the artistry and psychology of gaming


To The Moon

To The Moon

What would your dying wish be: To meet a famous person? To travel to an exotic location? To visit the wonders of the world? This is the premise that sets the stage for To the Moon, a humble adventure game set in a preposterous contemporary world where a machine can literally alter the memories of a dying person and fulfill their true desires, if only in their heads. Like with many works of fantasy, the world and all its outlandish nuances must be accepted as true and fact for the context to have any emotional resonance. Accept that such a device could exist, and you’ll easily get sucked into this magical world. The tale follows the events of Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, representatives of the Sigmund Corporation (a name in obvious reference to the late Sigmund Freud, whose research included the interpretation of dreams and memories), as they arrive at the home of their latest patient, John Wyles, an elderly widower whose final wish is to go to the moon.

The machine quite literally transplants its operators into the memories of its host as they delve deeper into the past to affect and ultimately cause his or her wish to come true. They must change the fragmented course of the host’s memory so that the events of his life lead to his journey to the moon. But there’s a catch: Johnny doesn’t know why he wants to go there. He just does. So before they can affect his memories, they must first uncover the catalyst for his desires. And this is the journey that players and characters will experience together. The result is a monumental achievement in heartfelt storytelling, an adventure that will evoke genuine sadness and sympathy from its audience in one scene, and laughter in the next.

Poking fun at Twilight, as all good stories should.

To the Moon feels more like classic point-and-click adventure games than it does the 16-bit RPG it looks like. Gameplay is relegated largely to the mouse or arrow keys for movement, and the occasional puzzle which separates the various memories of Johnny’s past. The former can get a bit clumsy in some situations when obtrusive invisible walls or solid objects get in the way and force you to maneuver around while already hindered by the stiffness of the movement, but the latter is a brief and clever diversion. While passing through Johnny’s memories, you’ll work in reverse order to eventually uncover the root of his desires. Doing so requires you to locate several objects from his past known as memory links. Finding these allows you to literally break the seal of a particularly special item known as a “memento,” something from Johnny’s life of significant importance. Breaking this seal comes in the form of a minor image puzzle where you’ll have to flip over scrambled squares to make the object clear and whole. They’re not particularly challenging, and shouldn’t take more than a minute at their most difficult, but they’re a clever way to incorporate interactivity into the story while making it appear relevant and not arbitrary like so many adventure games do.

Some of the other gameplay elements do fall a little flat, however; a certain chase event near the game’s finale involves minor shooting mechanics, but because of the game’s restricted movement, it just feels awkward. Dialogue options also seem to have no significance on the story as a whole, even though you’ll be faced with a few decisions to make in the game. At most they’ll alter a minor scene soon to come, changing a few lines of dialogue to something more befitting. That’s not a fault toward the dialogue itself, though, which is rich with humor and authenticity. The two doctors often banter with each other which never feels pretentious or unnecessary. They obviously care about each other to the extent of platonic friends, and it stays like this. There’s no forced romantic interest or anything like that. Similarly, Johnny’s memories are filled with both heartbreak and humor.

Dr. Watts making an observant Matrix reference.

You’ll start from the latest memories of his life, the death of his wife, River, and journey in reverse as the mystery surrounding their life and both of their pasts is uncovered. A mysterious illness plagues River, and through the course of the game you’ll come to surmise the condition on your own, for the story never explicitly tells you what it is. The conversations Johnny has with friends regarding River, financial troubles, and even the most mundane situations, never feel contrived. This is greatly aided by the game’s fantastic musical accompaniment. A few particular melodies pervade the course of the game, including River’s Song, a one-note piano theme that captures the essence of the story, and another notably tense track that frequently precedes danger and would seem at home in any contemporary horror film. The music and expressive dialogue do well to compensate for the lack of voice acting, and perhaps serve the game better in the end.

To the Moon manages to provide a powerful, emotional punch in its few short hours that most blockbuster games of the current fare can only hope for. Its genuinely heart-wrenching tale and its brave musical score are a treasure to behold, and at its modest price of $11.99, this is one of those rare titles that everyone must experience. The resonance of the game’s conclusion will stay long after you’ve finished, leaving you with much to ponder.

The game’s retro art style helps keep its story grounded, and some particularly evocative hand-drawn scenes feel especially touching.

What’s there function mostly as intended, but the most successful of which are the brief inter-memory puzzles.

The game’s musical score is absorbing and rich with emotion. It’s as if Freebird tapped into the emotional well that fueled the music in Chrono Cross.

Lasting Appeal:
There’s not much to go back to once you’ve finished, except to perhaps experience the story again. But once you’ve witnessed the game’s ending, the impact of it can never be recreated.

The Verdict:
Few games have as much heart and soul as To the Moon.

The lighthouse is an important location and character unto itself.


  1. Perhaps one of the most life-affirming claims within the game (outside of seeing Johnny’s life unfold in reverse) is the idea that everyone has it in them to achieve their dreams; that the alteration of a single decisive moment in their lives has the ability to allow a person to progress to their goals naturally over time. Gives a nice “infinite power of the human spirit” spin on things.

    Also, it relays an important life lesson; do not disrupt a kamehameha wave. Great review!

  2. No forced romance!? This seems like an excellent game! The review was quite convincing, and its format is quite intriguing.

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