“I’ve never told anyone, but…I’ve always thought they were lighthouses. Billions of lighthouses stuck at the end of the sky…” ~ River
Kan Gao’s To the Moon is a beautifully crafted game that weaves a fascinating tale of love and loss, and for better and worse much is left up to the interpretation of the player. With a plot involving what is essentially time travel and alternate realities, it is only natural to feel a bit disoriented even after finishing the game – I know I did and I still kind of am. This brings me to this analysis, in which I’ll attempt to lay out the key plot points and overarching themes by taking a look at the symbols utilized in the game. While I’m sure there are a plethora of symbols utilized in the game, and I’ll only go over three of them, giving my interpretation of their significance.
- Stars/Anya: For River, stars represent the unobtainable. Whether it was friends, the ability to fit in, or even love, she felt distant from it all. As she mentions, stars all look the same and yet are all beautiful in their own ways. They shine for each other, as beacons of hope and companionship, but are cruelly destined to never come into contact with each other. River sees lighthouses as earthbound stars, and I suppose she sees a bit of herself in them as well – wishing deeply for friends, but unable to due to her condition. That’s why she wanted to befriend one so badly. She knew what it was like to be lonely. River’s opportunity comes in the form of the lighthouse she affectionately names Anya, which acts as a surrogate child as well as a reminder of her first meeting with Johnny.
- The Emperor’s New Clothes/Animorphs: Now, the inclusion of these books felt very peculiar to me, and the amount of focus they got pretty much signaled to me that they had some significance on the thematic level. While seemingly unrelated, these books share a common theme with one another: the changing of appearances and guises. Even though no one shape-shifts in To the Moon (except the doctors as fish-heads), the game still plays a lot with the idea that what you see isn’t necessarily reality, as well as things hiding in plain sight. For Johnny, the answers to his question were always right in front of him, but he was unable to acknowledge them due to the suppression of his memories. Interestingly, the plot of The Emperor’s New Clothes involves the titular king hiring two workers to craft beautiful clothes for himself, much like how Johnny asks the two doctors to help him carry out his lifelong dream. However, the emperor receives no clothes at all and ends up parading around town naked, carrying out a charade of warped reality. One can draw a parallel between the construction of these fake clothes to the fabrication of Johnny’s memories to carry out a wish that masks Johnny’s true, subconscious desire.
- Rabbits: River begins making origami rabbits for Johnny after they marry, in the hopes that he will remember their first meeting. The topic of rabbits came up at the festival, when Johnny brought up the Easter Bunny, a construct of human conventions. The same goes for conformism, which is ultimately bred from the superficiality of society, and I believe the plain white rabbits reflect this idea. Johnny mentions he hates his name because of how generic it is, but River argues that everyone is unique and that it’s a quality that cannot be predetermined. Of course, Johnny forgets all of this due to the beta-blockers. So River tries to help him remember by making one unique rabbit to represent him and to show him how much he means to her. As revealed during the night of the festival, the rabbit and the moon are related to each other. In essence, Johnny’s last wish of going to the moon is actually to reunite with River and to remember the true nature of their love. One can say that he was successful, as they reunited with each other in the afterlife.
In terms of things unanswered in the game, I believe one of the most pressing questions would be: did the real Johnny ever remember the truth about his past and about River? I personally like to think that he did. Normally, when a patient successfully gets his wish fulfilled, he feels a moment of bliss before he dies. If you interpret Johnny’s wish – “going to the moon” – as reuniting with River and falling in love with her again, then I think his wish was successfully granted when he and River lock hands with each other on the rocket, signifying the point when they would have fallen in love.
Another mystery is would be the flashes of pain that Neil experiences at the end of the game. Some have theorized that this is a side effect of possible beta-blocker abuse to suppress a particularly painful memory, or that the doctors are still in a memory. Hopefully they will explain this in the sequel, which I am fervently waiting for!