated subjects as mental illness and the repression of trauma.  Video games often relegate such themes to explaining the actions of the villain.  (See how evil he is?  He’s mentally ill!)  It’s refreshing to see characters having to deal with these problems in their daily lives, and seeing their portrayals be realistic, rather than caricatured.  That being said, I still felt these avenues were not explored enough.  The issues involved were too much of a footnote, and could have benefited from further examination.

Gathering my thoughts about To The Moon is quite difficult.  I want to praise it for the story it tells and the risks it takes in doing so, but I did not experience this game in a vacuum.  To The Moon tries to pull an emotional response from the player but feels forced.  Other projects such as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or Gone Home accomplish the same intention by solely concentrating on either gameplay or story telling.  As a result, the emotional gravitas isn’t watered down.  To The Moon, on the other hand, lacks focus and pulled me out of the narrative every time I encountered its atrocious game mechanics.  The developers should have gone a step further and abandoned the more ‘gamey’ parts of traditional JRPGs.  If they had trimmed the fat, they would have allowed the game to zero in on the story it wants to tell.  Instead, it all comes across as a missed opportunity.

After my playthrough, I spent a lot of time asking myself whether the revelations at the end of To The Moon were worth the time I invested playing the game.  Was the story impactful, and did it help me question my own regrets and decisions in my life?  The answer is “no”.  If Freebird Games had cut the extraneous gameplay elements and focused on a tighter narrative, this game could have been something special.  Now, it’s just another one of my memories, one I’m hoping to have the Sigmund Corporation erase when my own time comes.

Unless you’re a diehard JRPG fan or have loved Freebird Games’ previous work, I’d recommend leaving this game on the shelf.

Time on the Shelf - 2 Years and 6 Months.
Played on PC for approximately 5 hours.