Memory is form and content in To the Moon: an aesthetic mode and a thematic. The role-playing adventure game format, 16-bit graphics, and references to objects like Animorphs situate the game in a 90s visual and cultural tradition.
Memory is thematized in the plot and gameplay. Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts of the Sigmund Memory Agency have been tasked with fulfilling a dying man’s last wish of going to the moon. To do so, they must hook up a machine to his and their brains to move through his memories. They move further and further back into his past by moving through the physical space of each memory, gathering memory links, and stumbling upon crucial “mementos” that have the power to propel them further backwards. In order to achieve John’s wish, they must plant the seeds of the desire earlier on in his life, i.e., artificially implant the desire in his memories such that he can make it happen for himself.
The narrative architecture (Henry Jenkins 2004) of To the Moon (2011) has connections with that of a game we played earlier, Gone Home: A Story Expl0ration Game (2013). In Gone Home, the player must move through the physical space of their avatar, Katie Greenbriar’s, house, touching objects that trigger an embedded narrative (in the form of Katie’s sister, Sam’s, diary entries written to explain a story to Katie). In both games, the player moves through time and space to uncover an embedded narrative, and the objects laid out in space intersect with the passing of time in ways specific to each game’s story.
In To the Moon, Rosalene and Watts move around John’s memory space to gather the memory links necessary to be able to break through and activate the mementos that propel the doctors further back into the past. Like the mundane household objects Katie picks up in her house that trigger her sister Sam’s diary entries, the doctors click on objects in the memory space that connect “diagetically” to bits of the story. In To the Moon, objects are also responsible for propelling the plot forward and moving the doctors through John’s memory timeline backward. While clicking through the various objects and interactions, the player stumbles upon the key “memento” embedded in each level that can only be fully activated once she has collected all the “memory links.” To gather the 5 memory links necessary per level, the player as the doctors can click on a person and trigger a conversation, or pick up a book or look at a painting. The memento, from a backpack to a stuffed platypus to a soccer ball, is the most important and powerful object in any given memory that has the power to move the doctors to move backwards to the next memory. The memento is the important object in each level precisely because it is the most significant object to John. To utilize the memento, the doctors must collect the 5 necessary memory links per level, represented as colorful balls at the bottom of the screen, then use the colorful balls to shatter each memento. Once it is shattered, the doctors can then “prepare” the memento by doing a simple puzzle, and then “activate” it to move to the next memory. In this way, space and time and story are connected through To the Moon’s narrative architecture.