In the second of his pieces from the Toronto independent development scene, Ryan Hamann meets the man behind To the Moon.
In early August, 2015, I had the chance to travel to Toronto for the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, an organization I belong to due to my professional work and study being within the field of mental health services.
I was excited not only to travel the great distance and present my professional material, but also to explore Toronto’s legendary independent gaming scene.
I made time, while in the city, to sit down and talk with some of Toronto’s most talented and influential game designers and writers.
This, along with two other articles, chronicle the conversations I had and the demonstrations I experienced
when plugging myself into this thriving community.
I hope it will be of use for those inspired to create games themselves or those looking to bolster their own local independent communities.
A long time personal fan of his work, the first developer I got in contact with when planning my visit to Toronto was Freebird Games founder Kan Gao (aka “Reives”), creator of To the Moon (which we discussed in issue 134 of our podcast) and, more recently, A Bird Story.
He has become quite renowned for his storytelling capabilities. To the Moon impressed the world with just how moving and heartbreaking a simple game made in RPG Maker could be.
To the Moon remains a cornerstone of games writing, putting Kan in a funny position; he feels somewhat burdened by the expectations that have been put upon him, but also tremendously lucky to have the chance to share his stories with a wider audience.
Throughout our discussion, we uncovered some of the tips and tricks to craft compelling interactive narratives.
Kan is a very friendly and somewhat shy fellow, having an inviting and unassuming presence about him. I first met him a few years ago at PAX, at which time he gave me a boxed copy of To the Moon, which is still one of my favorite pieces of videogame memorabilia.
He arrived at our meeting wearing a strange necklace, which he explained was a miniature sextant, a device used by navigators in bygone times to determine their location and heading based on the position of stars.
Something about that detail rang true with what I knew about Kan from his games. They’re full of small, interesting curiosities and attention to detail.
A Bird Story
We began our discussion talking about his most recent release, A Bird Story, a shorter and smaller-scale story than To the Moon about a boy who finds and takes into his home an injured bird. The game is without dialogue, and the visuals on screen are accompanied only by Kan’s own wonderful piano score.
Within the To the Moon canon, it serves as an introductory episode, of sorts, to Kan’s next full-scale release, Finding Paradise, which will follow the same character introduced in this game as he makes a similar deathbed request as Johnny did in To the Moon, fulfilled once again by Drs. Rosaline and Watts.
One of the things that I found most interesting about A Bird Story was its non-literal use of its setting physical spaces, used as metaphor to communicate the passage of time and the linkage of themes between various scenes. Spaces would be truncated, and elements from different locations would be transposed into scenes in which they do not belong.
I asked Kan about this choice and how it affected the storytelling process. Kan replied that he wanted to emulate the way that we remember things, especially in dreams. We don’t remember every point in time. When we’re dreaming, we’re going from inside to outside in an instant.
In a more practical sense, though, this choice also helps shrink the game a bit. He still feels rather conflicted about whether or not To the Moon was too long a game, and states that cutting stuff down is the hardest part of the creation process. Even with A Bird Story, a much more abbreviated experience than To the Moon, he felt that he did not cut enough.
This gets into the issue of pacing, an issue that has been very difficult for videogame developers to work into their games since the dawn of the medium, due to the unpredictable actions of the player directly affecting the pace at which the game is played.
This comes back to the idea of the essential tension between the story being told by the creator and the freedom of interactivity allowed to the player.
Kan cited a particular scene in To the Moon as an example. In it, Johnny and River are engaging in equine therapy, riding horses in the countryside. Though Kan felt it was essential to give the story some room to breathe and to give players the sense of pure, natural freedom one receives while on horseback, in the final product, he admits that the scene feels rather aimless and drawn out.
The scene’s greatest weakness, Kan explains, is not its length, though. Rather, it is the fact that the game does not do a good enough job communicating to the player how to end the event when he or she wanted to move on.
