[Game Theory] To The Moon and Storytelling through Objects

Dialogue and scenery can be ways in which games can convey a story. Some games, however, create meaning through objects and props that you interact with as a player. A great example of this is the award-winning indie To the Moon (2011), designed by Kan Gao, who also wrote the much appraised score of the game. Before I start playing its sequel Finding Paradise, I would love to dive into this title. To The Moon met much appraisal, won Best Indie Game of 2011 by RPGFan, and has a dedicated following. What makes this game so unique, and why does the storytelling stand out? Can the objects that are used in the game, and their symbolism, lead to a deeper interpretation of the game? Also, I’ll show you that Johnny’s twin brother was symbolized throughout the game in these objects. It’s analysis time!

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Short Review of To The Moon & Why It’s Cool

You can skim this section and cut right to the next one if you remember the game vividly!

To The Moon may look like an RPG, but it plays like a visual novel. The core game play consists exploration and interaction with objects to alter a person’s memory. The player controls two scientists who work for Sigmund Corp, a company which uses a technology that can alter a person’s memories. These two scientists dive into the subconscious of people and alter it (Sigmund Corp is clearly a reference to Sigmund Freud.) Persons on their death beds often make use of this service as a kind of wish fulfillment so that they can die happily. Yes, this may remind you of other SF/F classics like The Cell (2000), Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004), Paprika (2006) and Inception (2010), in which advanced technology is used to enter or alter a person’s memories or dreams. 

To go deeper and enter new strata, the scientists need to observe objects and trigger a specific item or “memento”. In other words, items are collected that represent memories. These are connected to one primary object, the memento, which the player can activate and travel through. The ultimate goal is to use the memento to create a memory link and alter a person’s mind. That’s exactly what the down to earth Dr. Eve Rosalene and the whimsical, geeky dr. Neil Watts are hired  to do. They visit an older man, Johnny, and are tasked with fulfilling his dream to go to the moon. Even if that means technologically altering his psyche!

The doctors insert themselves into a simulation of Johnny’s memories and traverse backwards through his life. With each leap, they learn more about Johnny, his life choices and his marriage to River. We meet her the first time at her death bed when she insists that Johnny uses his money to finish their dream house, rather than spend it on medication for her treatment. River tells Johnny to look over the light house: ‘I want you to watch over her. Visit her. Peak to her. Comfort her. I don’t want her to be alone any more.’ He tells her that he wrote a song for her called For River. ‘How cliché,’ she responds, as he starts playing the song from the opening.

As we go deeper, we see Johnny struggle with his marriage, River’s aspergers and the awkwardness of their relationship. The early memories of Johnny are buggy. By retrieving Johnny’s medical records, Watts finds out that betablockers altered Johnny’s memory. The twist of the game, as you probably remember, was that Johnny had a twin brother, Joey, who was hit by his mom’s car when he was playing with a ball. The death of Joey was the reason Johnny had to take betablockers.

The earliest memory that we see in the game is one where John competes over the affection of his parents with his twin brother. John is struggling because he’s so alike to Joey. River struggles because she is different from the other children. River compares the stars to difference and sameness. They all look the same from a distance, but they are all unique once you see them up close. The two of them gaze at the stars together. When John has to go, he gives her his platypus plush and they promise to meet at the clearing in a year. River asks him what they’ll do if he forgets. ‘Then we regroup at the moon.’

The scientists need to make a tough decision near the end of the game. Preserve Joey or River? Rosalene erases River to allow Johnny to fulfill his dream: ‘He’ll find another River, he’ll never have another brother,’ she explains to Watts. The last scene takes place at NASA, where Johnny is becoming an astronaut and meets River again. Even though River has been erased, she is reintroduced. ‘It all comes from Johnny,’  Rosalene emphasizes. That just shows that some memories are too strong to erase. 

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What do the mementos represent?

To The Moon, unlike the other two games, strings its narrative together through objects that the two fictional scientists use to decode memories. Interpreting the nature of these objects is not a demanding task for the player, since the narrative is framed quite coherently through these objects as memento. Many of the objects that are introduced to the game early on seem trivial at first, but are connected to Johnny’s earliest memories. As the player moves down the strata of his memory, the importance of the memento becomes clear.

