What if things had happened differently?

User Rating: 7.5 | To the Moon PC
Much has been discussed about videogames as a storytelling media, and most of those arguments end with everyone coming to the general agreement that with the evolution of the hardware, games have been getting ever closer to achieving the same storytelling quality found in movies. However, every once in a while a game will come up to remind us that the core of every tale does not lie on the way it is presented, after all letters on a white paper is a rather dull display, and yet books are extremely effective in getting us emotionally engaged. Therefore, a story's ability to drive us to tears or to compulsive laughter is directly related to the talent of the man holding the pen that puts ink on the paper. To The Moon goes to show, through its four hours of constant tear-inducing moments, that good writing goes a long way to making a game excellent, and that technical limitations should never again be used as an excuse for weak storytelling.

It all begins when Dr. Eva and Dr. Neil arrive in a big house sitting on a cliff by a lighthouse. The two of them work for Sigmund Corp, a company that developed a machine that allows doctors to penetrate the different layers of memory of dying patients in order to fulfill a wish, making them remember they did something during their lives that did not actually happen. Inside the house they find their patient, Johnny, an old man who wishes to go to the Moon, even though he does not know why. And from that point on, the game begins taking players through Johnny's life, beginning on his old years and eventually ending in his childhood days, and as the doctors dive deeper and deeper, not only will players develop a strong relationship with a very well-constructed character, but they will also get more engaged in the tale as details from Johnny's past surface.

No game could possibly aspire to be successful in transmitting a story without believable dialogue, and To The Moon excels at that field. Everything is very realistic, all characters are flawed beings who often expose both their qualities and their flaws. There is no flawless hero, and there is no devilish villain, there is just life the way it is supposed to be, with funny punch lines followed either by laughter or by bitter remarks, innocent sentences revealing wounds that time cannot heal and the eventual hilarious pop culture reference to soften things up.

In To The Moon, the gameplay will be a mere obstacle on your way to discovering more bits of the story and connecting all the dots to come to a fully understanding of all of Johnny's life issues, dramas and joyful moments. On every memory layer you will watch as an important event will unravel on Johnny's life. You will see him interacting with his deceased wife, his friends, his mother and other people, and after witnessing all major occurrences in that time period players will have to look for five mementos in the area that will allow the doctors to break into a new memory layer. While some games with strong stories will balance it out with somehow compelling gameplay, To The Moon fails to do that. Playing the game is never a dull experience, because everything about the title will make you play with tears in your eyes and a strong heartbeat, but in logical cold light it is impossible to deny that the game lacks the pleasant equilibrium between telling a tale and giving players something to play.

Given the game's top-down view and graphics that look like they belong to the Super Nintendo era, it comes off as a weird choice that the characters move around by a click of the mouse, and not by the arrows on the keyboard, but it is by clicking on the scenario that players will do some uninteresting explorations just so that they can get back to the juicy part of the game, its storytelling. To be fair, the game tries to bring some variety to the table; sometimes by giving slightly different twists to the way in which you will explore the scenarios, and other times by throwing tile-flipping puzzles at you in-between the memory layers, but none of those moments are very challenging or surprising.

To The Moon's presentation, though very simple, is wonderfully done. The pixel-art character models and scenario are very polished, but the real star here happens to be the game's soundtrack. By making use of the limited beeps and noises that were all that composers had available many years ago when it was time to write songs for a game, the artists in To The Moon were able to create music that is worthy of serving as the background of any dramatic feature film. In a game where emotion is so important, music becomes a vital way of squeezing feelings and tears out of the games, and it is not too rare to come across an in-game situation where tears will come up not only because of what is happening on the screen, but because of how beautifully sound and image come together.

What To The Moon does, that no other games out there do, is filling up its story with a deep message that happens to lift the game out of the screen and into the real world. The game deals with the critical question of how one's life would have turned out if things were done differently, and as humans, all people who come to experience the game will transport what they see on the screen to their own lives, looking back at past moments and opportunities that were wasted on our lives. And that is exactly where To The Moon thrives, by making its central focus a very generic life question that all people on the planet have eventually asked themselves, it manages to touch people in ways no other game has achieved, it becomes an extremely personal experience and it occasionally makes us wish that we had the opportunity to do what our brave pair of doctors is doing to Johnny, rearranging the past so that the future can be brighter and better, even if it is only in our minds.