To the Moon relies on a ridiculous premise: Scientists tap into your memories with a special machine and then change them so that you might be granted a deathbed wish. It then uses that premise to tell a bittersweet and thematically rich story about the bond between lovers and the power of childhood memories. Each chapter in the tale reveals more about a dying man's life and further unwraps the mystery of his greatest desire: to visit the moon. To the Moon doesn't tax your brain with clever puzzles or test your skills with a mouse and keyboard. Instead, it moves your heart and inspires introspection. This modest adventure game, with its 16-bit-style visuals and its all-text dialogue, is a triumph of game storytelling, and it will stay with you long after you reach its tear-jerking conclusion.
In To the Moon, you take control of two doctors: Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts. The game is not about them, however; it's about Johnny, an elderly man drawing his last few breaths. Eva and Neil have been hired to give Johnny one last chance to fulfill his dream of flying to the moon. To do so, they must enter Johnny's mind and manipulate his memories with a special machine devised for this very purpose. The doctors may not be able to change Johnny's actual past, but they can alter the past as he has remembered it, triggering events that allow his dream to come to fruition.
From this science-fiction premise evolves one of the most authentic and human stories told in a game in some time. And even this premise starts with a provocative and universal quandary: "How would my life have been altered if I'd taken a different path?" From there, Eva and Neil worm their way into Johnny's past, starting with the recent past and moving backward. With each leap, Johnny's life and personality come more clearly into focus, even as several mysteries complicate the doctors' progress and threaten to potentially derail their success. The mysteries begin with a simple conundrum: Johnny doesn't know why he wants to visit the moon. He just does. From this one riddle arise many others. Many of them revolve around Johnny's wife, River, whose unusual obsessions and emotional distance became increasingly difficult to cope with and understand.
The story is successful for many reasons, one of which is the convincing dialogue. The conflicts you witness feel real, not contrived. When a friend accuses Johnny of being selfish, he lashes back in his heartbreak and insists that he's earned the right to his selfishness. Eva and Neil frequently butt heads, and Neil's casual aloofness is sometimes more than the empathetic Eva can bear. But their witty banter is often laugh-out-loud funny and prevents the poignant main tale from lapsing into sappiness. Another important factor is the story's structure. By leading you through Johnny's life in reverse, To the Moon impresses upon you the idea that some of the most relevant moments of our lives are the earliest. The game's tender finale might leave you in tears, but it isn't manipulative. By drawing you through a single man's life and reminding us that ordinary people can have extraordinary effects on each other, the game earns every tear you shed.
How amazing that effusive emotion pours from a game with such unassuming production values. When you first boot up the game, you might temporarily think you're playing a Super Nintendo role-playing game, due to the 16-bit art style, simple character sprites, and synthesized orchestral score. But any misgivings you have about the dated visuals should quickly melt away once the story moves into high gear. The soundtrack deserves much of this credit. A simple piano theme serves as River's motif; its repetitive undercurrent evokes that character's compulsive tendencies. Another track's few simple notes effectively communicate tension and danger. And one poignant sequence is given more resonance by the softly sung ballad that accompanies it. To the Moon doesn't feature any voice acting, but the written dialogue effectively uses dramatic punctuation and capitalization to communicate excitement and fear.
To the Moon's purpose is to tell a stirring story, not to deliver a compelling gameplay experience. Though it plays much like a point-and-click adventure, there are very few puzzles standing between you and the narrative. Between leaps in Johnny's memory, you solve a hidden-picture puzzle of sorts that has you clicking on a row of tiles to flip them over. But these puzzles are easy, and while you can try to complete them in the minimum number of moves possible, there's no reward for demonstrating such cleverness. You move from area to area by clicking on your destination or using the arrow keys. The controls can be a bit quirky; clicking on an interactive object may not have the expected results if you aren't standing in the right place, for example. A similar lack of responsiveness intrudes in a few other areas, as in an odd shoot-'em-up minigame near the conclusion.
On several occasions, however, To the Moon effectively uses gameplay to serve the story. In one sequence, the game toys with your expectations, pretending to become a turn-based RPG and then subverting the notion with a heavy dose of charm and humor. A visit to a horse farm has you galloping about on horseback while your hapless partner acts like a witless fool. A simple puzzle in which you rotate objects to match them isn't challenging, but it's an appropriate complement to the otherworldly environment in which it takes place. To the Moon is largely a work of interactive fiction, even more so than the traditional PC adventure game. But the interactive elements are nevertheless part of its power, as demonstrated by these and other events. And because these events are so different from each other, they retain an element of surprise.
If you lament the state of story in games, To the Moon is a game you must play. It's available for download from developer Freebird Games' website for $11.99, which seems about right for this affecting four-hour tale. Those four hours pack a real punch, inviting you to consider just how a single event can change your destiny. For now, you should take control of your own destiny and play To the Moon. You'll be glad you did.