Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

05 Oct 2012

(PC Game - 2011) To The Moon by: Ken Gao

(Reaction) A Love Story by: Antonio Conejos

To the Moon dramatizes a couple's desire to communicate and love against all obstacles. For John these obstacle are his repressed memories. For River it is her behavioral condition. Yet both try to reach out to the other.

This reaching out on John's part is seen in how he reorders his memories to always include River. As his memories are reordered and manipulated, John's unconscious always insists on including River. Indeed, the very premise of the story is John's half remembered promise that if they lose each other they can always meet on the moon. What if you forget or get lost? Then we can always regroup on the moon, silly! And of course there is his respecting River's wish to choose the lighthouse over her treatment. John's communication is expressed through actions, the acts of his conscious and unconscious self.

River's communication is seen mostly through metaphor. She is constantly clutching to and harking back to symbols of their relationship. Thus the stuff platypus (given to her by John on their first meeting), and rabbits and lighthouses are never far from her. The lighthouse is particularly important to River as a symbol of communication.

All of River's symbols derive from her first meeting with John. These symbols are recurring motifs throughout To the Moon which reflect John and River's developing relationship.

We begin at the end, where River has become obsessed with creating origami rabbits, which she insists on giving to John. Yet when she asks him what else he sees in the rabbits he replies there is nothing else about them, they are just paper rabbits.

John does not remember his first meeting with River (the memory has been blocked by the beta blockers along with the memory of the death of his twin brother). At this first meeting on the cliff where the two looked at the stars River sees a constellation of stars in the shape of a rabbit and she gives, or shows, this to John. It is their first shared moment of joy and wonder.

River certainly remembers this event and thus her giving John paper rabbits can be seen as a bid to return to the joy and wonder of their first meeting; before River's illness, their financial constraints and all the other responsibilities of maturity. (Maturities which John acutely feels; when asked what feels different after the marriage he says the responsibilities.)

This is why River is constantly asking John what is it she gives him every time she hands him a paper rabbit. For her these rabbits recall their first conversation, the stars, happiness.

Given the above it is natural that River takes it as a bad omen when a rabbit is killed on their wedding day. Certainly not all the days of their marriage will be as carefree as their first meeting on the cliff.

John though does not remember this event under the stars and thus sees no significance in the paper rabbits. He looks at them with a tad of exasperation as yet another quirky manifestation of his wife's pervasive development disorder.

This first meeting is also crucial for introducing the motiff of the lighthouse. In River's view each star is an individual lighthouse trying to communicate across the gulf of space. But since space is so vast all the stars can do is shine at each other in silent, illuminated conversation.

Similarly, River's attachment to her lighthouse (Anya) is her means of trying to communicate her love for John; it is her way of again bringing him back to the joy of their first meeting. Moreover the lighthouse is a symbol of how communication is possible amidst wide chasms.

Lighthouses gain further prominence for the couple's relationship when they are again mentioned while John is asking out River for the first time. (This is a memory John does remember.) River is reading about lighthouses and in particular how scarce and rare they are becoming, how they need someone to look after them and preserve them. As such, alongside communication, lighthouses are also associated with care and preservation - certainly hallmarks of any loving relationship.

River's condition marks her as different and John is shown throughout their relationship (mostly through conversations with friends) as struggling to understand his wife. While River cannot communicate her love in a conventional manner she does communicate this to him constantly, with her paper rabbits and her attachment to the lighthouse. Thus does she shine at John and hopes he gets the message across the gulf of space dividing him.

This may be a tad over reading as well but it should be noted that that River's predilection for lighthouses is foreshadowed in her very name. Rivers flow out to the sea and lighthouses safeguard the sea's voyagers. Thus there is some internal logic in River's voyage culminating beside a lighthouse, by the sea.

To the Moon is a love story in the classic sense - a story of two people overcoming various obstacles to be together. John and River construct their lives around each other. The crucial point though is that their love is expressed in a manner unique to each character; each to what he or she values and in turn he offers to her what he values and she to him.


From the onset I must admit my frustration with my reaction. I wanted to incorporate an analysis of the gameplay elements of To the Moon and how they add to the themes the game is trying to explore. I couldn't find a way though to do so without it sounding forced so I just concentrated on an analysis of the game's narrative. Still, a proper analysis of a PC game should really incorporate the gameplay of the game.

Also while others may be loath to label it a PC game (I've seen the term story game bandied about online) I see nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade. To the Moon is a game played on the PC and I see nothing derogatory in the term PC game. I've been an avid gamer in multiple formats for many years and have no doubt, Ebert notwithstanding, that games are art capable of telling deep stories, comparable to movies, novels and short stories.

That said, I was interested in To the Moon because the critical response towards it was so overwhelmingly positive. I thought the game was good but I wasn't engaged with it as others seem to have been. Yes, the plot is engaging (if a bit mystifying) and the music is undeniably lovely. But for me I didn't feel a connection with the characters. I don't mean that the love story of John and River is not touching, it is. I mean that I didn't feel personally invested in the characters. This investment to me is a highlight of the best adventure games, in particular the great, great PC game, Grim Fandango. (I've been meaning to do a reaction on Grim Fandango for the longest time but have never gotten around to it.)

I'm not hating on To the Moon, it's an engaging story and I enjoyed my time with it. It's just that each medium has advantages over others which, if properly utilized, can make story telling unique to that medium. For gaming this unique advantage is the ability to partake of the story, to invest your own thoughts and actions into the narrative, instead of simply watching the story unfold.

To be sure gaming as a mature narrative medium has a long way to go. But that is true of any new medium. Early movies were very static affairs, simply scenes where people moved around but the camera remained fixed. This was because early movie makers simply had no experience with these new fangled recording devices. Certainly too there were technical challenges to moving cameras while shooting a scene.

Eventually though movie makers innovated to include camera movement. This innovation evolved into the rich cinematography we enjoy today. Moreover this innovation enhances the ability of movies to tell their narrative.

Similarly, I hope that in time games develop their unique trait which allows them to tell a story best suited to that medium.

To the Moon features an uncommon narrative for games, a love story with very little embellishment, fantastical characters or other worldly scenarios (except of course for the memory treatment undertaken by John). For that its story has been praised as mature. In time I hope a similarly mature gameplay dynamic will evolve to match a game's story.

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