To The Moon Play-Along – Act 1

To the Moon is a terrible game.

As a soundtrack, it is exceptional. If it is unable to move you, you are either hearing impaired or have a heart of stone.

As a visual novel, it has a story that is probably worth sitting through for most people. As long as you enjoy mundane love stories and themes of aging, memories and death.

As an ambiguous piece of literature that certain viewers would love to tear through for artsy fartsy symbolism and hidden meaning, well, it works for that too.

But as a game, it sucks.

The first hint of it was the awkward windowed resolution, firmly stuck in 640 x 480. Now that’s a resolution size I haven’t seen in a long time…

Needless to say, on an ultrawide screen monitor, it was sad.

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And completely impossible to play in anything other than fullscreen. Options menu? What options menu? Fine.

Then I attempted a screenshot, because hey, we’re blogging about our experience, right? And F12, the standard Steam screenshot key, paused the game instead.

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Wow. Surely you’re joking, Mr. Freebird Games.

Some Googling later, it was confirmed that the only way to screenshot in To The Moon was to PrintScreen and paste it into your own image manipulation program of choice. Forehead, meet table.

The choice of RPG Maker as the construction medium did not do it any favors. The controls are janky and awkward, the hopeless pathfinding making the mouse movement option utterly useless. I wound up using the keyboard. Arrow keys. WASD didn’t even work. Now that’s archaic.

Player input mostly consists of walking a character around, facing items and clicking/pressing space or enter, essentially pixel-hunting in a JRPG manner for items that the game feels is significant, as opposed to all the other pixel art objects which are only background.

There is no player choice, the game follows a set linear story to its eventual conclusion.

Honestly, To The Moon would have made a much better visual novel.

Just drop any pretense of requiring player interaction and let us press enter / fast forward through the dialogue and experience the story. In this way, an audience could better focus on its strengths, instead of fighting against clunky controls and wandering pointlessly in circles hoping to find the one last clue that brings them to the next story segment.

To The Moon’s strengths?

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The piano soundtrack is the true work of art here. It encapsulates the emotional themes that the rest of the ‘game’ muddles towards expressing in longer form.

The pixel art is not bad; the story generally quite sweet, if a little poignant, sappy and oddly humorous in parts.

Note that the pacing is quite sluggish in Act 1 – I struggled to get through each lengthy segment. If not for the commitment to the play-along, I might have dropped it. As it was, I kept plowing away at it in repeated sessions. Fortunately, things picked up in Acts 2-4 (which is all I will say about it in our first post.)

And it certainly is ambiguous enough and touches so lightly on heavy themes that it allows an army of deep readers ample room for discussion. Onward to Naithin’s play-along questions!

1. Let’s start off with the big guns — at the completion of Act 1 — how do you now feel about the very concept of granting someone’s dying wish by overwriting their memories with new ones?

Frankly, I don’t feel anything or have any opinion about it, because my conception of the device is that it mostly implants ‘fake’ memories. It’s not a time travel device, it doesn’t actually alter reality in any fashion. It’s a convenient fiction that the person/patient has consented to being written for him/them, and if they want to have one more fictional experience before they go, then that’s their choice, isn’t it?

It’s not something I would choose for myself personally. I believe that life is the sum total of one’s experiences, regret and otherwise. ‘Rewinding’ time is not for me. It’s why I had such difficulty dealing with Life is Strange (still hate it).

But if someone else wants to experience ‘the road not taken’ and trusts someone else to create that fiction for them (not something I would do either, I trust poorly and meddling with my brain? Egads), who am I to say they can’t do so?

(If it does alter reality, that’s another thing altogether, because now you’re infringing on other people’s boundaries and the general fabric of time itself.)

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2. What did you think of River’s choice to put her treatment behind that of Anya?

I might begin to sound like a broken record shortly, if all the questions run along this vein. It’s -her- choice, innit? All power to her.

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3. In response to Neil commenting that it was like watching a train-wreck unfold, Eva says, “The ending isn’t any more important than the moments leading up to it.” Do you agree?

I did not understand the sentence. It felt like a bad translation. It’s not a dichotomous choice of agree or disagree.

The moments matter. The ending is the sum total of those moments.

It -all- matters, both are important. There is no measurement of “more important” or “less important” that can apply here.

4. What did you make of Johnny’s decision not to read the book offered by Dr. Lee?

Super-awkward (aka not a choice I would personally make, I am all about -knowledge-), but ultimately understandable. Broken record incoming: It’s his choice to make.

Poor decision or not, his future life will reflect it. Perhaps he is able to treat River better, as a person, not defined by an ASD diagnosis, by living in ignorance about it. Perhaps not, and he might make mistakes that might have been avoided with more knowledge and sensitivity. Either way, it is his life to learn (with or without a book, and who’s to say he couldn’t have watched a video or changed his mind later) and muddle his way through.

5. How do you feel about Johnny as a person now, particularly after his revelation of why he (at least initially?) was interested in River?

In a way, I feel almost sorry for him. I don’t think the naming of his character by the devs was an accident. “John” is an everyman name. Getting literarily pretentious here, he represents the ordinary, mundane, “neurotypical” (to use Isabelle’s term) person.

