During my early years at university I was a rather shy person. While my flatmates ventured out into the night to party, I hid away in my room. It wasn’t until my second year where I began to come out of my shell, bonding with my flatmates over our love of gaming. I was exposed to a number of classic games that I would continue to enjoy in later life, but there was one day that lead me to this moment. All it took was two words: Humble Bundle. Nowadays it is a well established company but at the time I thought it sounded like a scam. A website that gave you a bundle of games for a low price in the name of charity? Despite my reservations, I soon found myself buying the bundles month after month, collecting a vast horde of games which to this day collect digital dust upon the darkest depths of my Steam library. Yet in my spree of frivolous spending, there was one such bundle I bought I remember well. It was called the RPG Maker Bundle, a collection consisting of pixel based RPG games. While none of them stood out to me at the time, there was one particular entry that people kept praising, that of course being To the Moon. But despite the high praise of the title, I never truly got the opportunity to play it. At least not until now.
Recently I have been exploring the idea of what truly defines a game. Thanks to my co-host recommending the incredible What Remains of Edith Finch, I began diving head first into the world of indie games. While I have dipped my toes into the genre previously, I never expected to be swept away in a sea of pixels and imagination. Of course, this led me back to confronting my digital shame which stood like a forgotten catalogue of years gone by. But then I found it, nestled at the top of the pile. As soon as I saw the title, vague memories of reading the reviews of the game came flooding back. From those vowing that it would make you cry to others stating that it was life changing, curiosity got the better of me. And as I installed it, my journey into the world of To the Moon began.
Created in 2011 by Freebird Games and designed by Kan Gao, the story focuses on two scientists from the Sigmund Corporation known as Eva and Neil who specialise in making their dying clients dreams come true via altering their memories. It is here they meet Johnny Wyles, a dying man with a single wish: to go to the moon. When asked why he wants to go to the moon, Johnny is unable to recall the specific reason. With time running out, Eva and Neil must navigate through Johnny’s life, slowly making their way back through each stage. And while I would love to go through the specifics of this beautiful story, I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.
What initially struck me at first was the presentation of the game. After all, To the Moon was made using RPG Maker and it definitely shows. As someone who has also tried making his own, admittedly terrible, RPG Maker games, I was really unsure of what to expect. Was this really the game that would make thousands of people cry? Or was it just the hype of the time? Regardless, I decided to push through the game and give it a fair shot. To say this game hooks you in slowly is an understatement, like the tale of the frog leaping into some warm water only for it to gradually boil. Replace the frog with my emotions and that was pretty much my experience throughout.
The characters were rather standard to begin with, as the duo from Sigmund Corp have a certain role to play. Eva is the straight talking no nonsense figure while Neil is that kind of person who would bombard you with memes the minute you let your guard down. I would go as far as to say however that the true genius of this game does not become apparent until you enter Johnny’s mind. It is here we take a unique approach to story telling as we venture through his memories from his senior years backwards. Of course I was not sure how this would play out but the more I played, the more I was enveloped in this world Kan Gao had created.
But before I go on to explain to you why you should be buying this off of Steam right now, there is one minor platypus in the room I must bring up: the gameplay. Throughout the game you must find items called mementoes to access the next part of the story. This is further expanded on with the implementation of minor puzzle solving. While it is safe to say that the gameplay is something that isn’t the most complex I have ever seen, it did not need to be. The star of the show is by far the story, and this made me think back to an episode my co-host and I did on Chatsunami where we discussed the topic of narrative versus gameplay. After all, if the gameplay of a game was not anything mind blowing, could the narrative hold it’s own? Well…yes.
Not only does it hold it’s own, it excels at it. In a way I am kind of glad that I didn’t play this game during my time at university. Would I have appreciated it the same way I do today? Since university I have been on several crazy adventures, from flying several thousand miles to meet the woman I love to losing people close to me.Much like our discussion on What Remains of Edith Finch, one of the core themes of this game is death. Yet, it can be argued equally that this too is about life. It is the actions we make in life that shape us into who we are and the things that happened along the way. It is those conversations we had late at night, those silly mistakes we made and the resolve to laugh about it years later. It was life, and it’s something different to us all. Again, I cannot stress how hard this game blindsided me with it’s emotional core.
I know what you may be thinking, of course this game is sad it’s about navigating a dying man’s memories to make him think he’s gone to the moon. But for a game made up of 2D pixels, it broke me. I sat during the credits sobbing over a bunch of pixels and I’m not ashamed to admit that. I’ve said before about games being experiences rather than games in the traditional sense of accumulating points and getting to the goal. While some may see To the Moon’s linear story as a weakness, I couldn’t disagree more. It further punctuates that point of life’s cruel inevitability that one day we too may share the same fate as everyone else. But at the same time, it is what we make of our lives that will shape us as human beings.
If you are looking for a gameplay heavy narrative experience then this game does not deliver on this front. However, what the gameplay lacks more than makes up for in story. I was actually so taken by this game that I purchased the sequels Finding Paradise and Impostor Factory almost immediately. Ironically for a game about a dying man, I didn’t want the story to end. So I read the comics, played the sequels and now I can officially say that these are some of the best games I have ever experienced in my life. Despite being an RPG Maker game from 2011, it’s emotional resonance is something I have not seen for a long time in gaming.
In the year 2022, it may be redundant of me to sit here and tell you that you should play what is now essentially an eleven year old game at the time of this article. But if you have managed to keep yourself spoiler free like I have and you love narrative driven games then please check it out, you won’t be disappointed. And with that said, stay safe, stay awesome and, most importantly, stay hydrated.