Here’s Johnny: An Introspective Look at a Life in Kan Gao’s To the Moon

All right, there will be Spoilers, so if you haven’t played To the Moon and you want to, please do so and don’t read this yet. As always, you have been warned.

So in my previous article, Going to the Moon with Kan Gao, I basically reviewed the game, its graphics, some of its game-play and story, and also talked about the Workshop I did with Gao himself as well as a little bit about the nature of video games. In that same post, I went a little bit into my personal reaction towards the game, but not as much as I would have liked. Actually, aside from getting to some of the basics, I was a little dissatisfied with what I wrote and felt that there could be more that I had to say.

I logged onto Steam and came across this Kotaku Gamer’s Guide article Steam Users Can Now Buy To The Moon, A Game About Marriage, Memories, And So Much More by Kate Cox: where she writes her interpretation of the events that occur in Kan Gao’s game. And here is where I stop talking about video games and media and go into the matter that I am really interested in: storytelling and character development.

The game itself has you and your player characters–Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts–going back through Johnny’s mindscape in order to find a place to create new memories for him so that you can fulfill his dying wish: to go to the moon. But why does Johnny want to go to the moon?

When you find Johnny to do your job in fulfilling his wish, he is an old man on his deathbed. You end up having to go through his mind, and his home, to find out more about him. You are told by his housekeeper that he has always been a very quiet man that keeps to himself. Then when you get into his mindscape, you do find out a lot more about him.

You follow him backwards through his life. You see him as a sad old man mourning his wife–River’s–passing, as a middle-aged man getting increasingly frustrated with fulfilling his wife’s dream and taking care of her while being deeply afraid of losing her, as a young man that is ignorant of his wife’s condition and yet still wants to help her, as a sullen and scared adolescent who wants to feel like he is different, and finally as a child who has hopes for the future.

It is easy–very easy–to get to the point where you start to think that the story is about River and not Johnny. Even the Doctors Rosalene and Watts sometimes get distracted by these memories to that point. But this isn’t about River. It’s about Johnny.

So here’s Johnny.

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As we go back further and farther into his past to implant the new memories that will fulfill his dying wish in his mind, we look at Johnny’s life: the good and the bad.

We see a young boy watching his mother accidentally hit his twin brother with her car as she backs out of the driveway. As the investigation of Rosalene and Watts goes on, we find out Johnny was given beta-blockers to take the edge off of that traumatic memory. In fact, if it weren’t for this discovery, their own work with Johnny would never have been completed: those memories being cut off from Johnny and from their own access.

Johnny is a boy who started off with a twin brother named Joey and dreams: who’s life is shattered before it even begins. What’s worse is that he met River as a child then and they promised to meet in a place once a year to watch the “lighthouses in the sky” and by watching them, making sure they will not ever be lonely. He even gives her a stuffed platypus that she carries with her for the rest of her life. They actually promise to meet on the “the rabbit’s tummy” which is–essentially–the Moon surrounded by a star shape they created themselves. Johnny throws a hackey sack down on the spot they stand in to signify this.

But then he loses his brother Joey and the beta-blockers block or severely blunt all of those memories. In other words, he doesn’t even remember meeting River then.

Johnny gets older and he has friends. He finds himself attracted to River, also in the same high school as they are, and seeks to make a date with her. He tells his friend Nick that he only wants to be with her because she is “strange” and he doesn’t want to be “another typical kid in a sea of typical people.” He wants her strangeness–her Otherness–regardless of what she wants, to fill that … need in him: that emptiness that has probably existed since he lost his brother. On a deep and intrinsic level, Johnny knows he isn’t normal–that everything isn’t all right–and he uses the idea of River and wanting her to somehow fill that need created out of hurt and suppressed memories. Of course, perhaps on some subconscious level, there is a part of him that still feels that kinship with her from that forgotten night all those years ago when they were children, and alone, and they looked at the sky together.

Some people have intimated that River probably has Asperger’s Syndrome, but I am not so sure about that. I know that this condition manifests in different ways and there is a spectrum. I do know that River does not perceive reality in the same way as other people and is often very literal in some ways: while highly figurative in others. As time goes on, Johnny discovers that she thinks of merely being in the same room together, and being close together bodily, as pretty much the same thing. And she always asks him questions about what something means to him and what he sees in that thing. For all River is sometimes quiet, she is also very intuitive in a way that Johnny and most other people are not.

Sadly, Johnny has the ignorance of a lot of young men his age. Combined with the trauma and repressed memories of his early life, there is a disconnect between him and River that–at least initially–limits his empathy. He doesn’t understand River’s condition and he doesn’t want to: which is horrible and even more hypocritical considering how–at least consciously–this was the trait that attracted him to her to begin with. It is also clear that this decision is motivated by fear and perhaps even the guilt of seemingly being attracted to her solely because of her difference: as though he is afraid of actually further reducing his sense of her to the “illness” that her doctor wants him to read about.

