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.
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.
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.
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.