Storytelling has long been sidelined in gaming. There are many explanation and justifications for this, but fortunately the trend has been reversing as of late, thanks in no small part to Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain and Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire. What should shine brightest, yet has failed to quite live up to expectations, is the independent scene, the more popular of which have been platformers or experimental games like Minecraft. The RPG Maker game To The Moon, however, should be a game to change this trend, because frankly there’s really nothing like it.
An experiment in interactive storytelling, To The Moon recalls the story of two scientists with the power to travel through people’s memories. With their technology, they can allow people to live out their hopes and dreams in their own head. The caveat is that the procedure is almost certainly fatal, and must only be performed on the dying. Enter a man named Johnny Wyles. Johnny wants to go to the moon, but can’t recall why – the scientists must alter the man’s memory in order for him to travel skywards, along the way uncovering a tragic tale of love and loss. An emotional rollercoaster sure to bring almost any gamer to tears, To The Moon’s plot is short, but beautiful, unparalleled in its field and sure to stand the test of time for years to come.
Almost as wonderful is the game’s soundtrack, composed by creator Kan Gao and Laura Shigihara. A score featuring solo piano tracks (with occasional input from other stringed instruments), it’s a simple but emotive work that truly captures in its tones the lonely, diminishing yet accomplished life of John. Each track conveys its intended emotion brilliantly; quite a feat considering this covers a good deal of states, from nostalgia to sadness, from panic to joy. If you buy this game, be sure to pick up the soundtrack as well – it’s included in a Steam bundle, so you really have no excuse.
The beauty of pixels has been well documented through the years, from the colourful and expressive word of Earthbound to the more subdued but equally striking Swords and Sorcery, and they once more astound and delight in equal measure. Through a few thousand small squares, the entire course of a man’s life flashes before our eyes in sumptuous detail rivalled by little that’s come before. That a forty-year-old method of displaying images can still bring across the raw power and perfectly realised environments of To The Moon is testament to its impeccable design and ability to induce strong emotions.
Simplicity is at the heart of To The Moon, yet absolutely works in its favour. Everything from the pixel graphics to the gameplay mechanics is designed to wring as much distance as possible from the included resources. Not only does this ensure extra thought is put into each aspect, but it also means that there isn’t any extra baggage. Everything in To The Moon has a place, and everything performs its job fantastically. It’s short, but that’s fine because it’s as long as it needs to be, and to extend it any further would be a waste of great game.
I want to step away from To The Moon for a second to explain my philosophy on game ratings. It’s rather detailed and nuanced, but essentially, I will never give a game a perfect score. My logic is as follows: If we are to have a linear, numerical scoring system (something which in itself is flawed) then we must take it that a game with a score of 0 would be so bad as to make it impossible to load up. Similarly, a game with a score of 10 would be fun, forever, for everyone. Obviously, neither of those scenarios will ever be achieved, so I will never award those scores.
Having said that, To The Moon is truly one of the best games I’ve ever played, and certainly the best of anything I’ve ever reviewed. Kan Gao is a genius of design, using simple tools to achieve something few other creators ever do – complete immersion.
Rarely will a game move its players as strongly as To The Moon. It is absolute proof that video games can be something more than a time-killing tool or a cathartic playground; they can be engaging, emotive narrative experiences that will stand the test of time. If one thing is to be taken from this review, it is that you owe it to yourself and to gaming to play To The Moon. There really is nothing quite like it. 9.9/10.
Have you played To The Moon? Did you like it, or disagree with our review? Let us know in the comments below.