To the Moon is a very sweet and often sad story about two doctors—Neil Watts and Eva Rosalene—trying to grant the final wish of a dying man named Johnny. The game’s central plot device is a machine that allows Watts and Rosalene to traverse and modify Johnny’s memories, in an attempt to piece together his past and use that information to grant his last wish: a trip to the moon. Johnny himself doesn’t know why he wants to go to the moon, which makes finding out the game’s ultimate goal. As you make your way through his memories, a number of other mysterious objects and places show up again and again, prompting you to discover how all these elements fit together to form Johnny’s life. All of this information—the context that ties the whole story together—is provided exclusively through dialog and cutscenes. The game contains very few elements that could be called “game-like” at all. So why is it even a game in the first place?
Let’s start with To the Moon’s interactive elements that aren’t essential to the story.
It isn’t, for instance, the game’s handful of player “choices” and dialog options that ultimately have no effect on the plot…
…and it isn’t the bland, disconnected tile-flipping puzzles you’re required to solve to reach each new memory…
…nor is it the occasional pop quiz, match-2, or whack-a-mole (seriously) minigames…
…and it definitely isn’t the bizarre and completely unnecessary climactic action sequence (spoilers), which is not only a total departure from the tone of the rest of the game, but also comes after the “big reveal” and thus kills any tension it might have otherwise created.
So…how come I still feel that the game would have been weaker as a book or a film? If it’s not the game’s “game-ness” making the story interesting, what is?
I think the simple act of taking control of the protagonists and searching for clues—instead of sitting back and letting the clues be revealed to you—makes all the difference. The game is more engaging than it would have been as a book or film because you, as the player, discover the story, rather than just reading or watching it (even though, technically, you are still reading and watching it). The reveal at the end hits with such force because it’s something you’ve been searching for, not just the characters in the story. The settings and environments are so memorable—more memorable, in many ways, than the characters themselves—because you actively explore them, rather than just being shown around. Ultimately, To the Moon is not about a group of characters or a sequence of events so much as it is about a collection of objects, places, and times. These objects—an origami rabbit, an abandoned lighthouse, a toy platypus, the moon—don’t tie the characters and events of the story together so much as the characters and events of the story tie together the objects. The story is literally one long, unbroken string of objects and places embodying the memories of an old, dying man.
The only game mechanic that actually contributes to the story are the miniature “fetch-quests” required to access each new level. In most games, fetch quests serve as little more than tedious padding to lengthen play-time, but the mechanic works in To the Moon because, in the end, the entire story is one long fetch quest—not for trinkets or MacGuffins, but for answers. Why does Johnny want to go to the moon? Why are there creepy paper rabbits all over his house? Why does he live right next to a lighthouse? It isn’t the characters or events of the story that linger, days later, in my mind—it’s the objects, the places, the tangible “triggers” of memory that keep appearing in my thoughts, much as they appear and reappear in Johnny’s own memories. These simple objects, to me, embody the story much more powerfully than the events or characters.
Which is good, because the events and characters would not stand as strongly on their own. The writing is passable, but not great; the characters are fun and varied but somewhat flat; the plot is interesting but thin, and not terribly original—the “big reveal” at the end is foreshadowed so strongly that I was able to figure it out well in advance. Nevertheless, it still managed to make me cry—in part simply from seeing all the story’s objects tied together at last, but the absolutely fantastic score probably contributed at least as much. The music in this game is sublime and plays at all the right moments, elevating mediocre dialog and cutscenes to powerfully emotional moments. The art pulls its weight as well, bringing to believable life the places and objects that make the story. The biggest complaint I have about the game is probably the ending—I won’t spoil anything, but in addition to the out-of-place action sequence I mentioned above, there’s a point in the story where the two doctors begin arguing over a seeming moral dilemma. Here, in the one place where a player choice might have actually helped add something material to the story, you are given none—the game makes the decision for you and presents the result as your ending, whether you agree with it or not. This led to some dissonance for me, as the game was clearly trying to get me to feel a certain way about the ending when my actual feelings were much more ambivalent.
Despite it many flaws, To the Moon remains an experience that will stay with me for a very long time. It’s a really beautiful story—but what that story was about to me was not so much the characters and events as it was the spaces the characters and events inhabited, and the objects that tied those spaces together across time. The events of the story probably could have stood on their own—another author might have made them into a superb book, film, play, or other non-interactive work. But it would not be this story. The story of To the Moon is not a story you read or watch, nor is it a story you solve, play, or win. It’s a story you explore—and that, it turns out, makes all the difference.