LTTP: To The Moon
LTTP, or Late to the Party to break out the full name, is an occasional series that aims to cast a light on slightly older games that our contributors may have recently encountered after having missed them first time round. Due to the age of the games in question, as well as the more subjective nature of articles such as these, expect there to be story-related spoilers throughout. You have been warned!
To The Moon was released in 2011 by Freebird Games, which is actually just one man, Kan Gao. Since people were first able to play it it has been renowned as a darling amongst critics and gamers alike. One man’s wonderful narrative told elegantly within a sci-fi framework and all presented with the aesthetic of a 16-bit RPG. I have owned the game since release and actually even bought a second copy when it was added to Steam’s library. I’d somehow never gotten around to playing it, however. Perhaps it was because every time anyone talked about it they also mentioned the need for something to wipe away the tears. Sad or happy ones I didn’t know but still, a truly emotional game? That would need to be done properly.
I’ve finally gotten around to playing To The Moon and I can say with no restrictions at all that it is the finest piece of storytelling ever told through the gaming medium. Not necessarily the finest story - that is arguable and very, very subjective, but the telling of this story is special. When people think of fabulous narratives, wonderfully drawn characters and top-tier storytelling they’ll mention games like BioShock or BioShock Infinite; or maybe The Last of Us, especially if attempting to impress upon the audience how gaming is a mature medium now, one which has come of age. In any future discussion of this type the only words I’ll add to it will be “Have you played To The Moon?” and “Just play To The Moon”.
The gaming medium’s unique versus others because of its interactive element. You play games to play or you play it to experience a story first-hand. Many will dismiss something which offers little in the way of interactivity, fun interactivity or innovative interactivity. If that is you then steer well clear of To The Moon but understand that in doing so you’ll be denying yourself a very special experience spread over as few as four hours.
The game is set in the near-future and one night when an elderly man nears his deathbed two scientists visit him in order to navigate his memories from the present back to an earlier stage in his life, all in order to find the point at which they can link his unrealised desire - to get To The Moon - and create this memory as if it were real. Immediately you’re concerned this might be a story of regret, a life lived without doing what was wanted. A feeling many of us have at various points in our lives, regret has many orders of magnitude. Here it seems it’s the very biggest. The man is dying and he’s never managed to get To The Moon, something which is important enough for him to wish his memories were different?
The story that’s told in To The Moon plays out backwards, a la Memento as you see various key memories from Johnny’s mind slowly telling you his story and ultimately explaining why he wanted to go To The Moon. Something he is unable to communicate to the scientists himself, meaning the journey backwards through his memories is a journey of understanding of us as well as those in the game. There’s no thesis and then a flip; we are discovering from a base of nothing. It’s a wonderfully enlightening period of learning.
The structure works so well because each memory provides something more but never too much that predicting what is ultimately to come is easy. You might get bits and pieces but only immediately before you see it. You learn about his wife, her disorder, her origami rabbit obsession and more. You find out how they met and fell in love and married and you keep unravelling the mystery behind why he doesn’t know why he wants to go To The Moon. As each memory adds a piece to the puzzle of Johnny’s life you feel more a part of his and River’s life, a partner alongside them rather than just an observer. You start to feel what they feel. The effect is rather special. It makes you want to push on and it’s likely you’ll finish this game in one setting. I did it in two or three, one of which was a forced stop as I just couldn’t carry on.
Eventually you find out why Johnny wants to go To The Moon. That in itself is a skillful reveal that works within the framework of the story we’ve been told. But at this point, the memory in itself isn’t what’s important. What is important is that this led to Johnny being given Beta blockers and erasing - effectively - all his memories up to that point. Anything we see from this point on he does not know happened, his real self that is.
Then you see some earlier memories, including the one which makes you well up and point and yell at the screen in shock and awe. In disbelief and distress, in sadness, and in joy. It’s a wonderful ‘all is lost’ moment that stuns the player. Basically you have seen a whole life shared by two people, Johnny and River. You know there were some issues but they forever were in love. But something was always off. The reason why? Johnny and River had met previously. She knew this only Johnny didn’t. And River didn’t understand why. Nor could she communicate that this earlier meeting had happened. All she could do was try and force Johnny to remember by making paper rabbits over and over again. Just writing this and recalling what we learn is causing the well of sadness to fill once more.
Johnny had met River before he was given beta blockers. Johnny and River met one starry night as children and talked about the stars. River said: “I… I’ve never told anyone, but… I’ve always thought they were lighthouses. Billions of lighthouses… … stuck at the far end of the sky.”. She was going to befriend one one day because they’re all so far apart they can’t talk to one another. Like her, with the pervasive development disorder she is diagnosed with in later life. They also saw together a constellation which looked like a bunny rabbit with the moon as its big belly. And they promised to meet again next year in the same place when carnival comes round once more. If they were to forget? Well, then they’ll meet on the moon.
Like a hammer blow to the head at this point all you can do is wait for the weight and the pain to recede. This couple who have spent their lives together have done so with slightly different viewpoints. It’s now clear what River was trying to get Johnny to see in those origami bunny rabbits. Why didn’t she just explain to him? Because of her disorder. It all makes sense now. But it isn’t a good thing. All you can do is sit and think with your jaw on the table, how awful this is and despite the fact they had a good life, it could have been a great one.
It’s hard to communicate just how powerful this moment is. It is as strong as any ‘wow’ moment in gaming history. Pick any similarly affecting movie and the storytelling will be matched here by the path that brought us the player to this point and the understanding we now gained. It reflects such a sad light upon the memories we have seen of the couple’s lives together. Yet their life was still a happy one, right? Yes, but it could have been so much more.
And then, that’s where the memory changes come into play. Johnny’s life can be changed! At least his memory of it! Through skilled work by the characters you’ve been playing River and Johnny don’t meet past that original encounter until much later than in reality. This time too, it’s at NASA. They both train to become an astronaut and they fly To The Moon together. During that flight they take each other's hands and I’m not afraid to say I shouted yes and punched the air at that point. The rest of their life played out pretty much as it did in reality, without the confusion over that first meeting. The beta blockers had been removed as part of the recreation, so both would have remembered that first meeting. But it wasn’t really an issue because even though they didn’t meet again one year later they did meet-up at the moon, just like they said. And fell in love. And lived happily ever after.
The story is one of extreme pain when viewing the reality even if underlying it is true love. But the imagined story is a better one, the Hollywood story. It’s no cop out though, it’s not like Gao got to the end and decided he couldn’t finish his game on a sad note. The whole game was about getting Johnny to the moon. We just needed to see why before that could happen.
So the game then is bittersweet. And that’s fine. This taste stays with me today but the sweet wins out over the sour. I still smile when I think about that hand-holding moment on the way To The Moon. The experience of the telling of the story is the most powerful and well-handled in games. It will without doubt make anyone who plays it reflect on their life, the choices they have made and those moments of regret however big or small. You sense there was something very personal that led Gao to make this game. It’s not our place to know what and nor should we care - just enjoy his output and hope that it helped him come to terms with whatever he experienced. Think of his making this game as his trip To The Moon. It deserves to be played by anyone who considers themselves a gamer, and those who don’t quite frankly. It is a triumph, beyond compare.