I wrote a review of “To the Moon” a good while ago, but in light of my recent post on disliking things more when I thought more about them, I thought it might be a worthwhile experience to go through it again and see if it really does hold up.
So does it?
The answer is a resounding YES. Not only does it hold up, it’s actually part of that group that improved when I experienced it again. I feel quite confident in saying that “To the Moon” is an unqualified masterpiece.
Of course, it fails completely as a game.
You can’t lose, for one thing. There are little puzzles, but you can spend as long on them as you want and they’re pretty simple. There’s a brief plants vs. zombies spoof near the end (which is pretty funny!) but again, you can’t lose and it’s very easy. 99% of the game literally consists of walking around.
But as an interactive novel, the damn thing is a work of art.
“To the Moon” is about two scientists named D. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts. Their job is to go into the memories of people on their death bed and change things so that they believe they accomplished their last wish in life. Their patient? Johnny Wyles. Johnny’s final wish?
He wants to go to the moon.
“To the Moon” is a science fiction story that starts off structured as a mystery, but as the game goes on it turns into more of a romance (the fact that I love it so much when up to this point I’d avoided romances like the plague should help illustrate just how great this story is). When it first came out the character of Neil particularly was criticized for injecting too much humor into what is a very dramatic, even dark, story, but in retrospect I find Neil to be a very necessary counterbalance to the drama unfolding in Johnny’s life. Not to mention the fact that he’s really, really funny.
The questions that “To the Moon” asks are profound, but what really makes it great is that it asks the questions. The game gives its answer, but it doesn’t ask us to necessarily accept it. The sequel makes it even more clear that creator Kan Gao is by no means condoning what the scientists are doing, but he doesn’t condemn either, instead asking us to understand and empathize with the characters and their decisions. And man, does he succeed at that.
There are two scenes in the game that have gained a sort of fame in their own right as tearjerkers, but the scenes are not manipulative. All of it flows naturally and makes complete sense within the story. Laura Shigihara’s big song – of which, by the way, there have been many covers, none of which come close to the original – is one of the most absolutely devastating gutpunch moments I’ve ever experienced in a work of fiction. Actually, come to think of it, it probably IS the most absolutely devastating gutpunch moment; nothing else I’ve seen or read has ever really matched it in terms of impact. And what follows…well…
The game doesn’t play fair with the player in terms of writing, but then neither does Sherlock Holmes, including some of his best stories. So what? The twists are logical, make sense within the story as we see it, and are shocking in the best possible way. Everything you see up to that point suddenly needs to be viewed from an entirely different perspective, and for this reason even after all of the twists and turns are revealed the game stands up extremely well to a replay. Many little things that didn’t make sense gain far more meaning, and it allows you to focus more on the philosophy the game is trying to espouse and on the small details of the romance.
“To the Moon” gained its cult status mostly due to its ability to make Let’s Players cry. To a man, every single Let’s Play of the game I’ve watched has made the player cry. Heck, when I played the game, *I* teared up, and I never do that. It’s nearly impossible not to. This game is listed next to the word “bittersweet” in the dictionary.
It also happens to be one of the most superversive stories I’ve experienced in any medium, somehow managing to blend touching optimism and terrible tragedy more successfully than anything else I’ve ever seen. The premise of “To the Moon” is morally murky, and the game acknowledges and explores this, but what makes it work so well is Kan Gao’s great empathy for his characters and the situations they find themselves in. You might not agree with what these characters are doing but you like just about all of them, and it’s difficult not to appreciate the sort of people Neil and Eva have to be to take this job even while simultaneously admitting that what they’re doing is wrong…or maybe not. That’s the question!
The music of “To the Moon” is practically a little masterpiece itself, to the point that I actually bought the soundtrack…and it’s the only video game I’ve ever done that for. Even besides Laura Shigihara’s climactic song Kan Gao’s gorgeous piano music makes you nostalgic before you even have anything to be nostalgic about. “For River” has become a youtube cover staple for a very good reason.
“To the Moon” isn’t really a game, and to the extent that it is a game, it’s a terrible one. “To the Moon” is an interactive novel, and honestly I really would like to see more people experiment with this sort of format; I certainly would if I had the technical acumen. It allows a platform for people to work in writing, art, and visuals while also allowing an interactive element as well. To that extent it does offer something different from even an animated movie, something I’d like to see more people than just Kan Gao experiment with.*
The sequel has just been released, and it is also excellent, but even so I really don’t wish to spoil this one, because I want more people to experience it without knowing how it ends. At the very least, give a Let’s Play a shot; Cryaotic’s in particular is excellent, and fits the tone of the game perfectly.
And bring some tissues, eh?
*To be fair, other people have experimented with this somewhat. They just haven’t been nearly as successful, which probably hasn’t helped the format.