I woke up this past Saturday and started playing To The Moon. I’ve had it for a while, just sitting on my computer, and in a holiday haze of stormy bullets and biological shocks I kind of let it slip by, forgotten. Which is fine, it happens all the time, right? But I woke up and started playing it, and I’m glad that I did. It’s my favorite game that I’ve played in the past year, easily.
The basic plot of To The Moon is that, sometime in the future, we get the technology to edit people’s memories. A prime use for this technology is hacking into people’s brains on their death beds and fulfilling their big Wish. Whatever they wanted to do in life and didn’t do, these technicians make it happen. There’s a lot of theorycrafting and making sense of that idea, but for the purposes of this little write up, that’s all that matters. The plot is about two technicians who enter the mind of a dying man named John and begin to edit his memories. He wants to go to the moon, and he doesn’t know why.
I can’t really write anything else about the plot. It would literally ruin the point of the game. The review that IGN gave the game sort of sums it up for me, even though the rest of the review is the absolute nadir of “games journalism”:
To the Moon is a challenging game to write about because the only real reason to play it is the story. I could go deeper into the plot, but spoiling it would be a great disservice to any potential players.
And that is absolutely true. To The Moon is a love letter to the adventure gaming genre in all ways. The player is really just a conduit that makes the narrative move forward, and I was very comfortable with my role as a button-pusher during the game. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next, or before, rather; the game moves backward through time before it can go forward.
So why did I bother writing this post if I can’t talk about the damn game?
Rock, Paper, Shotgun, one of the few game websites I read, has a great review of To The Moon that gets near why I liked the game so much (though beware of reading the review, they spoil some of the plot). They write:
But what’s perhaps best about this game’s story is how much is left for you to fathom for yourself. Not in that, “It’s for you to decide” bullshit way, that so many writers lazily fall back on. But rather, because in each memory all the participants but you have the prior knowledge, they speak in such a way that you’re left scrabbling to fill in the gaps. The further you get, the more is confirmed, but all the way through you’re left room for your own interpretations, sometimes later confirmed, sometimes left ambiguous. The result is a game that constantly feels like it’s respecting your intelligence, even though it later fills in the gap.
I like games that don’t automatically assume that I am the dumbest twelve year old in the world. I also like games that attempt to tell stories that are foreign to the genre. To The Moon is, for all its science fiction and future theory, a romance game. It is about how trauma shapes us, and about how affective connections with other people can overcome everything else in the world. It’s about how the pain of life can be alleviated. A large portion of the plot also thinks through the issues of being in a relationship with a partner who has a developmental disorder. Most games would ignore that, or at least subdue it in the plot, but it comes to the forefront several times during the game and really shaped the way that I thought of several characters. I’m not sure why I think this is so important, but I do, and I recognize that I do. At some level, I just like knowing that difference isn’t erased in the game, but is made apparent and palpable. It makes me feel something for the characters. More and more, I think this might be the most important characteristic of a game, the ability to generate affect.
For an extra-special bonus, check out this interview with the lead developer of the game, Kan Gao. The comment thread is especially interesting.