Can a video game make you cry? I’m always surprised by this question, because I know the answer is yes. In fact, games make me cry fairly regularly—and I like it that way. As a fan of emotionally charged stories, I feel cheated if a dramatic game doesn’t make me sniffle a bit during its climactic scenes. There’s a difference, though, between wiping away a few tears and suffering a small meltdown. This year I’ve played only two adventures that left me a sniveling wreck, sobbing like my soul had been wrung out and scrambling for the Kleenex. The first was the big budget, high profile Heavy Rain. The second: To the Moon, an indie game that came out of nowhere, made mostly by one person. And of the two, it may well be the latter that hit me hardest.
To the Moon is the first commercial release from Freebird Games, a small team led by designer/composer Kan Gao. It was created with the RPG Maker engine and looks a lot like an old-school Japanese RPG, with anime-style character sprites and a top-down perspective. But that’s where the similarities end. To the Moon is an adventure game with a heavy emphasis on storytelling, and the story it tells is one of the most poignant and well crafted of any game I’ve played.
The protagonists, doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, are employees of the Sigmund Agency of Life Generation. Their job is to fulfill their clients’ lifelong wishes so they can die happy. To do this, the doctors use a machine to jump into the dying person’s memories and work backward from the most recent recollections to the earliest. Once they’ve reached early childhood, they implant the dying desire so that in his or her final moments, the client will remember life differently and die feeling fulfilled. In To the Moon, they have been hired by a widower named Johnny Wyles, who wants to go to the moon—but he’s not sure why. As Eva and Neil arrive at his seaside home, he has already slipped into a coma and has only a day or two to live, so they must work quickly to sift through his memories, figure out what’s motivating his wish, and make it happen.
Though this premise may seem perfect for traditional adventuring, To the Moon has very little actual gameplay. Aside from a handful of simple puzzles and light arcade sequences, the game is spent witnessing Johnny’s memories unfold and then watching the doctors do their work through simple cutscenes and dialogue exchanges. This extremely “lite” gameplay may be a disappointment for some. Me, I was too captivated by the narrative to care.
I don’t want to say too much about the story and spoil the experience, but generally speaking, it’s a life story told in reverse that raises questions about what’s worth giving up to get what you think you want. It’s told not through epic action scenes but through a series of seemingly small events that gradually build up to present a full picture. It’s a story with surprises; by the time you reach Johnny’s earliest memories, you’ll understand the later ones in a new way. And it’s a story about people—how we relate to each other, what it means to commit yourself to someone, and the consequences of being unable to say, “I love you.”
As a tale about death, missed chances, and regret, To the Moon obviously has some heavy moments. But it’s not depressing throughout. The sad parts are well balanced with humor, mostly in the form of comical banter and sarcastic snipes from Eva and Neil as they observe Johnny’s situation. Thanks to this, I laughed as often as I cried. (Although not quite as hard as I cried…) As professionals who have to keep it together while they work with the dying, the doctors have a believable camaraderie and a necessary degree of cynicism. And as the stakes go up, their evolving reactions to Johnny’s memories and reluctant acceptance of what they must do to fulfill his wish are human and touching.
You control the doctors in the game, usually as a team, although sometimes you play as one of them while the other is off-screen. During a few scenes you get to explore Johnny’s house in the present, but most of the game takes place within his memories. The majority of interaction here involves wandering the area to find “memory links” to help the doctors proceed to the next recollection. These can be significant items or snippets of overheard conversation, and in some scenes you find links simply by walking around. You also need to solve several easy tile-flipping puzzles in the first act to activate the memory-traveling machine. These minor tasks give To the Moon some needed interactivity—without them, it would just be one cutscene after another—but they offer up little challenge.
Those who lament the dumbing down of adventure games might find this gameplay too mild, but I liked its simplicity because I could focus, uninterrupted, on enjoying the story. Unlike in most adventure games, To the Moon’s designer has almost total control over the pacing, and I think this is one reason the story works so well. It’s a tight narrative experience in which every moment counts, from its slow buildup to its desperate climax to its poignant, well-earned finale. The momentum never stalled because I was stumped by a puzzle; the game never overwhelmed me with endless dialogue trees or grew tedious due to incessant backtracking.
