“Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” That’s a quote from writing legend, Robert McKee, as portrayed in the film Adaptation. No quote sums up the indie hit To the Moon better than this one.
To the Moon follows two scientists (Dr Rosalene and Dr Watts) as they embark on a trek through a dying man’s memories (Johnny) to find out why his greatest dream was to visit the moon, and to help him realise that dream on his death bed. It’s a premise that blends romance and sci-fi through an homage to 16-bit games. To the Moon is heavily a story-based game, involving a plot that makes avoiding spoilers in a review quite difficult, but here goes.
To the Moon pushes the boundaries of what a video game actually is, as the actual amount of ‘game’ elements are few and far between. This is not uncommon with games that are so heavily story based, as they struggle to tell a story through gameplay. Hedging the line between dictating a story and allowing the player to play through the story is difficult without simply becoming a visual audiobook.
The game elements that do exist here are simple ‘find five items to progress to the next memory’ puzzles, and even more basic puzzles occur at the end of each memory. There was a moment early on in the game that presents a typical RPG battle system, but that is quickly laughed off as a joke. It’s one of the many jokes in the game that falls flat on its face, and almost tips the game off the rails.
One of the main purveyors of these awful jokes is Dr Neil Watts, one of the primary characters. Given that dialogue in To the Moon is one of the major elements of the game, it’s devastating to see that one of the major characters spouts off terrible dialogue like “Holy overcooked macaroni!” Further, the amount of game referencing in To the Moon is noxious to the point of being a major turn off. It would make sense if To the Moon was a game that was about a character who cared about video games, but it’s not.
At the foundation of To the Moon is a strong and interesting love story – something that video games are seriously lacking. It’s this story at the core of To the Moon that gives the feeling that the writer and director, Kan ‘Reives’ Gao, was simply not confident enough to tell the story straight – that is, without comedic relief. The comedy may work for some, but there’s no denying that it mostly feels out of place and at some points even felt quite offensive in relation to the story that To the Moon is trying to tell. There’s a moment near the end of the game where the love story is coming to a head, and Dr Watts comments about how cheesy love is. It reminds me of something that Nelson from The Simpsons might say – “These two people are in love, ha! ha!”
It feels like Gao has inserted these comedic elements as a safety net, potentially because he’s dealing with themes that other modern games simply haven’t tackled seriously. Discussing themes like regret and love is not something that can be easy to embark upon. It’s great to see a game try and tackle these issues seriously, but To the Moon does not do this.
The music, though, is one of To the Moon’s strong points. It’s a beautiful theme that I’ll no doubt be listening to many times over. However, at an emotional moment in the game, one of the characters comments on how the theme is only two chords and, as such, very simple. It’s a disparaging throwaway comment that has no place in the game, and goes to reinforce the lack of confidence that the developer has. The theme is great, and I’m sure that the developer feels that it’s great, but including a line like that suggests that they don’t believe in the quality of what they are presenting. Undercutting a core emotional story with cheesy one liners that diminish both the score and the characters that you – as the player – are building up a relationship with does nothing to strengthen the game.
To the Moon feels like Gao watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Source Code and thought, “Yeah, I can translate that to a video game.” The translation of similar ideas from those films into a video game works, but unfortunately the idea of ‘write what you know’ also rears its head here, with elements that are clearly greatly personal to the creator, but may not have the intended effect on the consumer. Take the references to the Animorphs book series for example. Something like that should be a character building element, but instead it’s simply an element that exists in the game with no great importance, and it feels like Gao said “Hey, I liked Animorphs as a kid, and that’s a series that hasn’t been mentioned much, so I’ll drop a reference here.”
I’m making it out to sound like To the Moon is an awful game – it’s not awful, but when you visit a game that has been out for quite a while, and especially one has won many awards for its writing or storytelling, it’s hard not to be critical. To the Moon is about four hours long and, leading back to the “wow them in the end” quote, the finale is what will leave players with the most lasting impression. It’s a great finale with some wonderful emotional elements that is almost completely ruined by terrible jokes and hokey dialogue leading up to it. I fear that, if it was a longer game, the characters and dialogue would not have been strong enough to pull me through to actually experience the great ending.