Game Review: To the Moon, delightfully surprising indie find

As many may know, Steam sales can be quite detrimental to a bank account. When browsing through the extensive game list ranging from puzzle games to the latest installation of Sid Meyer’s “Civilization,” one game draws the eye. “To the Moon” is a role-playing adventure game originally released by Freebird Games in November 2011 and put on Steam in September 2012.

It is set sometime in the unknown future where scientists have discovered a way to alter any memory from any time within a person’s life. Because of the invasive nature of the operation, the patient dies almost immediately after the new memories are implanted. Thus, this type of procedure is done for people on their deathbeds who want to fulfill a wish or correct a regret they had in their lifetime. “To the Moon” follows Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts, employed by Sigmund Corp., as they try to fulfill dying man Johnny Wiles’ lifelong wish to go to the moon. The wish is simple, but neither his caretaker nor his home physician know much about Johnny or why he wants to go to the moon.

To fulfill his wish, Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts travel backwards through Johnny’s memories through mementos to his childhood to implant the desire to go to the moon. Once done, Johnny’s mind would construct new, artificial memories around that desire to fulfill his wish. Not everything goes according to plan when the doctors find themselves mysteriously blocked from going further back than Johnny’s early teen years. After several failed attempts to implant the desire to go to the moon, the two doctors find themselves stuck in the middle of a huge mystery surrounding his past and the condition of his wife, River. With time about to run out, the player must unravel the mystery of Johnny’s past and what it has to do with the hundreds of paper rabbits his wife River makes.

The graphics, although simpler than modern games, add a certain charm that echoes in the characters and the music, which are the most successful parts of the game. The two doctors that the player has control over start as pessimistic, aloof observers, but eventually start to become attached to Johnny and his life. Their early sarcastic remarks slowly turn into concern and doubt about the nature of invading someone else’s memories. Even Johnny and River, who the player only interacts with through watching Johnny’s memories, show a great depth in their love and support for each other. River’s development in particular plays a central role in the story as her disease becomes more advanced. Although not explicitly stated, it is assumed River has a form of autism.

The other successful component of “To the Moon” is the soundtrack. The game is worth buying just for the soundtrack. Only a small fraction of the songs have words and the majority are done using only a piano. The music in the game compliments the story and enhances the emotional kick at every twist the story throws at the player. Without voice acting, the music picks up the slack and transforms the simple on-screen text.

Overall, “To the Moon” is a clever, charming game that is full of light-hearted humor and serious moments that makes one think about how to live life. Within limited graphics and a short time span, it dares to take on several important themes about the good and bad of life, death and love. It takes about eight to ten hours to complete going through the first time, looking for all the hidden treasures in the interactive cut scenes. The bundle of the game with the soundtrack is $13 on Steam, but well worth it for the hours of enjoyment.

As a side note, a pseudo-prequel called “A Bird Story” is slated to be released within a few months. Described as a surreal short, “A Bird Story” follows Johnny as a young boy and a bird with a broken wing. If it is anything like “To the Moon,” it will also be worth the buy.

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