Intentionally reminiscent of a 16-bit JRPG, the game’s simple visual style has an innocent charm that jives unexpectedly well with the dramatic story. I’m used to games that look like To the Moon taking place in fantasy settings, and was pleasantly surprised by the modern-day locales including a carnival, a suburban street, a high school, and the halls of NASA. The blocky graphics combined with the top-down perspective do make some outdoor locations tricky to navigate, unfortunately. Early on I had trouble getting through the yard to Johnny’s house, as what I thought was a fence was actually a flight of stairs. But in general, the low-res graphics get the job done. The character sprites are particularly detailed, with physical traits such as hairstyles and clothing changing over time. They’re also well “acted,” with gestures and timing that communicate their emotions better than the stiffly-animated 3D characters in many games with larger budgets.
Though To the Moon has a lot of dialogue to get through, the lines are short and engaging, never feeling like a chore to read. (There’s only on-screen text in speech bubbles, no voice acting.) For the most part dialogue is not interactive—you can read it at your own pace, clicking when you’re ready to move on to the next line, but there are no dialogue trees and few choices to make. Normally text-heavy games bore me, but that didn’t happen in To the Moon, I think because the dialogue is so well written. The handful of choices you are offered are mostly at the beginning of the game, when you get to decide which doctor to control while exploring Johnny’s house and how to approach a few simple puzzles involving his caretaker’s children. Once the memories start flowing, though, the dialogue is more or less on rails. Sometimes you can choose to speak to a character, but you never get to decide what to say.
Without any voices, the incredible soundtrack composed by designer Kan Gao plays a hugely important role in the game’s atmosphere. To the Moon is a story told not only through words, but also through music—from the touching piano themes that play during emotional scenes, to suspenseful music that telegraphs the story’s unexpected twists, to the mischievous tune that accompanies the doctors’ banter. The game’s most powerful moments would not be nearly as strong without this music in the background. An MP3 version of the soundtrack is available for just $5 with 50% of the proceeds going to charity. I bought it without hesitation.
To the Moon took me about four hours to play. The first two of these were spent learning about Johnny’s past. Once the doctors reach his teen years, the pace picks up as they realize what they need to do to implant his desire, then witness the results of their attempt. One small complaint: after Eva and Neil figure out what needs to be done, the actual doing happens largely off-screen. This was the only point where To the Moon let me down. I didn’t mind the relatively passive buildup, but once the past was established, I wanted to be more involved in driving the game to its climax. This feeling of helplessness during such a critical moment is redeemed by a wonderful ending, but the finale could have been even more powerful if I’d made it happen.
If Freebird has more episodes coming, as To the Moon’s ending suggests, I would love to see more gameplay integrated into the storytelling in a future adventure. I’m not talking about slapping on puzzles to create unnecessary obstacles. (Actually, I’d hate that!) But giving the player more control over planting suggestions and altering memories could make for some really interesting gameplay—especially when the doctors are faced with ethical dilemmas that require choosing between their feelings and their professional obligations, as they are in Johnny’s case.
To the Moon excites me not only because I’m a sucker for games that make me cry, but because it took me by surprise. As technology evolves, with games becoming more like movies and game characters looking more like real people, it’s easy to assume that only big budgets will yield powerful dramatic results. Kan Gao has shown how wrong this assumption is. Currently available only for download, To the Moon is an unassuming game that does an unbelievably good job of evoking emotion. It tells a sweet, sad story in an unconventional way, and it shows a lot of promise for Freebird Games. The general dearth of gameplay might be a turn-off for some, but for most players, especially those who like games with an emotional punch, the rewarding experience of piecing together this poignant narrative will far outweigh the lack of puzzles. I hope that anyone who’s a fan of interactive storytelling will give it a try—and then tell your friends about it. Games this good need to be shared.