Rarely has a film made me cry, or a book for that matter of fact. However, the game To The Moon by Freebird Games came mighty close to achieving this feat!
In all honesty, I don’t wish to spoil the plot for you, and I will therefore refrain from going too much into the plot events and why this game touched me deeply on an emotional level. Please, do yourself the favour and play the game. What I will tell about it’s way of affecting me is this: In this game you travel backwards through a man’s life, from old age to childhood; you realise sad truths about his marriage, heartbreaking misunderstandings, realisations that will fill you with awe, get to know fully fleshed characters that aren’t simply good or evil, and all of this is packaged in simple pixelated graphics that are just details enough to portray the characters facial expressions and emotional states. It is beautiful. Just thinking about it actually makes me emotional – this doesn’t happen often, and it’s just my attempt to describe how powerful this game can be.
That being said, it isn’t what today’s post will be about per se, as I don’t wish to spoil too much. You see, To The Moon isn’t just an emotional story, but also a truly clever game – clever, because it asks some serious questions about human memory, and how it connects to reality.
Memory is an interesting and complicated thing to discuss, but let’s give it a go. First of all, our memories do not represent perfect reproductions of past events (Johnson 767), in fact, compared to what actually happened, our memories are indeed rather flawed. So, if our memories aren’t meant to represent reality, what do they represent? Well. Your memories represent you. They are, “attributions that we make about our mental experiences based on their subjective qualities, our prior knowledge and beliefs, our motives and goals, and the social context” (Johnson 760). In other words they become an important part of defining who you are and what you believe in, and therefore also help shape future memories of events according to your already established beliefs. Why am I mentioning all of this? Because that is in fact exactly what To The Moon is about. We journey through a dying man’s memories in order to reconstruct them and create what is essentially a false set of memories in his mind. By doing so, he will believe what he remembers, even though whatever he remember in no way reflect reality, but it no longer matters. His last wish is to go to the moon, and so, if they make him go to the moon within his memory, then he will believe it happen and hopefully die a happier man.
Now doesn’t that all sound peachy? Sadly, it isn’t all that simple – yes this was the simple part! The game confuses you several times, and forces you to keep guessing over and over. This article on the other hand, shouldn’t make things any more complicated as such.
Now, the game calls our perception of reality into question. It highlights the difference between reality as it is, reality as we perceive it, and reality as we will later remember it after processing the events and storing it in our memory. Our memory essentially stores events as little pieces of narrative that are more or less coherent, and in To The Moon we get to experience just how incoherent some memories can be, and how untruthful others are when representing an event. Do you believe you are doing the right things in your life, for yourself and for others? Well, so did our main subject Johnny, but as you shall discover, many things are far from the way you may remember them.
What really affected me a lot when playing was the way in which I was constantly forced to juggle three separate realities. There is the “real” life in the game, which is inhabited by the dying Johnny and our two protagonists Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts. Then we have the reality constructed through accessing Johnny’s memories, which is also where most of the game takes place – And even though this doesn’t perfectly represent reality, it is close enough for us to gain a picture of who Johnny was and what happened with his marriage to River. Last but not least we have the reality furthest removed from actual events, the reality that Rosalene and Watts create within Johnny’s mind – The one created in order to grant him his dying wish of going to the moon. Okay I haven’t actually told you what it was that affected me so, but here it comes!
Even if we do buy into this quest of theirs. Say we find what they are doing admirable, you know, granting a dying man his last wish, and don’t think too much about how he is essentially then “living” a lie (this is just one point of view). My personal issue with this entire framing was that it didn’t help me, the player, much throughout. You see, I, alongside Rosaline and Watts, get to see the ups and downs of Johnny’s life – all the heartbreaking moments and miserable understandings – but also some truly happy occasions. The full roller-coaster of emotions. So even though he might die believe he went to the moon – even though we manage to change events, possibly even avert catastrophes in his memories – this doesn’t change the fact that we at the end of the game knows what actually happened throughout his life. I doesn’t change the reality of death, neglect, misunderstandings, and questions of forgiveness. All these things that were tied up in other people’s realities – other people whom we aren’t able to help. And so, I found the positive notes thrown at me towards the end a cold comfort compared to the reality I was led to understand, and that is what made me truly sad.
So again, the game asks deep and powerful questions – questions who we are. Even if we understand the fact that our memories are fallible and do not represent reality – does this justify the further self-deception of intentionally altered memories? Should we take such a dying we granted as a positive or negative? If you regret things in life, would you rather die believing something fictional is true, or die with your past the way it is, and simply accept it?
These questions I leave for you to answer. All I can say is that To The Moon can most certainly assist you in thinking about these topics.
However, just to end this post on a slightly lighter note; in an interview of the games creator, Kan Gao, he was asked how the many positive critical responses to his game made him feel, and this was his answer:
“It makes me feel like being wrapped in a self-heating Snuggie while being fed Skittles by a Leprechaun” (AlternativeMagazine)
To be honest with you, after playing this game I think most players could do with such a treatment. Or just a hug.