After playing Dear Esther, I wasn’t really expecting to find a similar game so soon, and certainly not by accident.
Not that Dear Esther and To The Moon (TTM) are the same type of game. Dear Esther is a slow paced wander around a pretty first person 3D world, while TTM looks more like an older JRPG with it’s flat perspective and mostly pixel-art graphics.
TTM also has more game mechanics than Dear Esther. Not only do you need to move around the world and explore it, you need to interact with it. There are also a few puzzles that need to be solved to continue.
There is also the difference that Dear Esther deliberately leaves a lot unresolved, and a lot ambiguous, whereas TTM ties up pretty much everything at the end.
At the core of both games, however, they are more story than game. To my mind, this is far more true with these games than other RPG or Adventure games I’ve played.
First impressions of TTM certainly don’t suggest at a deep, involving, emotional story. The pixel art is reminiscent of an old Japanese 8-bit RPG, and the two protagonists (Neil and Eva) initially give the impression that this will be some kind of science-fiction like exploration of the mind with hints of comedy.
Initially Neil and Eva begin in the real world, and exploring that gives hints of a very strange, perhaps disturbed life. They’re here to give an old man, Johnny, his last wish by going into his dreams and rearranging them subtly so it was as if his last wish had occurred.
While there’s a science-fiction setup, and the mechanics of moving through Johnny’s memories are supported by that fiction, the story itself is far more human. The first part of the story proceeds Memento style as Eva and Neil begin at the man’s most recent memory, and slowly travel back to when he was a child by finding memories that link back to previous memories.
As the story moves backwards you learn more and more about why things are as they are. At each point in his memories new facts expand or change old facts. You see the lives around Johnny change for better and worse. Finally Johnny’s childhood is reached and a resolution of the story seems imminent. And that’s just Act 1.
The game mechanics are interesting in that I think they support the story more than those in Dear Esther. Here you have to explore and find enough memory items so you can link back to previous memories. That means finding out more about this particular memory and getting more of the story as you do so. In a way, the whole mechanic seems designed to help you explore the story.
Once you’ve found enough memory items, you can ‘prepare’ then ‘use’ a “memento” which is the object that will take you back to the previous memory. This is a ‘simple’ tile flipping game. There’s an ideal number of times you should have to flip tiles to solve it, and the game keeps a running count of all the flips you’ve made. Having had only one playthrough, I have no idea if this changes the story at all or if it’s just a bit of a puzzle to give you something to do.
This isn’t a game with tricky puzzles that will have you tearing your hair out. Most of the progression becomes obvious and the main hook is to find out what happens next. Or rather, what happened previously.
It helps that the story supports this kind of structure. There’s enough mysteries, things perhaps guessed at, or perhaps leaving you clueless, to allow a slow unfold as the story winds back through the memories. The two lead characters, Neil and Eva are well written and their banter has a natural flow to it. They act as both the experts leading the story and explaining certain things, and the clueless new person, who is learning about this world and thus learning with the player. It’s interesting to see the two roles combined so well.
One thing that really helps this game along is the music. It’s mostly piano driven and quite melancholic at times. It supports in the background, occasionally rising to support particular moments, and always helping to raise the emotions.
On the “sound” front, I was originally a little thrown (maybe dissapointed) that all the speech comes up in the old JRPG style of text in boxes, and isn’t spoken. Partly I’m guessing that because this is an indie title they couldn’t afford it. However, I now also believe that it enables you to provide your own voices for these characters, as you would when reading a book. This actually increases immersion for me.
And this game is immersive. I very quickly moved beyond the simplistic (but pretty) graphics and let the characters, the story and the music and fell into the story. The way you have to explore the world, learning the story piece by piece is a wonderful way of “reading’ the story.