While some of the memento function as clues, and may form the player’s expectations of the narrative, they are understood most clearly when the player has seen the game through to the end. The memento help frame Johnny and River’s life. They allow for a technological rewriting of memories in this science fiction narrative. These clues force the player to explore the environment. Moreover, the objects are motifs: ideas that are reiterated and the reoccur through the many memories. It is only much later that we understand their theme and function, which is connected to Johnny’s earliest memories. The memento center around these early, suppressed memories and what it means to lose a twin brother.

In a way, these objects have a more poetic function in that they provide themes and symbols to the story. The strange and deviant platypus, for instance, represents the marriage of the protagonists and the extraordinary River. As the player progresses, it turns out that these objects embody what John has repressed – the death of his brother and his very first encounter with River, that he has long since forgotten due to this medication. Some objects that we interact with:

  • The Animorphs book series – Joey’s favorite
  • The foot ball – the reason that Joey was hit by his mom’s car
  • The platypus – Johnny’s gift to River when they first met

The Animorphs books, for instance, are a good example of how complex these memories are. In the scene after Joey’s death, we see the meaning of the Animorphs books when the boys fight over a toy train that Joey won at a fair. ‘What is mine is yours,’ Joey says, suggesting that they can play together with anything. The scene displays Joey reading the Animorphs books, and reveals his desire to become an author.  In the later scenes, it becomes clear why Johnny does not read the books; they unconsciously remind him of Joey. And his mother, by the way, gave him the set as a wedding gift, and still confuses him with Joey. 

Other clues are spread through the game that connect to Joey. Many of them only make sense when the game is replayed. In some cases, the characters press the gamer to remind certain scenes. During the scene in which Joey dies, Rosalene emphasizes that she has thought of a possible twin brother before. She tells Watts to remember and says there was “something strange in Johnny’s room”. This remark is double-coded; it appeals to the player’s memory as well as the character’s.  This is where it gets meta. As a player you need to speculate about what was “strange” or unusual in Johnny’s childhood. Later, Rosalene explains that she referred to the bunk bed in Johnny’s room. Did you remember that? I sure didn’t! The bunk bed is just one of the many great examples how objects are used throughout the game.

The origami rabbit then is another item that the player finds time and time again. River has been folding these ever since a rabbit was hit by a car during their wedding. The dead rabbit made an impression on her, although it is unclear why. To her, it represents unhappiness. She is ill and at odds with herself. Johnny is struck by the rabbit for different reasons, because unconsciously he connects the road kill to Joey, whom he has forgotten. One could argue that River knows about Joey’s death as well, since she has met Johnny before in their earliest memory and he has told her about his brother. It is likely that she knows about Johnny’s loss of memory, and Joey’s death, and that the rabbit is her only way of expressing loss.

Rabbits represent road kill in the game, and road kill is a major theme. This game is about collateral damage.  The first road kill is Rosalene and Watts hitting a squirrel. The second road kill is Joey. The third is the dead rabbit at River and John’s marriage. All of these are represented by the origami rabbit.

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The many paper rabbits that we find in the basement in a locked room support this idea of road kill. They represent what Johnny has repressed – Joey, and the difficult aspects of his marriage to River. For all their uneasiness, the rabbits have to be locked away, just like the memories themselves. In quite a literal way, Johnny has cut Joey out of his life, even though the refusal to mourn, and to even acknowledge Joey’s existence, has been more painful in the long run. His new memories fix this by re-introducing Joey and making Johnny whole again. He can only die happily once he has lived with his twin brother and has seen him lead a successful life.

Memories, however, are not easily replaced. River came in through the back door, even though the scientists tried to erase her. The game ends in an uneasy note. Is altering memory to fulfill our dreams a good thing?

Summary

  • The mementos are not just real objects and memories but represent much more – love and loss
  • To the Moon is powerful because you, as a player, need to think along about what you see in the game. The theme is memory, and you have to memorize the environment as well (e.g. the bunk bed). The game play is very meta!
  • Road kill is everywhere in the game, and relates to River and Joey, but also to the darker side of the memory technology. Those paper rabbits? Good you ask. Road kill. 
  • If you want to tell a story through objects, this game is a great example for you!
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