Kan suggested that clearly communicating to players how to progress from a scene was paramount in preserving the pacing of a story. An interactive scene is not inherently “too long” until the player decides that he or she does not want to be in that scene anymore and cannot exercise the option to progress.
This rings true when thinking about games that have often been the recipient of complaints about poor pacing in the past: The Secret of Monkey Island, for example, would block progress entirely until obscure puzzles were solved, halting the discovery and explorative aspects that made the game so enjoyable in the first place.
Players often enjoy having the ability to slow down and take things at their own pace, but they also like to be able to swiftly and efficiently move forward once their curiosities have been satisfied.
A Bird Story is, in many ways, about making sacrifices and letting go of something that we love. Kan hinted that this game drew more inspiration from stuff that was happening in his personal life than did To the Moon.
In crafting a story like this, the small details are often what hold the experience together for each user, and crafting a story that would be sympathetic to a game’s wise user base can be difficult.
Kan recalled one particular Steam review for A Bird Story in which the player remarked that he or she could not get attached to the bird because it wasn’t a human or a dog.
This is an interesting bias that may be useful when crafting such stories. On an evolutionary level, we most often feel a particular kinship towards mammalian species that wanes in its strength the further we get from the mammalian clade; from birds to reptiles to fish to insects.
It is difficult to make a game, especially one that is so personal in nature, which will appeal to everyone. Kan considered not releasing A Bird Story at all for this reason. It was never meant to be a ‘public’ game, but he chose to release it because there was the possibility that someone may see something in it and take encouragement and inspiration.
In To the Moon, everything players needed in order to understand the game was within the game. In the case of A Bird Story, it was not.
One of the most difficult things about selling A Bird Story was the fact that it would now be compared against To the Moon rather than being viewed as being a separate and distinct entity.
When he makes something similar to his breakaway success, it can be seen as an inferior sibling, a worry caught in the back of his mind while he develops Finding Paradise and future games in the series.
When asked whether or not he wished A Bird Story was more different from To the Moon, Kan stated that it was the only thing that he could make at the time. He had very strong feelings that would have cored away at him if he did not turn them into something creative.
Games are a form of communication for him, and he is at his best creatively, when he puts thoughts of expectations and audience demands out of his mind and simply uses his talents as a conduit for communicating his feelings.
Throughout A Bird Story, surrealism was interwoven throughout the otherwise very grounded reality of the main character. Kan views surrealism as a sense of freedom, like seeing the world through the imagination of a child.
He wanted players to get lost and enjoy the scenery, like a road trip with a friend. He did not feel that the game did a good enough job explaining that the entire experience was supposed to have taken place within a dream, but he hoped that the surreal elements would hint at this for carefully observant players.
Surrealism also opens the door to the faultiness of memory, an idea that lurked in the back burner throughout A Bird Story and To the Moon, and will feature even more prominently in Paradise Lost.
When engaging with memories, we often cannot tell the difference between truth and fiction. In a sense, the objective reality of the events of our lives are lost once they happen, and all future memories are colored by our cognitions, emotions, and the ways in which we tell the story to ourselves going forward.
Kan’s games are not meant to answer every question for every player. In fact, they are meant to have a haunting uncertainty to them; a sense of uneasy ambiguity.
To the Moon
As we transitioned our conversation to focus more on To the Moon, I remarked that it is a game that I would highly recommend to those less experienced with gaming, having a straightforward and heartfelt storyline, but it shies away from having too much mechanical complexity, making it an inviting proposition for those unfamiliar with the conventions of gameplay.
Even though the game has become much easier to obtain, moving its place of sale from Kan’s personal website to Steam, the widely-used marketplace can still be a bit of a roadblock to people unfamiliar with PC gaming.
He says that he would like to port the game to iPad, which would increase its accessibility to more people, although he stated that no such plans existed on the horizon at the moment.
