Kan Gao: To The Moon and Back

How a student's hobby project spawned 2011's most moving game.

"I'm like the guy with a drink in the corner of the party, just sipping on it and looking at who's here," says Kan Gao, hitting on the perfect analogy for his current situation. Everything, he quietly explains, is so different to how things were before he made To The Moon, the cult indie game about a dying man's last wish that launched to a rapturous reception back in November and left a trail of player tears in its wake. A year ago Gao was winding down his studies at the University of Western Ontario and building games in his spare time for kicks. Today the 23-year-old works under the banner Freebird Games and rubs shoulders with the game industry's great and good at shindigs across North America. "I've never travelled so much," says Gao. "It's been a fantastic experience, such a ride. I had no idea a year ago that I would be where I would be now. It is exhilarating but, at the same time, kind of nerve racking."

Gao's journey into the industry is an odd one. Many indie success stories involve developers who cut their teeth in big studios throwing themselves overboard in a bid for creative freedom. Gao, on the other hand, didn't even set out to become a game developer.

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Kan Gao: The founder of Freebird Games.

"I've always loved games and the delivery of interactive stories in games, but I don't think I thought I could do something like this," he says. "I just tried to turn a story I was writing into an interactive and audio experience. At the time I thought I'd be lucky if there was a tool that could help me make interactive text adventures."

Programming, he confesses, isn't his strong point, despite his major in computer science at university: "I'm still not much of a programmer. I'm more interested in the story and design aspects, I guess. A lot of the other folks in the industry I meet are so talented with programming. In that sense it feels like I'm in the circle but at an odd position."

His hunt for a way to sidestep the rigours of coding led him to Enterbrain's RPG Maker, a tool geared towards the creation of Japanese-style role-playing games that look like throwbacks to the early 90s. "It's just perfect as an efficient way of pumping these things out without worrying much about the technicalities - it allows you to focus on making the game," he says of the tool that he has used to make all his games.

The first result of his embrace of RPG Maker was Quintessence: The Blighted Venom, which even he describes as "cheesy". Six years have passed since he started making it and it's still not finished, but its focus on storytelling and atmosphere hinted at what would follow. "You know how To The Moon is kind of like an adventure game that looks like an RPG? Quintessence is essentially in the middle of that and an RPG. It's really story driven and filled with all these cut scenes but at the same time it has a battle system and a lot of RPG features."

Gao spent 2005 to 2010 working on Quintessence, composing music on his piano, penning new chapters and renovating parts he grew to dislike as time marched on. It was the epitome of lo-fi game creation, with Gao bartering with friends to get the help he needed: "Whenever I needed some new graphics I would go to a talented friend and be like 'I need these graphics - I'll write a song for you, what will you trade me for it?'"

It was a hobby project, a game born out of the simple joy of creation and given away for free online. Then, in 2010, life intervened. Gao's grandfather became seriously ill and the young student began thinking more about mortality. "I hadn't really lost any family members at that point and it got me thinking about death a lot," he says. "I guess I just pictured myself one day being - like everyone else - on my death bed and I'd be looking back at my life. I can imagine it just being a rather intriguing experience to look back and wonder whether or not there were some things you regretted."

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Gao: 'Every time I see a lighthouse I have to run up there and check it out.'

Regrets, he says, are probably an inevitable part of life. "I think everyone would like to live their life back again for whatever purpose. For every person there are those times when they think back and think 'had I done that I wonder what my life would be like now?' Even though it is supposed to be a good thing to be able to live without them, regrets are something that are unavoidable."

"It might be dangerous to dwell on it too much," he quickly adds in a tone that suggests he feels he may well have dwelled on it too much. "Just thinking that there might be a way of going back and living again and sorting out those regrets is a dangerous thought, but at the same time it's a very curious thought."

It was this dangerous thought, the vision of a means to rectify the 'mistakes' of a life already lived, that became the foundation for To The Moon.

The game tells the story of Johnny, an old man on his deathbed whose final wish is to have his memories rewritten so that he dies believing that he went to the Moon and didn't die a widower in his cliff-top home. In Johnny's world this is no idle dream thanks to the Sigmund Corporation and its specially trained doctors, who can access minds and weave new pasts for their patients.

Playing as the two Sigmund doctors tasked with granting Johnny's last request, the player travels through Johnny's life in reverse discovering who he was and eavesdropping on the defining moments of his existence. After learning who Johnny is and his motivations, the doctors set about intervening in his past in order to engineer new memories for Johnny.

