“If you’re with me, then everything’s alright.”
I will never forget when I picked up Freebird Games’ To the Moon on Steam. I lost count of how many user reviews called it a “crying simulator.” Amused by such a description, I ventured forward to play my first title by Indie developer. What I experienced was a story that not only lived up to the amusing Steam description, but honestly changed me as a human being. To the Moon is one of the sweetest, and most honest stories I’ve ever witnessed. I now want to share this very personal experience with you.
Let us first address the elephant in the room. Calling To the Moon a video game is an extremely liberal use of the term. It makes use of the class 16-bit style of games, but the actual instances of gameplay feature little more than walking from scene to scene. It does offer occasional puzzles which are always simple and never meant to challenge or hold the player back. Freebird Games seems to know this is entirely a story, and seeks only to use the video game aspect as a means of personal engagement. While I appreciate the effort, I could just as easily enjoy this story as an animated film (in fact, I’d love to see a Miyazaki verison – please God make that happen).
Removing ourselves from the gameplay, or lack thereof, we find ourselves faced with a tragic, heart wrenching story of a dying man named John who wants his dying wish granted. The story takes place sometime in an advanced future where scientists have discovered a way to alter one’s memories so that dying individuals can rest pest peacefully believing their wishes had been granted. The player controls Dr. Neil Watts as he works with his partner Dr. Rosalene to help fulfill John’s wish of going to the moon before he dies. However, in order to fulfill John’s wish, the team needs to dig deeper into his memories to understand where this desire stems from.
Watts and Rosalene travel back through John’s life, witnessing the most intimate and beautiful moments such as the experiences with his wife River as well as some of the most tragic ones. It’s difficult a story to summarize, as the nature of travelling backward through the man’s life leaves every event open to surprise the player. The player will discover oddities early on such as an empty room filled with origami bunnies as well as two children playing a piano melody simply titled “For River.” While the strange clues begin to pile up, so too does the tension of the story until one reaches *that* moment when it all comes to light. Writing this review and remembering what I witnessed in this fictional character’s life makes me emotional. Not only will you feel for John and the life he had, but it makes you think long and hard about your own life as well as the decisions we make. Kan Gao of Freebird Games is a true writer at heart. He is here to offer you not only a tale, but a journey of reflection and self-discovery.
In accompaniment with the powerful narrative is a simple score that seems tailored to triggering the waterworks on command. While not very long, the repeating melody found in “For River” has staying power. The name of the game is beauty when it comes to sound. None more beautiful is Laura Shigihara’s voice on “Everything’s Alright.” The 16-bit art style melds nicely with the simplicity, and lends itself to the mushy, cute mood of the game.
There’s not much in the way of replay value in the game as it is entirely narrative dependent and offers no gameplay to revisit. It’s a great story to go back and visit once in a blue moon, but there’s likely nothing you missed the first time that will come up in subsequent playthroughs. The game retails for no more than $9.99, and frequently appears on flash sales. For all the heart and passion Kan Gao put into the title, the one time price is worth an experience that helped shape me.
To the Moon may not be much in the way of a riveting game, but is is an emotional journey that I can never forget. It forced me to think hard about the relationships that have come and gone in my life, as well as various choices I’ve made. Sometimes we think going back and changing our actions would lead to happier outcomes, but the nature of life is that everything we do, for better or worse, makes us who we are. Is being someone different better? I challenge you to play To the Moon and let me know how you feel after.