There's something to be said for how quickly To the Moon captured my attention. The setup is brief but perfectly executed: Two scientists arrive at a house in the woods with a box of tricks which allows them to alter the memories of whomever happens to have paid for their service. The catch? The grim reaper is breathing down the client’s neck. It's an excellent hook that instantly throws up a ton of questions as to the possibilities and limitations of such a device.
Our subject is Johnny, an old man on his death bed. He has one wish: to have visited the moon. Why does he want this? He doesn't know, so it's up to the game's leads, Drs Rosalene and Watts, to find the answer and make his dream (or rather, memory) come true.
To the Moon does not present a challenge. Essentially, it's an interactive story in the guise of a 16-bit adventure game. What control the player does have is heavily restricted by the precise experience that the developer, Freebird Games, intends them to have. There are a couple of choices they can make along the way, but the player won't be reloading through death or be required to bloat their inventory in order to progress through the chapters. They simply guide the characters and watch as the plot unravels.
This could be an issue for anyone seeking a test of intelligence or skill, or some kind of thrill ride, but for those after an interesting story told well, To the Moon rarely falls flat. It makes use of common traits of the medium to absorb the player, keeping their hands busy and their eyes locked on the screen.
For the first act of the game, you'll be tasked with tripping back through Johnny's memories one at a time. In each version of the subject's past reality you'll need to discover more about him, but also seek mementos - little keepsakes - that can be used to form gateways into earlier memories. Searching for these items is as close to a typical adventure game as To the Moon gets. It's item hunting with a dash of puzzle solving required to activate the next area.
The boredom that this sort of repetition might usually provoke is offset by the constant progression of the plot as your insight into the minds and motivations of each character develops to a point at which you genuinely care about what may - or might previously - have happened to them. Snapshots of half-recalled conversations play out in these instances, building a picture of why it was that memory reconstruction was requested in the first place.
To the Moon could easily have become a succession of saccharine moments designed to melt hearts which instead only inspired the urge to vomit. By its very nature - dying man, lost love, sentimental desires - Johnny's story is, without question, a nose-blowing sob story. But what thankfully turns this on its head is the detached viewpoint that a couple of scientists going about their day jobs provides.
Following these characters in performing what they perceive to be quite mundane work is endlessly interesting and frequently amusing. They are the ones who provide the smirks and the flippant remarks so that the player doesn’t have to. The banter between the two doctors, who are completely at odds with each other in terms of personality, provides just enough comic value to allow the main plot to breathe and to ensure that the player never feels overwhelmed with a barrage of emotionally loaded codswallop.
It also means that those moments which are truly heartbreaking are far more effective when allowed a quiet moment to play out.
Outside of the realms of fabricated memories is a reality that was never far from my mind throughout my time with To the Moon: There can only be one ending. Johnny will inevitably die and he will never have truly visited the moon. It’s a sobering thought and being reminded of this fact every now and again grounds a tale that could easily have floated away into fairyland.
But it’s not depressing. It is enlightening, charming and funny. The balance between comedy and tragedy is well trod and I commend Freebird Games on creating such a memorable and tightly written story that works so well in this medium. As I’ve said, making your way through To the Moon does not require skill. It is a work of interactive fiction, but for the four hours that it took me to complete it never struck me as lacking anything that a great gaming experience should have.
It's a brave thing for a developer to do, to expect the buyer of their game to act as a bystander to their own creation. After all, if we as gamers were after such an experience, wouldn't we just watch a movie or pick up a book? To the Moon, by it's very existence, would like to argue that point and I can confidently say that it is one of the finest games I’ve played all year.
To the Moon was released 1st November and is currently available for trial and purchase here. (£7.99)