If readers will excuse a minor spoiler for the game, one of the main characters has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the lower end of the autism spectrum.
While the inclusion of this detail excited me, as a psychologist by trade, I was nervous about how its inclusion would strike others.
During our To the Moon podcast, I asked an individual diagnosed with Asperger’s about some of the details of the character and how much those depictions reflected his own experience, and he expressed that it was a fairly accurate and respectful representation.
As games are starting to tell more complex and personal stories, it becomes more and more important that sensitive issues, such as sexual identity, racial politics, and mental health are explored.
The trouble is that it is very easy to get details wrong, and revert to relying upon stereotypes, making the problems worse instead of better. Kan explained his process for developing the character, and the lengths to which he went to make sure that individuals with Asperger’s are depicted faithfully and respectfully in his game.
“I joined some online communities for folks with Asperger’s,” Kan explained, “and had people proofread portions of the game.”
“I asked them what they thought about River’s actions as someone with the condition. I wanted to portray it accurately.”
He went on to say that he had some personal experiences upon which he build the foundational structure of the character, but he greatly stressed the importance of immersing oneself in the communities in which these individuals gather and speaking to them directly.
“When games address sensitive subjects, they make it very obvious up front,” Kan remarked,
“Personally, I don’t really like that. As soon as you do that, it makes the game about the issue, and this character ‘represents’ Asperger’s. I made the details more subtle. People had to search it out themselves. I gave them hints, but they had to learn about it on their own.”
This approach gamifies learning. At no point in the game did any character use the word “Asperger’s”, although there were a few hints seeded throughout, the most obvious of which being a citation to an author who has spent his life researching and publishing about Asperger’s syndrome.
In a way, this makes the exploration of the topic outside of the game enriching to the player’s play experience while simultaneously seeding the player’s search with the name of a researcher who can give the players a balanced, scientific, and accurate view of the syndrome rather than relying upon blind Googling.
I asked Kan what he wanted to do with the series going forward, and he lit up with all kinds of ideas. As he had remarked earlier, creating something too similar to his previous titles makes it easy to dismiss new entries as being inferior copies.
Rather, he wants the freedom to take his stories in different directions. He expressed a desire to defy expectations and craft a story that no one would expect.
I posited the idea of a psychological horror entry in the series, as, when entering the domain of someone else’s mind, it is possible and even likely that there may be some stuff in their past that would prove to be quite terrifying.
Though he expressed a desire to work with horror, citing certain scenes in To the Moon toying with the idea as well as the entirety of The Mirror Lied, what he wants to do more is work with the conventions of all genres at once. To the Moon is a comedic tragedy, and there is no reason why that kind of cross-genre blending cannot continue in later entries.
The difficulty he has encountered with that is that it makes explaining the game difficult. If people go in expecting a tragedy, they may be put-off by the comedic elements, and likewise, if someone goes in expecting a comedy, they may be emotionally unprepared for the tragic elements. He recommends going into each of his games without expectations. Allow yourself to be surprised.
Though Kan does receive support from various programmers and artists, he does most of the work on his games by himself. He composes the music, writes the dialogue, programs most of the game, and does a fair amount of the sprite work.
Though the music and visuals do add a lot to each of his games, I speculated that writing was his real passion and I asked whether or not he would consider developing a text-based game using some of the tools, such as Twine and Adrift, that facilitates the creation of such games.
“Probably not,” he replied,
“Even though I’m not that good at graphics, it’s still a valuable tool for me.”
With Finding Paradise still at least a year or two in the future, it may be a while before we see a full-scale release from Kan again, but he does still plan on releasing the occasional mini-episode (for those who haven’t noticed, two are currently available as free DLC for To the Moon).
Until then, I look forward to seeing what Kan has in store for his upcoming games.
Equally, I hope that others who have wanted to get into game writing follow Kan’s example and use some of the powerful and robust tools made available to them to create something personal and special.
You never know what could be the next To the Moon.