Going to the Moon With Kan Gao

“To the Moon, Alice! To the Moon!”

The obligatory Honeymooners reference aside– a bit of humour which Doctor Neil Watts, one of the game’s protagonists, would truly appreciate–I would like to talk a bit about Kan Gao’s video game To the Moon.

Before  last Saturday, I’d heard of neither Kan Gao nor his creation. I actually saw him at the Writing for Video Games Workshop organized by Gamer Camp and the Toronto Public Library. I am interested in writing for video games and so I attended both that Workshop and the Journalism for Games Workshop as facilitated by Jamie Woo, Perry Jackson, and Emily Claire Afan: all writers for the online geeky magazine Dork Shelf.

Both Workshops were very important to me: if only to create this review. I’ve made a lot of ad hoc video game reviews–mostly with regards to Super Nintendo classics–but there was one comment that was made in the Journalism Workshop that really hit something home for me. I believe it was Jamie Woo that stated that whenever video games are written about or reviewed, a lot of the history behind the creation of them or the culture surrounding them is almost never mentioned.

I myself find that really unfortunate and makes me look at some of the reviews I’ve made as a result. I’m not going to claim that this review will be any different but, like my others, I will give you a bit of background: if only to my own introduction to this game.

I came to the Writing for Video Games Workshop thinking that Kan Gao would talk about script formats and precise ways to segment your world for potential game company evaluators. Instead, in a soft-spoken but very direct voice he talked about how to tell stories. More specifically, he talked about finding that balance between game-play–actual interaction–and a coherent story-line balancing serious emotional gravitas and the levity of humour. This preview is best symbolizes the spirit of this game.

And this is exactly what he did in To the Moon. He showed us some scenes from the game: where the 16-bit pixel characters and background immediately reminded me of Chrono Trigger: of the graphics in the last days of the Super Nintendo before the push to 3D. You’ll find that happened a lot. Older consoles would continue to coexist with newer ones and improve on the design of some of their game graphics. Look at Kirby’s Dreamland 2 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and all the variety and sharply defined colourful sprites as another example. Gao’s work seems to borrow from that last bit of graphic grandeur and expand on it into something else and new. This, however, will be the extent of my tangential parallels and where To the Moon is completely different from even the 16-bit reference I used.

To the Moon is an interactive psychological adventure RPG story created by the Independent company Freebird Games. It is about two scientists, the empathic and grouchy Dr. Eva Rosalene and mischievous slacker Dr. Neil Watts, who enter the mind of a dying old man named Johnny to “grant his wish” before he dies. They attempt to do so through using an advanced technology that allows for altering memory from childhood. Essentially, altering memories this way is fatal and that is why it is only used on terminally-ill patients who want to have a wish granted: to do something in their life over again if only in their mind.

Johnny’s wish is to go to the moon: but he doesn’t remember why. A few days after the Workshops, I downloaded the game for Steam and played it all the way through. If I had to sum up this game, I would say it has 16-bit graphics reminiscent of the Super NES’ last days, a lot of mystery, puzzles, a very intricate pattern of linked objects and events, a whole lot of incredibly poignant tear-jerking moments, and occasional interludes of hilarity.

Kan Gao is a masterful storyteller and musician. He and Laura Shigihara–the lead composer of Plants Vs. Zombies–created a soundtrack of haunting melancholic and heart-warming musical themes that represent memory and the past. What I really like about Kan Gao’s work here is how he integrates all of it together: to find that balance that he was talking about in our Workshop. In addition to combining a fine mixture of pathos and comedy, he interlaces his narrative with a whole lot of popular cultural references from the mid-nineties and beyond, and then even goes as far as to parody aspects of the video game RPG medium. If you have played the game, I am only going to mention two words: squirrel battle.

Gao doesn’t stop there however. He also really loves meta-narrative: placing moments where you can tell the video game creator or writer is winking at you through the characters. Essentially, as far as I consider it, one of the main criteria of a classic or a masterpiece is something that comments on the medium that depicts it. In other words, there is a very self-aware element to the storytelling of this game and it is very poignant.

I will say that it took me a while to get the hang of the puzzles. Essentially, most of them were Mementos: physical representations of way-points to travel farther back into Johnny’s memories. You have to decode them and take blocks away from them. I did figure it out after decoding the first Memento. Then there was the latter part of the game where suddenly there was combat and it confused me to the point of being very uncoordinated. It felt a bit like a break in the spirit that Gao was trying to make, yet at the same time it makes sense.

If someone were to ask me what my favourite part in this game was, I would say it is the place where things started to become fragmented and cyclical. If you have played this game, you will understand. Another thing I liked was the various ways that Gao graphically depicted memory. Sometimes you would see sprites interacting, and other times you would see duplicates of them frozen in sequential order. In a way, this game is also reminiscent of Chrono Trigger in that there is “time-travel” of a sort, but you are travelling through one man’s memories and not actual time: whatever that is.

But my favourite thing about To the Moon is how it really makes you think. I know very little about Game Theory, but I am intrigued by the idea of perspective in a video game. What perspective is this story being told from? I know that I said that Drs. Rosalene and Watts were the protagonists of To the Moon, but you could also argue that Johnny is as well: or that his character becomes the mindscape they traverse. You can even say that the game is a third-person limited narrative: a kind of sustained consciousness where we don’t see into the Doctors’ intimate perspectives, but we do see and determine what they discover about Johnny. Looking at perspective in a video game narrative always an intriguing thing to consider.

It also makes me wonder, if I were like Johnny–an old man on my deathbed–what kind of new memories I would like Rosalene and Watts to place in my mind and how I would feel if they had to go throughout my original memories to place that “seed” of a new one. If I really had to pick what my favourite element about Kan Gao’s storytelling in this game is, I would say that it is the characters and how he depicts human nature. I mean, he takes 16-bit sprites and he uses them as the litmus of human behaviour: as both flawed and incredibly beautiful. The relationship between Johnny and his late wife River–in how at times they don’t relate and yet at the same time actually do–and thinking about Johnny dying alone after a life of all these good, bad, awkward, regretful, joyful, and ultimately human choices he makes is just … humbling. I can’t think of any other word to describe that.

I will also add another comment that doesn’t make sense without context: Kan Gao is such a great storyteller that he made me cry over a platypus. A freaking platypus.

I will add a concluding note. In retrospect, I think it’s no coincidence that Kan Gao gave us the assignment he did in the Workshop. It was funny actually: here I was thinking the Workshop would be like a seminar with questions and references to new Indie games I had no idea about because I’m “out of the loop” (of which there were several references anyway) and that was it. Instead, Gao challenged us. He challenged us to take a memory of ours and make it into the last scene of a video game.

It was hard. I pride myself on being a writer and I had this challenge sprung at me. The trained perfectionist in me wanted it to be good. Gao also told us that when he created To the Moon, the last scene was the one that he wrote first and the rest of the story came from it. The Workshop and the game actually makes me want to do something. I’m not sure what yet–because I have a few projects already in the works–but we shall see.

To say that I would give this interactive story a five out of five is a foregone conclusion if you’ve read this article up to this point. Its atmosphere also makes for an excellent autumn game: something you can play on your desktop or laptop computer at home with a cup of tea at your side as the leaves change colour, the air outside turns cold, and the light of the sky becomes a faded gold. I would suggest that anyone that likes games with a powerful story-line should totally download this game: if only to play through Part One of what promises to be a transcendent epic story cycle.

So To the Moon, my friends. To the Moon.

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