Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Video Games: To The Moon

It's probably weird to write a review about a game I haven't even played. I only watched a "let's play" of it on youtube, but I would still like to talk about it because it's a very good game. It's very emotional and has a dense, complex story. In the end, it leaves you in a very sentimental state of mind.

The story goes like this: A company is able to alter the memories of people (like a mix between Total Recall and Inception). The service of having your memories changed can be ordered by people who are about to die so that they will die with the feeling that they had a rich life with all their dreams and ambitions achieved, as opposed to what really happened in their lives (which will be forgotten).

Eva and Neil are the main characters in the game. They work for the company and drive to an old man's house. The man is about to die, his last wish is that his memories are to be rewritten so that he will get "to the moon". He is asked why it is his lifetime wish to get to the moon, because as part of the "inception", it would help to know. But he doesn't know, he only knows he wants to go to the moon.

Eva and Neil bring their devices into the house. The technical part comes then: They enter the mind of their customer, whose name is Johnny, and need to navigate their way deep into his subconscious mind. In order to change his memories, they need to implant an idea into his oldest childhood memories so that he will relive his memories as a child, wanting to become an astronaut throughout his entire, relived life.
To get to his childhood, Eva and Neil have to hop from one memory to the next, progressing further into the past. They need to find clues after clues to trigger Johnny to remember his memories back and back into childhood. On the way there, they also get to know his story. He was married to a woman named River, who died from a terminal illness. Memories of the wedding can be seen, and many romantic and touching moments are in these memories.

Before River dies, she wishes that Johnney completes building their house instead of paying her medical bills, as they can't pay for both. It is unclear why, because the only reason River wants the house to be built seems to be her emotional attachment towards the lighthouse that is located nearby the site where their house is being built. Johnny does not want his wife to die, but in the end, he respects her wish.

Further down the past, it becomes clear that the lighthouse played a big role in their lives. They often met their when they were younger and also got married at the lighthouse.

River shows some strange behaviour and doesn't seem to be able to express her feelings. It is later revealed that she is suffering from a condition. River's sister has the same condition, but her advantage is that the condition was diagnosed when she was a child, so she was able to adapt to it. It's clear that they are talking about Asperger's syndrome, a form of authism, although it is never mentioned directly.

Neil and Eva find out about how Johnny went to school with River, and how they went out on a date in the cinema. But when they reach his childhood and try to implant his wish to become an astronaut, things start to go wrong. When they travel back to his most recent memory, they find out that nothing has changed at all - Johnny lived the same exact life as he actually really did.

Neil goes back to reality and calls his company to investigate what could have gone wrong while Johnny's health gets worse. The phone call reveals that everything is okay with the equipment, but important information about Johnny's past was not given to Neil and Eva. Johnny had taken medication as a child that had made him forget some memories, and now these memories are either gone or hidden deep in his mind.

After their return to the mind world, Neil and Eva find a link to earlier childhood memories. They find out that Johnny had a twin brother who was accidentally killed by his mother's car when leaving the house. Johnny's mother then gave him medication to make him forget this trauma. But something even more important comes to light: The same year the accident occured, Johnny met River at a carnival near the lighthouse. It was their first meeting ever and they were still young children. River tells Johnny about her love for the stars and how she believes that every star is a lighthouse that's trying to communicate with other lighthouses. 
They later agree to meet up the following year, when the next carnival starts. River asks Johnny what happens if he forgets or doesn't make it, and he says "then we will meet up on the moon".

Now it is clear that Johnny wants to go to the moon because of his forgotten memory. He misses his dead wife and subconsciously knows that he wanted to meet her on the moon to see her again.

This is where things really get ethically difficult. Neil and Eva were ordered to make Johnny wish to go to the moon, and they must fulfill that mission. However, if they implant this idea in his memory now, it will mean that he will forget everything he ever had in his life and that fake memories of him going to the moon will overwrite the cherished memories of his marriage with River, for whom he actually wants to go to the moon.

Neil is very reluctant and wants to stop Eva, believing that Johnny would never have wanted to have his memories erased for the wrong reasons, but Eva goes on with the plan and totally messes up Johnny's memories. Suddenly, all the memories are all over the place, which can be seen by pieces of dialogue from the wedding and other important dates being mentioned in out-of-context situations like in the classroom where they had lessons. Eva changes many aspects of Johnny's life, including the survival of his twin brother who is now part of his fake memories.

The memory in which Johnny asks River out on a date in school is removed. Thus, they never meet in the cinema, never get to know each other and don't get married. Johnny, now eager to go to the moon, follows his ambitions until he gets to NASA. 

In a sudden turn of events, River appears at NASA too, having made it into the recruit program just like Johnny. So they actually do meet up again to get to the moon. As the rocket is launched into the sky and both of them hold hands, Johnny, in reality, dies in his bed.

And that's the story in a nutshell. Actually, it is more complex than that if you watch it on youtube. I think the game has such an emotional effect on the player / viewer because of the implied effects that the decisions will have and the importance of memories.

Johnny basically had a good life that only ended sadly because his wife died, and he is filled with regrets because she wanted to give up her life for a lighthouse. He also forgot the first time he met River, which River feels bad about but can't express in words because of her mental problems.

When he is about to die, he only has a very rudimentary desire to go to the moon, and he is not able to comprehend the consequences of his decision to ask for an alteration of his memory. It is only by luck (and maybe the faith he would meet his wife again) that the fake memory actually turns out to give his life the happy ending he hoped for. Otherwise, the story could have gone wrong and all the love that existed between him and his wife would have been like the sound a falling tree makes that nobody is there to hear.

And this is also one of the things the story tells us. Memories are important. What is the meaning of a true love story if there is no one to remember the story? Is it enough that people loved each other? That it was real? It's actually hard to answer. I'm sure many people had great lives and memories and what they did was very meaningful, but when they died, all these things just died with them.

The other big question is: What's the worth of reality compared to a dream? It's questions that were raised also by Inception, Matrix or Total Recall. Where do you draw the line between reality and fiction? When is suffering in real life so hard that you would actually live a dream, even if everything is fake? When is it right to accept the burdens of real life, just to know that what you did all your life is at least what really happened? Would you rather live the perfect life that wasn't real and forget what really was, or would you take the pain and keep your real memories?

Then, one last thing that the game teaches, is to appreciate what we have. And that is maybe the deepest, most touching lesson the game has in store. Even when his wife is gone, it is important that he remembers her until he dies. In the game, he does that in both versions of his memory, his real memories, and later the rewritten memories with a different career.

For a game that has the graphics of what could have been a 90s game, that was a very, very impressive game. I recommend watching PewDiePie's 15-part video series about "To The Moon" to witness the story. It only comes across well if you see it for yourself. The music is also very fitting.