ttmban PLEASE NOTE: This is a piece about a heavily story-driven game, and as such it’s difficult to talk about it in any depth without risk of spoilers. That said, I’ve tried to remain as vague as possible and avoid revealing the bigger plot points. It goes without saying that if you haven’t yet played the game and want to go in a fresh as possible, avoid reading any further!

At first glance, To the Moon probably seems like an odd choice for a Games of the Generation list; built in RPG Maker XP, the game is styled like an old-school 16-bit top-down RPG and combines elements of point’n’click adventure, visual novel storytelling and puzzle games. Looking at screenshots, it certainly doesn’t scream “GAME OF THE GENERATION!”. Of course, screenshots don’t tell the full story, and ‘story’ is the strongest attribute To the Moon has. Indeed, the ‘gameplay’ parts are lightweight to say the least, but To the Moon is an experience that will stay with me for years to come.

The premise behind To the Moon is a technology that allows artificial memories to be created and placed in a patient’s unconscious. Unfortunately, as these new memories are permanent, they would conflict with real memories when the patient wakes, causing cognitive dissonance. For this reason, memory creation can only be performed on those that are on their deathbed, and at the start of the game, we meet doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts as they travel to meet their latest patient, Johnny.

Johnny lives in a large house by a cliff, near to a lighthouse and with a clear view of the object of his desire, the moon. Living with him are his cleaner/carer and her children, and through them the two doctors find out a little more about Johnny and his deceased wife, River. Early on in the story, following the children to the lighthouse, Eva uncovers a number of mysterious papercraft bunnies, items which appear often throughout the story.

The doctors need to know the reason behind Johnny’s desire to go to the moon but he can’t give them an answer; he doesn’t know why he wants to go there, just that he does. With no pre-existing reason to build off of, Rosalene and Watts will have to travel back through his memories to insert the desire to go to the moon into a childhood Johnny, and then let his unconscious mind do the rest, creating a lifetime of false memories where he geared his life towards becoming an astronaut and finally fulfilling his goal.

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As the two doctors travel backwards through Johnny’s memories, we experience his life in reverse. We see a bedridden River beg Johnny to finish building their house instead of using the money to treat her illness, and we begin to get a feeling that River is somehow different; she has difficulty relating to and communicating with others, compulsively makes paper rabbits and continually asks Johnny questions about their past, seemingly not getting the answers she wants. Travelling further back, we learn that River has Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and it turns out that River’s behaviour became more obsessive-compulsive after Johnny admits to having approached her in high school because she was ‘different’.

Eva and Neil eventually reach Johnny’s childhood, but things do not go as planned and they are unable to progress any further into his memories; for some reason, a chunk of their patient’s memory is missing or corrupted. With a bit of hard work, the two doctors manage to uncover the mystery behind the blanked-out memories, a childhood trauma that his mother had tried to blot out with medication, creating a void in her son’s mind. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only event Johnny had forgotten, and Eva and Neil are finally able to discover the source of Johhny’s desire to reach the moon.

This realisation is beautiful yet ultimately heartbreaking because, having moved backwards through his memories, we know what happens later on in Johnny’s life. Suddenly, everything that River had been doing after Johnny’s confession – the paper bunnies, the endless questions, the changes she makes to her appearance – make perfect sense. River tried, to her dying day, to communicate something to her husband in the only ways she could think to, and she passed away before she could make him see. Johnny is left confused, suffering from guilt, but his previously inexplicable desire to reach the moon now makes sense: subconsciously, he’s desperate to keep a promise he once made to River.

Seeing all of this coalesce makes it clear how incredibly well written To the Moon is. We begin near the end yet still have everything to learn, and it’s fantastically confident stuff from indie developer Freebird, teasing just enough details to make you think “this is important” while still managing to keep the mystery fully under wraps until you uncover the beautiful, heartbreaking, beautifully heartbreaking revelation at the bottom of the rabbit hole that is Johnny’s unconscious mind. Despite the mild sci-fi backdrop, To the Moon‘s story is fundamentally an incredibly human one, a story of a life lived and a love lost, and a story of a very human desire to connect.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Having identified the reason for Johnny’s wish, the two doctors can then set about making his dream come true. Johnny can finally get his happy ending, yet for me even this is bittersweet. Eva and Neil manage to create the ideal life for Johnny and get him to the moon, but in doing so they must replace his real memories. The real life Johnny and River lived is lost to him, replaced by a fiction. In his mind, Johnny blasts off on a rocket to the moon, River’s hand clasped in his as in the real world he passes away, and while it is a beautiful ending, I can’t help but lament that life that has been lost, that real, tangible, imperfect life.

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To the Moon was released in 2011 but I only got around to it this year. In fact, it was not long after playing through BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, and it was very coincidental timing. All three of these games are strongly story-based, and focus on an intense connection between two people. All three of these games also have, for me, very bittersweet endings. While they didn’t leave me happy, they did all leave me satisfied, if a bit emotionally drained. I find it interesting that a first-person shooter, a third-person survival game and a top-down visual novel could have so much in common with regards to how they make the player feel. If you’ve played either of those two games, To the Moon should feel like an ideal companion piece.

And I haven’t even mentioned the music yet, that beautiful, emotive score that perfectly fits the mood of the game. The best example of this is ‘For River’, written for her by Johnny and heard at various points throughout the game. The soundtrack as a whole is as much a part of the experience as the story, and I couldn’t imagine the game without it. Just hearing snatches of music from it brings back those emotional feelings I felt upon finishing the game.

There aren’t many games that I would say everyone should play. To the Moon is absolutely one of them, and its simplistic gameplay helps in this regard; not everyone is going to feel comfortable playing BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us and may thus miss out on those stories. But this is a game anyone can (and most definitely should) play. It’s one of the best stories in all of gaming as far as I’m concerned, and if you like strong, emotional storytelling in your interactive fiction, you absolutely owe it to yourself to play it. And if you don’t feel tears welling in your eyes by the time the credits roll, I’d question if you’re even human.

Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia
Halo 3
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy

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