At the same time, he also coddles her–even going as far as to say that marriage means having responsibility for her–and ignores statements of hers in which she tells him some very clear things about what she wants. When they do marry, he seems to even think of it as more of a responsibility than a joy while River doesn’t feel anything about it at all. At one point, Johnny admits to her the secret of why he had asked her out to begin with: revealing the shame that he felt. They are in the spot where they first met years ago as children. River ends up taking a hackey sack and throwing it on the ground. After that, she starts making origami rabbits: a lot of origami rabbits.

Maybe Johnny didn’t think she understood, or even worse, was angry and resentful at him for the “initial reason” he liked her. Finally, after a while, River begins to get sick. But before this, Johnny promises her to create a house near the lighthouse Anya–named so by River–so that “this star” that was the lighthouse would never be alone. Unfortunately, River begins to get sick and Johnny finds himself in the situation where he has to choose between spending their money on finishing the house (River’s wish), or saving River’s life.

At this point, Johnny breaks down and almost gives up on finishing the house: just to save River. But this is where River puts her foot down and reiterates her wish. Johnny doesn’t understand why this lighthouse or the house is more important than River’s own sense of health. He creates a song for River that even she can see isn’t really about her, and it is incomplete and fragmentary: a cycle that symbolizes what is going on in Johnny’s mind.

Yet, in the end, he fulfills her wish and continues with the house. And two years before the events of To the Moon begin, River dies.

It’s very easy to judge Johnny for what he did, or didn’t do until you remember and realize a few things. River was not the one who was broken. Johnny was. River seems to have a highly metaphorical mind. She threw that hackey sack down on the hill that night to remind him of the real reason he sought her out all those years ago: mirroring what he did as a boy. She always carried the stuffed platypus toy he gave her: even though he didn’t remember that either. And each origami rabbit she made was her way of trying to remind Johnny that they had promised to meet on “the rabbit’s tummy”: on the moon.

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Although these actions were non-verbal, River showed that her mind didn’t seem to be bound by linear time. She even hated the sound of clocks: of a construct of time. Everything he told her about his selfish reason in pursuing her, in be willingly ignorant of her condition–whatever it was–didn’t matter a damn to her. All that mattered to River was the boy that Johnny was promising to meet her so that neither of them would be alone.

Then there is Johnny again. He went from being someone with dreams, to being in a haze, to having friends, to finding someone he loved and didn’t understand–and having the answers right in front of him the whole time–to living the rest of his life in the house that he built for his wife: alone. Another thing to also consider is that even though the beta-blockers made Johnny’s childhood hard to remember, he could ruminate on the rest of it: on every mistake that he ever made with River. It is no coincidence that most of the memories Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts travelled through circled around Johnny’s regrets. It also makes you if–when the two doctors gave him the scent of roadkill to reawaken his earlier memories of his brother’s death–if on some level of consciousness it made him remember everything. Absolutely everything.

In any case, when he was conscious Johnny had two years after his wife died to think about everything, to regret everything he had done, and make sense of it all.

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At the same time, the mechanism of travelling through his memories only chose particular memories of his. The thing to remember is though certain memories of Johnny–powerful ones–came to the fore in this game, he and River probably had many more and they weren’t all bad. Even the prominent memories weren’t all awful. Johnny and River undertook equestrian therapy and actually had fun despite Johnny’s initial misgivings. They went to the movies. They danced in the lighthouse that Anya made. They spent time with their mutual friends Nick and Isabelle.

After River was gone, Johnny kept everything of hers: rabbits and platypus. And he fulfilled his promise to her: even after his own death by giving his house to his housekeeper and her family so that the star of Anya would never be alone. They spent practically their whole lives together and though there was tragedy and misunderstanding, they still had a life, and it was very clear to me that despite their differences they loved each other. Or, as Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman might put it, they got what everyone got. They got a lifetime.

In a strange way, what Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts do for Johnny at the end of his lifetime lets him meet River on her own terms: in a figurative reality that specifically bridges the gap between them. Dr. Rosalene herself even states somewhere along the line that what she is creating for Johnny in his memories is what River would have wanted. In essence, they–particularly Dr. Rosalene–write a plausible story based on memories and the emotions that were involved. Johnny doesn’t consciously know why he wants to go to the moon because of trauma, but he does on a very integral level. It is the same reason why River made the rabbits and threw down that hackey sack on the hill. River wanted to meet on the moon because Johnny would be there. And Johnny wanted to go to the moon because River would be there: at that meeting that he never made it to again in life.

Johnny’s story in To the Moon was a heartbreaking story about a very fallible but well-meaning man who had a life that despite misunderstanding, moments of ignorance, selfishness, and loss actually meant something. The last scene where Johnny is in his new memories and River takes his hand as they travel to the moon on their NASA rocket-ship–in retrospect–is a tremendously satisfying moment of completion and understanding beyond words.

It’s a story that really makes you look at the intricacies of a life with people. I know it made me look at mine. And, as I’ve said before, it is a story totally worth playing through.

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.