He clearly is seeking a spark of creativity (the history of his painting attempts through his life is a visual theme), a dose of strangeness or weirdness, a visit from a Muse. And he can’t create it for himself. He is completely ordinary. Little wonder why he is so utterly drawn to River’s “oddness” as his opposite number, she is his Muse.

It may not rub off. It probably won’t. It’s kind of misguided. But it’s also the kind of quixotic “To the Moon”-like ambition that encapsulates this whole game’s love story.

Yes, he might have regretted his decision to commit so deeply to her at points in the future, without fully understanding what he might be in for. But he ultimately also stays by her, “in sickness or in health, till death” parts them, to the end.

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6. We saw River’s obsession with origami rabbits very early in the piece — and some of the events that tracked back as a possible origin along the way. After Johnny told her about his initial motivations is when it all kicked off. Neil thought it might’ve been River holding onto a grudge. What do you think?

Well, I’ve binged through the entire story and read the wiki by now, so I know the in-game stated reason by now.

But at the time of Act 1, I mostly accepted it as just part of River being on the autism spectrum, the obsessive fixation with various objects of interest.

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And before that, on first revelation, I entertained myself briefly with thoughts of an origami killer (thanks, Heavy Rain!) I knew it wasn’t going to be that, of course, it was lining itself up to be an extremely mundane story, but when the story is dragging, you -make- your own entertainment.

3 thoughts on “To The Moon Play-Along – Act 1

  1. Hah. You’re not wrong on the ‘game’ elements — RPGMaker was never exactly technically excellent but I was still amazed at just how poorly it aged in this regard. I have two monitors, the primary being a super ultrawide like you and the second still being a relatively typical 16:9 @1440p display.

    I tried to fullscreen to that second window, and it just wasn’t having a bar of it. Alt-Enter would drag it kicking and screaming to the unnaturally stretched ultrawide screen. *sigh*

    For all that though, I am a little conflicted on whether it would be better as a visual novel. I think there is something to be said for the interactivity, the actually ‘doing’ the things even when the degree of interactivity is admittedly very low here. But I suppose that does depend on just how frustrating one personally finds dealing with the controls.

    If I had played To the Moon today, for the first time, on my own without an event of this nature… I’m not sure I would have really even bothered trying after all the tech issues it throws up.

    With you on the soundtrack though. The key themes are so good.

    As to the questions, the repeated theme of ‘It’s their choice’ in your answers is interesting. Because ultimately… Of course it is. The types of choices before them here are greatly personally affecting.

    But yet… They’re also not *solely* personally affecting. Their partners and other loved ones will be significantly affected too. How much obligation is there there? How much *should* there be? I think my own thinking is that while yeah- ultimately it is up to the individual, in a relationship there should be a mutual *desire* to do the best by your partner as well as yourself.

    And at least by this point in the game, there didn’t seem to be much evidence that this was the case at all. You sort of had to take it on faith that it was there… Or not.

    1. Here’s my read on the personal choice thing:
      River cannot be expected to “have a mutual desire to do the best by her partner” because of the nature of her so-called ‘condition.’ Autistic individuals, pretty much by definition, struggle with social understanding of others. She would be expected to be off in her own little world, as characterised.

      Johnny, in a similar way, would struggle with this notion of doing what’s best for his partner, because again as characterised by the story, both are on fairly different wavelengths. His definition of ‘what’s best’ may very well differ from hers. The whole treat River or treat Anya dilemma is a perfect example of that.

      Personally, I’m with Isabelle on this. Even in real world settings, I find two individuals can have completely different interpretations and subjective definitions of ‘what’s best.’ So, yeah, broken record, each individual can and should choose as they wish. It’s the whole notion of free will. (Of course, if a choice infringes on other people’s boundaries, there may be ramifications, legal or social or otherwise, and all choices bring some manner of consequence with them as well.)

      Some might even choose to value their partner’s choices over their personal leanings (as quite possibly, Johnny did, if he has that house built and River deceased, instead of no house and a River on life support or cured). And I would say that demonstrated rather tangibly Johnny’s relationship with River. (At one point in the flashbacks, he was also staring at the second picture on the upper floor of his house – it was blank at that point, but if you check back later, the picture is that of River in a yellow and blue dress. That man is -super- attached to River, healthily or not is one’s personal interpretation, but he is definitely obsessed. River, on the other hand, is likely much less so. She tends to just wander off by herself in the flashbacks.)

  2. I think the game is a story told through a game instead of a different medium like book or film. Personally I enjoyed the story and I’m enjoying it again (although I don’t remember it from the first time around, over five years ago). It’s a story with some puzzle elements thrown in, and I wouldn’t have minded bypassing the puzzle elements just to experience the story. It didn’t need to be a “game” although I enjoyed some interactive elements. (I’m thinking skip looking for the memories and the image-flipping puzzles.) Oddly enough, the music got quite old for me very quickly and I’m considering muting it, if that’s an option. Interesting that we have such different opinions so far.

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