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GAME REVIEW: To the Moon

To the Moon is a story-heavy light-puzzle game released by Freebird Games in 2011.

Johnny is unconscious and on his deathbed. He might not survive the night. Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts of the Sigmund Corporation are called in to fulfill Johnny’s contract. Sigmund Corporation will grant your dying wish… sort of. They can rewrite your memories to change the narrative arc of their life and make sure their wish comes true. The main problem of the procedure is that the new memories overwrite the real memories, but nothing has changed in the real world to match them, so Sigmund Corporation will only perform the operation when a person is near death, so they can wake up and experience the new memories before they die.

The nature of their work starts by visiting Johnny’s most recent memory, which the machine extracts and then simulates for them. They can speak with a simulacrum of Johnny, so they ask him why he wants to go to the moon and he doesn’t remember anymore. They can also become invisible and just observe. In each scene they have to find a memory link that will jump them to an earlier memory, but to reach the memory link they have to collect mementoes from the scene–small objects that had some importance. They jump back scene by scene as Johnny gets younger and younger.

For other kinds of wishes, maybe they wouldn’t have to go back so far, but Johnny never pursued a career as an astronaut so they have to go way, way back to affect that kind of a change. As they go, they find out more about Johnny and try to find out why he wanted to go to the moon in the first place, they find out more about his history, about his wife River he lost some years before. As they go they run into obstacles to their progress and must work around them.

Most of the appeal in this game is about the story, finding more about Johnny and River, and so the game focuses on that–exploring, collecting mementoes, finding out more. In general there’s not really a big challenge to the game–the only real kind of challenge you have is to do a kind of card-flipping game to unlock the memory link from one memory to the next which are not a huge deal.

One thing that I really liked about the game is that it has neuro-atypical characters–someone along the autism spectrum I believe, though the game never uses that word for it. From what I know of autistic people, the story seems to be pretty faithful to the condition. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that used this, but I’ve been very interested in learning more from people like Temple Grandin. I really appreciated that.

I loved the story of this game and it had a really good soundtrack. I highly recommend this for anyone who likes a good emotional story. It’s not a big gaming challenge, so if that’s what you need to be satisfied you’ll want to look elsewhere.

I will note that I think the procedure in the story sounds like a horrible idea on several levels. You are choosing to rewrite your real life experiences with real people and instead replacing them with a computer simulation of an extrapolation of what might’ve happened and how other people might’ve interacted with you–I would expect that to be a desperate act when a person thought that they had nothing worthwhile in their life but Johnny did love his wife so the decision bothered me. On the other hand, I can see a company offering it, I can see people taking them up on their offer as a kind of wish-fulfillment, but it honestly sounds pretty horrible to me personally.

One very minor complaint: As you went backwards, it was sometimes hard to tell what age he was supposed to be. There was a visual gauge at the top that would show what Johnny looks like in this time as compared to other times but a couple of the pictures looked the same and his teenager image looked so small that I thought he was a grade schooler. This could’ve been resolved with an extra readout that would give Johnny’s age–but no big obstacle to enjoyment, it just caused a little confusion.

Visuals
Overall, pretty standard SNES-era RPG three-quarters view graphics. There were some nice visuals apart from that–the title page with the moon above the lighthouse, some other scenes where the scene switched over to a more cartoon view. But no complaints, really, it worked for the game.

Audio
There aren’t a lot of game where I pay a lot of attention to the soundtrack, but this one I really enjoyed. A lot of lovely instrumental stuff, including a song that’s important to the plot. The soundtrack is selected well to go well with the dramatic moments and big reveals. You can buy the soundtrack as a package or separately–I think I might pick it up as well.

Challenge
The game’s mostly about the story, and there’s not a lot of challenge. In each of the scenes you do have to seek out the mementos, but that’s not exactly a challenge–you just walk around and try touching everything. There is a slight puzzle element when you try to link through the object you have the tile flipping game. Those did escalate in difficulty but even the most difficult one didn’t hold me up for more than a minute or two. So, not very challenging.

Story
Great story, and that’s what really makes this game. I was interested from the very beginning and as the scenes rolled on I really cared about the characters, both the technicians running the job and Johnny and River. I liked it enough that I would be very happy to see a book adaptation or a film adaptation and I’d pay to experience more adaptations. I’d also be very happy to see another game based on the same premise–I get the impression that most of their jobs are fairly routine, just find out what a person wants and then deliver it, but surely there are other opportunities for good story reveals.

Session Time
You can save at any time you can get to the menu, so any time that you’re not in the middle of a prolonged dialog scene or cut scene where you don’t have control, so usually you can save and quit with little warning.

Playability
Easy control. You can either use the mouth for both movement and interaction (which has the advantage of a cursor that changes to indicate interactability of an object) or WASD with Enter for interaction.

Replayability
Some replayability. Obviously the same story from time to time, but since the story scenes play out in reverse chronological order there’s probably some insights to be gained by watching again since you’re viewing the consequences before the causes.

Originality
Very fun and original. The memory manipulation plot put me a bit in mind of the movies Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception, but this had its own focus and was all the better for being interactive.

Playtime
It took me about 4 hours to play through from beginning to end.

Overall
The list price on Steam is $10, which despite the shortish playtime, I would still consider pretty reasonable for the great music, fun premise, great story. You can buy it bundled with soundtrack for $12.50 to sweeten the pot.

About David Steffen (64 Articles)
David Steffen is a writer and editor and software engineer and a voracious consumer of podcast fiction. The first piece of fiction he's edited is now available, "Taste the Whip" by Andy Dudak on Diabolical Plots(http://www.diabolicalplots.com/dp-fiction-1-taste-the-whip-by-andy-dudak/). David is also the co-founder and administrator of the The Submission Grinder(http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/), a tool for writers.
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