I have now reviewed the game twice, once just after I played it and once after some distance. Both times I tried to avoid spoilers because it’s so important to the experience not to know what’s going to happen next, but it severely hampers my ability to analyze why it’s so freaking great. So I’ll talk about it here.
I mean, yeah, I love “To the Moon”. But I really want to talk about the impact it had on me.
There is no reason TTM should have affected me as much as it did. Its themes of romantic love and the importance of memories should both be alien to me (incidentally, these are two themes common to John C. Wright and I must confess to not yet having been affected by him on the same level).
But it didn’t matter. TTM used those things as a vehicle to hit upon something universal to the human experience. Even for a young guy like me the fear that you’ll go through life knowing that you could have, should have been better, that you made mistakes that hurt not just you but the ones you love, is a very understandable one. You get Johnny’s motives. They make sense. And Kan Gao does a hell of a lot of work helping the player understand what makes him, and his relationship with River, tick, and by understanding this you empathize with Johnny.
Several moments in the game were executed so well that they hit like a sledgehammer. The reveal that Johnny had a brother, who his mother ran over? I gasped. I had bought into the game hook, line, and sinker, and it so perfectly explained so many odd things in retrospect, so many little aspects of Johnny’s character, that it felt like an organic part of the story.
And when Neil reveals Eva’s plan to remove River? Pure horror. “Everything’s Alright”, played to the backdrop of River disappearing from Johnny’s life, is an astonishingly tragic scene, and has practically gone down in legend for its emotional effectiveness.
And when River shows up again! The way Kan Gao plays it out, with Eva slowly dropping hints, a ten or so minute break to help convince you this is for real, the short freeze in the music before River walks into the room accompanied by a soft instrumental reprise of “Everything’s Alright”? Absolutely, jaw-droppingly stunning. To say nothing of the final scene!
But what’s really brilliant in retrospect is just how well Kan Gao managed to pull all its disparate elements and plot threads together. The game, for all its emotion, is not manipulative. It doesn’t ignore plot points in order to get a good cry out of you. It earns that payoff. By the end of the game Kan Gao has not only managed to explain every mystery, big and small, not only raised valid, complex philosophical questions about the importance of truth and memory, he has masterfully, retroactively made even the smallest actions and motivations of the characters make perfect sense, and without telling you straight out, trusting you to make the connections yourself.
Of course River would rather pay to finish the house and have Johnny watch over the lighthouse rather than save herself. That first meeting with Johnny is what makes their whole relationship make sense in River’s mind, what justifies their communication gap and the sacrifices they both make for each other. It’s worth her life if Johnny can one day understand that. Of course Johnny would become unhealthily obsessed with standing out from the crowd; his mother mistakes him frequently with a twin brother he can’t remember, and this would naturally have an effect on him. And that scene at the beginning that seems played for laughs, when River doesn’t appreciate that he named a song after her? Once you learn about Johnny and River’s difficulty in communicating with each other and how much Johnny craves tangible expressions of River’s love that scene retroactively becomes terribly sad.
And to do all of this while ALSO being funny, sometimes hilarious? And while introducing a high concept sci-fi plot device effortlessly at the same time? And to follow it up with a sequel that’s nearly as good?
Look, guys, you have to play this game. At least watch Cry’s Let’s Play of it. Or anybody but Pewdiepie’s really, he’s a terrible fit. It’s so, so good. And if you’re a fan of John C. Wright’s work I think you’ll find a lot of its themes familar.