There’s this little game, called To the Moon, which takes less than 5 hours to complete. Finding Paradise is its sequel, with an interlude in between called A Bird Story, a short little game with no text. They are made on RPG Maker by Kan Gao, aka Freebird Games (I still can’t forget that one fateful night in the beginning of quarantine when I found out he was also from Markham, my hometown). Although categorized as games, they would more fittingly be called movies, with vibrant soundtracks that rely mainly on the piano. The objective of both is simple: you act as a pair of memory “doctors”, changing the memories of a dying man in order to fulfill his dying wish. Kan Gao, when making the first game, was inspired by questions of mortality from his grandfather’s life-threatening condition. What makes a life meaningful? What do we ultimately wish for at the end of our lives?
I was more moved by the emotional core of Finding Paradise, but To the Moon definitely set the stage for the impact. There is a third game called Impostor Factory, which deserves its own analysis in a different article. Therefore, the majority of this article is about Finding Paradise.
When asked whether I have ever experienced a “life-changing” game, these games would not have come to my mind. However, what truly makes something “life-changing”? Is it enough that every time I think of memory, I think of something related to this game? If life is just memory, then changing my view of memory would have ultimately changed my view of life, right?
Time is a Place
“Time is a Place” captures a core theme of Finding Paradise, and is the track with the most number of different versions in the OST (in fact, all these headings are names from the OST, which also includes the iconic track “HNNNNNNGH” – this game still holds my record of best track titles in an OST). Time is not only a place – it is also a person, a smell, a sound, a taste… You stand in the rehearsal hall where you first fell in love with your wife, as she played the first few notes of the piano theme. You don’t remember whether she actually played this theme when you first met or if you just inserted it as a placeholder as a result of your own lack of recollection. Either way, you stand frozen and take in the wooden floors of the concert stage, the grand piano in the centre, and the audience whose faces are all blurry and greyed-out except the face of your son.
This game is based on the idea that memory traversal happens through objects, which are called mementos. As an old man, you are transported back in time to your childhood with the help of something like a paper plane. These places carry a dream-like quality, where details are blurry but each atmosphere still feels more unique and memorable than anything else. That is, you get to see things like locker trees:
These small details from the game show that memory might just be the most mysterious thing in the human mind, almost like how dreams have intrigued dream interpreters for ages. But ultimately, memories are a form of flawed reconstruction – so, are they really that much more reliable than dreams?
The Fiction We Tell Ourselves
“All our memories, and everything in it… can be nothing but the fiction we tell ourselves.”
What we choose to recall from a memory changes drastically depending on how we felt during the moment and how we chose to convince ourselves afterward. This is the fiction we tell ourselves, yet we believe it is true. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves, we try to figure out what kind of people we are based on those stories, and we hope that one day, after we leave this world, that those stories remain as legacies. We write our stories along the way so that two doctors at the end can read them and bittersweetly comment on what a life we’ve had. They then change our memories depending on how satisfied we are with our story, and give us a chance to see the “greener” grass on the other side.
Both of these games are centered around the idea of narrative fallacy: the tendency to create a story with cause-and-effect explanations out of random details and events. Thus, this leads to the main objective of this game: making a set of memories that seem logically plausible. We can’t just send someone to the moon without asking him, “why would he do it?” In To the Moon, where the ultimate goal is to send the main character, Johnny, to the moon, the desire to go to the moon needs to be instilled very early in his childhood in order to create a logical progression of events that will eventually land him on the moon. This turned into an iterative process where the doctors made changes in various parts of his life to determine whether they were successful. We try to logically construct a story from memories. But, if memories are just the fiction we tell ourselves, how much agency do we have over our own story? Do we really need memory doctors to change our memories if we already do it ourselves? This is the core message of Finding Paradise. I won’t go too much into this to avoid spoilers, but this game will give you a view on what memory really means and how we build ourselves a satisfactory story of a life.
This game is an experience. It felt like a kind of comfort that comes with the happiest of memories, ones where you can “find your paradise”. That place where you feel a sense of loss when it ends, as if something precious was taken away from you. Some things are only meant to carry you so far. That includes this game, and any other piece of media for that matter. Seeking fantasy from reality, seeking reality from fantasy, they can only carry you so far. Some things are meant to be let go of. There is no use in wishing that you can experience a game all over again because it just will not be the same. It has already been with you and will remain there, just not in the way it used to. You can shed tears, and then you will move on. You will go make new memories and treasure them alongside what you already have. As cliché as it sounds, all good things eventually end. All you are left with at the end of your life is a bunch of memories for a pair of quirky doctors to sort out. They might seem like a bunch of insignificant details to someone else, but be glad that you still treasure them so. This is what it means to have lived.