Tragedy has always grabbed the human attention. The morbid nature of reality stirs some base emotion in the hearts of men and forces them to watch, no matter how terrible. The mainstream news is littered with the worst events that have occurred in the world, like murder, kidnapping, and car wrecks. To The Moon is the equivalent of a train wreck of a relationship that brings the player along for the entire ride, starting with the picture of the wreck and rewinding all the way through the gruesome details.
Ken Gao’s To The Moon puts the player into the role of two scientists whose job is to go back into the memories of dying individuals and give them memories of a life they wish they had. They start at the most recent memories and move their way back through the memories until they can reach an anchor point where they can change the memories for a better, a la Christopher Nolan’s Inception. This particular patient, named Johnny, wishes to go to the moon, but he does not know why. Throughout the course of the game, you learn of his tragic romance with his late wife, River, and that it is because of a childhood promise the two made each other that Johnny wants to go to the moon. However, his memory was impaired from a tragic childhood accident, and he could not remember the promise. River felt that the Johnny she first fell in love with was gone, and spent the remainder of her days trying to get him to remember. She never succeeded, and she passed away.
While the story is tragic on its own, what makes it killing and memorable is the presentation. Gao takes the player from the strained marriage and River’s dying days to revealing how and why the two fell for one another. It creates the ever present foreboding feeling that, no matter how good things seem in that particular memory, the player always knows how it ends. Nothing the scientists ever do really change anything. Even in the end, when the player sees how their life should have gone and how it could have been perfect, they are still jerked back to reality when they realize that Johnny still died alone, that River died thinking he would never remember their time together, and the entire game amounts to two scientists telling the most convincing lie possible to a dying old man.
For as tragic as it may get, there is never any remorse on the player’s part. People love a good train wreck. By starting at the end and rewinding it all the way through, Gao not only tells an interesting story, but manages to sate our craving for tragedy by giving us a poignant reminder that everything will end horribly, no matter what you may do. By using the interactivity of the game, he makes the player feel responsible for the lie, leaving a a nagging sense of guilt, even long after the credits have rolled.