It's a scenario that To The Moon uses to touch on matters and emotions that most game developers would run a mile from. Issues such as death, love, autism, regret, morality and how easily we forget just how unique and special the people around us are.

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A faceless girl is just the start of The Mirror Lied's oddness.

For Gao, To The Moon is a deeply personal game. "I don't think I actually tried to think of the audience first," he says. "I was selfish in that regard, I pretty much made what I wanted to make. I was trying to turn a lot of unfortunate events in my life at that point into something more productive so I would look back and they wouldn't have been in vain."

While he will talk about his grandfather's brush with death, other events that fed into To The Moon remain too personal. When I ask him if the game's handling of autistic spectrum disorders is drawn from an experience in his own life, he clams up. "Er, yeah, in some levels it is," he says before pausing in thought.

"I'd like to talk about it," he eventually says, "but it might be beyond my rights to talk about it. I'm not trying to hold anything back, but..." Given how personal the game is, I ask, is it not odd to have players telling you about how it touched them emotionally and caused tears to well up as the final scene played out?

"It's a little surreal," he says. "You never know how something is going to be taken and in a way you can only say so much. I think everyone tries to express themselves in some way in the things they make, so to be able to do this feels like you're able to communicate at more than a verbal level. To hear the feedback that people felt what you felt without you directly saying those things is very cathartic."

There is another reaction that To The Moon inspires though, one that questions whether it really is a game. Sure it lets us move the doctors around its world but there's little of the player agency many associate with videogames. Maybe To The Moon would have been better off as a film or a short story?

Gao disagrees. For him interactivity - no matter how limited - matters. "I honestly think it does," he says. "Interaction is one of those things that on an unconscious level is somewhat underestimated. Even just being able to walk around in a world adds a lot to the sense of involvement over time."

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To The Moon uses humour to offset its serious subject matter.

He points to the final moments of To The Moon as Johnny gets his wish. "Had you not been in control of the doctors and exploring the memories by yourself, there wouldn't be the sense of having been there yourself," he says. "When it comes down to that very last moment as the shuttle is about to take off, it feels like you contributed to the journey they have taken and that they are there because of what you have done even though it is a very linear game. That sense of involvement really goes a long way."

Endings, it turns out, are often the beginning for Gao. "Almost all of the projects I've worked on, what happens is that before I do anything else I picture myself as the audience at that exact moment when the credits roll and I think about what do I want to feel at that particular moment, because that is when everything culminates. I don't really know what the story is about, I just capture that feeling and then head back and write the story to achieve it."

It's an approach illustrated by The Mirror Lied, a free game that Gao released in May 2008. The idea for this 20-minute game came from watching a TV show that left Gao feeling unsettled. He can't remember the name of the programme but the emotion it invoked stuck with him, and The Mirror Lied attempts to recreate that feeling. It opens by describing itself as "experimental pretension" before delivering a bizarre and vaguely disturbing adventure so cryptic that trying to work out its meaning is almost a game in itself.

Pretentious is a word Gao uses a lot. The Freebird Games website is riddled with remarks that try to defuse the high mindedness that Gao's games strive for and in conversation he seems painfully aware that he is vulnerable to accusations of pretentiousness. Even within To The Moon, the jokey banter between Dr Eva Rosalene and Dr Neil Watts seems designed to stop things getting too thoughtful.

More on To The Moon

Does he feel there's a danger of being dismissed as pretentious? "I do, I definitely do," he says. "I used to be really pretentious as well, but I'm toning it down or at least getting better at hiding it now. It is dangerous territory in some sense. I don't mean to be that way but it's pretty easy to go overboard and be over melodramatic, especially when games don't go into these territories very often. It's a kind of defence mechanism."

As a "disclaimer" he adds that he enjoys all types of games (Diablo's a favourite), it's just that when it comes to making games his motivations are different. "I really enjoy making these story orientated games and seeing these stories come to life," he explains, adding that his love of game stories dates back to the Chinese RPGs he played as a young child growing up in China before moving to Canada at the age of 11.

But the days when Gao made below-the-radar games for just his own amusement are over. To The Moon is about to arrive on Steam, the second episode in the series is in the works and Freebird Games is now Gao's full-time job.

Does the threat of being accused of pretentiousness hold him back creatively I ask. "Irrationally it does - there's a boundary so you have to go one step at a time," he replies. "But at the same time the industry is still relatively young and it's almost a phase every media goes through: that really funny point where we are pushing these things at a pace that is probably the fastest it's ever gone. So it is kind of constraining but it's also a fantastic opportunity. I honestly believe we are at the point where a lot of awesome things are about to come."

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