To The Moon is now available on Steam, and for its launch week it’ll only run you $US7.99 instead of its normal $US9.99. That’s why To The Moon is in the news this week. But that’s not why people keep talking about it.
I put off playing To The Moon for months. Not because I thought it was terrible; far from it. A huge number of people I respect had showered it with glowing praise. It’s just that I knew something of its subject matter: the memories of a man who survived his wife, at the end of his life.
I got married a few years ago around this time of year. September is the harbinger of optimism and possibility, a mid-year new-year I have always relished. When the wind starts to smell of school and cider and needing a jacket in the morning but not in the afternoon, I don’t want to be thinking about ageing, and loss, and the inevitability of mortality.
I didn’t know if I was strong enough to play a four-hour story game.
To The Moon almost always seems to end up being intensely personal. It lays bare one of the most unsettling human paradoxes, asking us if memory and experience are as intertwined as we think. Memory is a tricky field to play in; each of us hoards our own private pile of experiences, adding up to the sum total of our lives.
And yet, rewriting a subjective reality through memory modification isn’t the part of the game that haunted me. I’ve encountered metaphysics in my media before. Instead, what lingered with me when I tried to sleep was the picture of a life-long relationship, a decades-long marriage that fell to pieces as its partners aged.
We see the story of Johnny and River unfolding in reverse. When we meet him, she has already passed away; the moment where he and she first meet doesn’t show up until near the end of the story. And so, before they have ever met, we see everything wrong with their relationship.
Tiny glimpses of their marriage show us that really, this pairing isn’t healthy. There’s something wrong deep in the core of it, something undermining the entirety of their lives together. And although early hints suggest the problem lies with River, the truth of the matter is far more complex. The major flaw in their marriage isn’t River’s Asperger’s; it’s John’s reaction to it.
Johnny means well. And yet throughout their lives together, his concerns perpetually underestimate and undermine River’s autonomy. He asks a doctor’s office to silence a clock for her sake, even though she says the tick is fine. During an equine therapy session, he wonders, “Is that really a good idea?” prompting her to respond, “I’ll be fine. I’m not a child.” And then, most damningly, we see the conversation between John and his friend, Nick, before John asks River on their first date:
John: “Look, Nick. I just… I just don’t wanna be another typical kid in a sea of typical people.”
Nick: “But how the heck would being with her change your own identity? I mean, you’d just be some guy who hangs out with a shy girl.”
John:“She’s not just shy, Nick. There’s something strange about her.
Nick: “Being strange isn’t always a good thing, y’know. Do you even know if she wants to be different? Maybe she just wants to fit in like everyone else. And if she does, pushing her the other way wouldn’t help, would it?”
John:“Look, Nick, the point is that I know what I need, and she’s the one who has it.
Nick: “So you want her for what she has, but not for her? That’s cold, man. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
Nick: “I think you’re wrong, though.”
The music, so much our guide through this story, heavily underscores Nick’s words. And we, the players who saw the story of John and River’s life together unfold in reverse, can finally see the cracked foundations upon which their whole relationship was built.
For a game to exist to examine relationships in depth is still painfully rare. For one to go beyond the initial years in which a relationship is formed is rarer still, and for a game to look at how marriage changes over the course of a lifetime is something I personally have never played through in another game.
Mostly, we still take our games’ relationships in snippets, where we can. Games primarily about relationships are still fairly niche in American gaming. Occasionally one makes waves, but even the games that do have the beginnings of romance tend toward the formulaic, and don’t ask the harder questions.
The repeated refrain that games need to grow up and address more mature subject matter is a common cry. To The Moon does. In just a few hours, it makes the player question not only the meaning of memory, but also the entire concept of happily ever after. And it does so by portraying non-neurotypical woman not as some magical healer, but as an actual person, with needs and priorities. For that alone it would be worth playing; the fact that it’s put together very well as a game is the icing on the cake.