The Beautiful Simplexity of Love, Life, and Loss: “To the Moon” Review

Forgive me if I start rambling with excitement halfway through this review. That tends to happen when I love something to the moon and back (wink wonk).

To the Moon is an indie RPG (voted ‘Best Indie RPG’ in 2011) developed by Freebird Games. It’s also a game that I’ve played at least 38948471894 times in my life—and I never play anything more than once; I get bored too easily. And I’ve been playing this game for about four years now; it’s that good. I mean, the fact that the game’s opening scene looks like this ought to tell you that you’re in for a ride:

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These two are relationship goals, I am telling you right now. I mean, next to River and Johnny, anyway; they’re also cute as heck. Also, did you catch the pun?

To the Moon follows two groups of people: Doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts and an elderly man named Johnny Wyles. Eva and Neil work at Sigmund Corp., a corporation in which doctors traverse through people’s memories and grant them their dying wish by implanting artificial memories. Based on this concept alone, it already sounds intriguing and original. In this game, it’s their job to go ‘back in time’ via Johnny’s memories and, as the game’s title suggests, fulfils his wish of going to the moon—even if he doesn’t remember why he wanted to go in the first place. But as they travel deeper down Johnny’s memory lane, they realise that not everything is as it seems, not even Johnny himself, and it’s up to them to fix what has been wronged long ago before his time runs out.

I think what makes this game stands out the most, aside from its premise, is its narrative structure. Most traditional stories are usually written in chronological order with the occasional flashback. To the Moon‘s storyline is composed entirely of flashbacks. The story progresses as Eva and Neil travel further backwards into Johnny’s memories, from his most recent memories of him being an elderly man all the way to his faraway childhood past.

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This kind of structure is not only unique—not to mention incredibly hard to pull off—but it also gives players a bittersweet perspective of things, as Eva, Neil, and the players have to witness the aftermath of a major (and often times life-changing) event in Johnny’s life prior to seeing how said event came to be in the first place.

Another thing I absolutely love about this game: it knows no bounds when it comes to surprises. From character dynamics,
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the humour in general (this is the point where I tell you how crucial it is to check everything because you’re bound to miss a gem if you don’t),
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how family-friendly it is,
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its loving references to pop culture (with some alterations),
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to, finally, this:

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Yes, they are battling a squirrel. No, no context is needed.

I’m going to switch gears for a bit here. I know from the screenshots above that this game may seem like fun and games (heh), but that’s not always the case. Seeing how everything is set up, from the plot to character development, I could see that the developers knew their stuff. Somehow they managed to keep a witty, light-hearted tone while tackling hard-hitting issues like dealing with the loss of a loved one and mental illness—which is not an easy feat to accomplish.

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What I like most about this is that it’s subtle and well-integrated within the storyline. I was fifteen when I first played this game; back then I was hugely unaware of anything related to mental health. I assumed the conversation above was just another argument grown ups have when they’re under a lot of stress. As I got older and became more conscious of the world around me, I realised that this was more than just a typical dispute.

Nothing is ever explicitly stated in this game, like River’s condition, so it does provide a bit of frustration to the players because it keeps them guessing but they can never have a proper answer. Another example of this is the two cutscenes—one halfway through the game and the other right at the end involving Neil. Those cutscenes hint that he might be dealing health issues of his own. While I understand that this could serve as a plot point in a potential sequel (which is in development and is coming out in the near future), nowhere in the game do the developers clued us in on Neil dealing with his health. I feel that it could have been incorporated into the plot better because it just felt like those scenes came out of left field.

But maybe that’s just me. I guess that’s also why headcanons exist.

The soundtrack is amazing, cannot sing it praises enough. But I’m not going to do so here because this review will never end. Again, like everything else in this game, everything is pretty understated yet that’s what gives the game more oomph. It’s also really effective (or should I say, super effective? I can make loving references, too, you know) use of sound design as well since this game has dialogue but no voice acting. It also adds to the overall atmosphere of the game; bubbly tunes are assigned to the particularly cheerful or neutral scenes while melancholic ones serve to amplify parts where emotions run high, from poignant ones (and, trust me, there are a lot of poignant moments) to the ones filled with bitterness and anguish. Let’s not forget the suspenseful ones, too, because they’re some of the best ones this game has to offer. I’ve included a playlist of all the soundtracks here if you want to give them a whirl:

To conclude, To the Moon is a brilliant ad thought-provoking game about the highs and lows of love, life, and loss. The characters are well-realised and complex. It has a fantastic storyline with an idiosyncratic storytelling method and gameplay to match, but its simplicity and straightforwardness will leave players in shambles (the good kind, of course). I highly recommend this to anyone with a penchant for heart-warming and heart-breaking stories. I guarantee that this game will thaw the coldest of hearts and will leave even those who are tough and stoic in a messy pile of feelings.

If you’ve made it this far into the post, then thank you for reading! Have you played the game yourself? And if so, how did you feel about it? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll see you all in the next post!

Until next time,
Dev.

(Side image taken from Wikipedia. Screenshots are taken by me and repurposed specifically for this review only)

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