If there’s one thing that video games have taught me, it’s that death is just a temporary irritation. It might make me smash my face into the keyboard. It might make me use words my mother would frown upon. But typically, nothing bad comes of it. If you die, you just use up another life. Or respawn at the beginning of the level. Or run back to your corpse as a ghost. Maybe you lose some gold or XP, but so what? There’s always more where that came from. Because death is rarely permanent, there are no regrets. You can always learn from your mistakes and try again.
This sentiment is nowhere to be found in the newly released indie game To The Moon, which is all about death and regret. This beautiful, heartfelt pseudo-JRPG is built upon a simple question: if you could go back and change one thing in your life, what would it be?
You play the game as Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, two doctors in the unusual business of planting memories in the heads of the dying. Their job is to grant their clients one last wish by making them remember the life they might have had. In the case of an old man named Johnny, his deathbed regret is that he never went to the moon. As you might imagine, creating a new reality for someone is no walk in the park. They can’t just stroll into Johnny’s head and say, “Hooray! You’re an astronaut!” No, in order to do what they do, the doctors have to understand him. This requires hopping backwards through Johnny’s memories in order to gain the personal knowledge necessary to craft a believable new life for him. If all goes well, the last moment of Johnny’s actual life will be spent in blissful satisfaction.
As you begin wandering through Johnny’s memories, the focus quickly switches from his lunar aspirations to the relationship between Johnny and his late wife, River. Our intrepid doctors puzzle through private motives and meanings, all in the pursuit of the moon-bound MacGuffin. It’s Inception meets Eternal Sunshine For The Spotless Mind meets…well, Chrono Trigger.
There are two things you should know going into this game. The first is that the blend of artwork and music is simply drop-dead gorgeous. Johnny’s memories all take place in mundane locales – his home, a seaside cliff, a movie theater – but the soft, 2D pastels add a layer of complexity that invites the player to slow down and take it all in. The edges of the maps are torn, like old paper, and the screen sometimes flickers into sepia tones. When accessing the menu, Johnny’s heart monitor silently blinks across the top of the window, casting a necessary pall over the otherwise charming environment. As for the music, the soundtrack alone is worth the cost of admission. Piano-heavy and haunting, it deserves to go down in history as one of the great game scores. Seriously, it’s that good. Hats off to composer Kan Gao, who, as it happens, is also the developer. The man must never sleep. Laura Shigihara (who did the music for Plants Versus Zombies) lends her talents as well.
The second thing to be aware of is that To The Moon has no combat, no leveling up, no items to equip. This game only resembles a JRPG as far as movement and aesthetics go. The gameplay is limited to finding objects in Johnny’s memories that have emotional connections. Find five objects, use them to activate another object, use the object to hop to the next memory. Rinse, repeat. It may sound boring – and it will be if you’re looking for some turn-based monster slaying – but in a way, this simplicity is just what the game needs. The objects are ordinary things, like jars of olives and torn backpacks. Since you are the one with your hand on the mouse, you feel that you are personally rifling through this old man’s humble treasures. In that respect, To The Moon hugely benefits from being an interactive story. If it were a written story or a short film, it’d probably still hit all the right notes, but by actively controlling Dr. Rosalene’s and Dr. Watts’ steps, the player has no choice but to feel personally involved.
The uncomplicated gameplay couples nicely with the intimate nature of Johnny’s memories, which is where the game really shines. Despite Johnny’s lofty last wish, this is a game about simple expressions of love and loss. By moving backwards through Johnny’s life, we begin to understand the man more and more, but that understanding is ultimately bittersweet, because we know it ends with a lonely old man dying in bed. I was reminded very much of Braid, another beautiful indie game that used non-linear time as both a gameplay element and a storytelling mechanism. I also was struck by how moving backwards made Johnny and River’s relationship all the more heartbreaking. One of the first memories we encounter takes place near the end of River’s life. We see her try to communicate something to Johnny that he doesn’t understand. Shortly after that scene, it dawned on me that no matter what we learned about River in the past, Johnny would never have the chance to figure it out. I realized with a thud that this was a story about a man who deeply loved a woman he never completely understood – a woman who knew he didn’t understand her. It was an emotional wallop that stuck with me through the rest of the game.
In the age-old tradition of JRPGs, the weak point in the game is the dialogue. While the story is solid, the interactions between characters sometimes feel forced. This is particularly true with the chronically insensitive Dr. Watts, who is amusing at times, but often left me wondering how he ever got hired for the discreet task of traversing through the memories of the terminally ill. Dr. Rosalene is a much more sympathetic character, but the constant bickering between her and her colleague occasionally got in the way of the more emotional scenes. That said, I’ve played big-name games with worse dialogue, and the concept is good enough to make up for the text. Even if they missed the mark at times, the attempts at humor were well-intentioned. This game could have easily toppled over into melodrama if it had tried to take things too seriously. As it was, I found myself reaching for the Kleenex box more than once, so I was okay with a few silly jokes about roadkill and runaway horses (there are plenty of geek culture nods to be found as well; I found myself in full agreement with the doctors’ idea for a truly awesome episode of Doctor Who).
To The Moon can be downloaded for twelve bucks, which I think is more than fair. For the price of a movie, you get four hours of beautiful artwork, heart-tugging music, and fuel for plenty of introspective contemplation. Well worth it, in my book. Still, if you’re on the fence, you can play the first hour for free. Yet another reason to love indie devs.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.
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