USEREVIEW 121: The Ending Isn’t More Important than Any of the Moments Leading to It

Leah Bobet/ May 24, 2023/ Book Review

Executing an experimental premise in a traditional style, Leah Bobet offers a ‘narrative review’ of Kan Gao’s writing for the video game series that culminates in Impostor Factory (2021) from Canadian developer and publisher Freebird Games.

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Memory isn’t static — or even past — in Freebird Games’ award-winning interactive fiction series To the Moon, Finding Paradise and Impostor Factory. It dips, loops and illuminates, pointing out our inconsistencies, our coping mechanisms, what keeps us apart or draws us closer. Created by Markham, Ontario’s Freebird Games, an indie studio equivalent to a small press, this literary set of story-centred, puzzle-light video games have unfolded for almost twelve years under the guidance of lead writer, composer and developer Kan Gao and his international collaborators.

The series is driven by just one speculative element: a machine that can access and insert human memories, which has been so heavily regulated — and so clumsily developed — that it’s only used to comfort the dying.

It’s a concept capable of holding the ominous, goofy and profound, and its strength is managing all three: pairing vibrant emotional intelligence with banter, whimsy and a strain of the desperately romantic. It’s also a slow-building, nuanced grapple with the ways we communicate, or fail to, with everything but words — and a blueprint for how interactivity in story can give us space to think more deeply about the words we speak with our bodies: human subjectivity, loss and repair.

I. “You’re here to take me to the moon, aren’t you?”

Drs. Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts have an unconventional day job: artificially fulfilling terminal patients’ dying wishes by inserting that ambition in their memories, and letting the Sigmund Life Generation Corporation’s proprietary machine extrapolate a whole different life to remember before they die.

It’s work Eva copes with via shrewd compassion and charmingly muted swearing, and Neil with bombastic, sometimes jarring jokes — their best offence and defence when they arrive at the cliffside home of widowed, bedbound Johnny Wyles to grant his stated last wish: to go to the moon. Except Johnny’s last accessible memory doesn’t know why he wanted to go to the moon — so Eva and Neil must hunt backwards through his remembered life, uncovering what they — and he — have misunderstood about his last wish. And it’s nearly everything.

To the Moon‘s keenly interested in the act of misunderstanding: where we put too much meaning or not enough; the private symbolic vocabularies others can’t reach. It’s a theme that gains startling intimacy when handled interactively: without prose and pace metering our discoveries, readers roll up our sleeves and pull together the disconnected oddities of Johnny’s life ourselves. A decommissioned lighthouse, a locked basement room filled with origami rabbits and a song that plays over and over again resolve organically into heartbreaking human coherence — because we’re driving the discoveries.

That sense of how we move through a story is crucial in To the Moon‘s characterization. Johnny’s near death, and To the Moon gives that emotional impact by structuring its plot like dementia: a disconnected, opaque present where Neil and Eva move backwards through Johnny’s personal time, repeatedly traversing familiar landscapes, working to glean meaning. When you access a new memory, you never know at first glance when you are. It’s a familiar purgatory for anyone who’s witnessed a loved one losing their place in time, evoked purely structurally.

Similarly, To the Moon‘s commitment to what can be said subtextually cuts through shorthands and stereotypes around River, Johnny’s late wife, and her autism. It’s a rare, satisfyingly unfiltered depiction that actively avoids taxonomizing neurodiversity: a Tony Attwood reference, a dislike for white lies, and an entire communication style that Johnny struggles to grasp, even when their friends don’t. Despite Johnny’s limits, River isn’t depicted in his frame of reference but her own, communicating in her own inherent languages: abandoned origami, deliberate pauses before she speaks. Because readers’ attention is self-directed, we can examine her on our own terms. We are physically modelling the act of meeting River where she is.

River’s untranslatedness creates space for a more complex, braver, rawer conversation: how Johnny’s love for her and frustrated hunger for a reciprocation he can feel coexist. The interactive format lets To the Moon situate that unresolvable tension where it lives in real emotional lives: invisible compromises, undercurrents, implications. Johnny never needs to say that he loves River; in his memories, she’s everywhere.

Gao — a talented composer — also skilfully works his audiovisual motifs to communicate full spectra of moods: colour, musical themes, perspective and light. Johnny’s sepia-toned memories communicate age, fading; his past worlds are static-fuzzed in a way that quickly becomes familiar. But they clear at vital moments: Just after Johnny and River’s wedding, the static haunting your screen clears. “Do you feel any different?” he asks her. He doesn’t need to say he does: for once, the colours he remembers in are bright and real.

To the Moon is visibly — and admittedly — a personal project, laced with the kind of anguish that can only come from love; Gao developed it around a family member’s serious illness. But it’s also a major craft achievement, communicating grief, ambivalence and adoration with as many multifaceted sensory channels as life. To the Moon grabs them all and weaves them expertly into a unified piece of storytelling — one that’s brave, rare and lasting.

II: “This is your instrument. Get used to it.”

Freebird’s 2017 sequel, Finding Paradise, takes all the complex idea work of To the Moon and pushes further — by ruthlessly questioning its predecessor’s emotional premises. What does it mean to fulfill a last wish, or to die satisfied? What does that cost everyone else?

In the second instalment, Eva and Neil visit an antiseptic retirement complex to administer retired airline pilot Colin Reeds’ dying wish — one he’s kept from his family, saying it won’t affect them. He’s lived a full life, but isn’t fulfilled, and wants that satisfied feeling of “having done enough” — without changing anything he’s been through. Once Eva and Neil dial in, there’s an instant, tangible instability in his head, memories that insist on slipping sideways, and a fantasy life so dense it rivals Walter Mitty. And someone else lurks around the edges of Colin’s memories like a ghost, static-blanked — and watching.

Finding Paradise covers great ground by immediately playing against To the Moon‘s established assumptions and mechanics. With our expectations set, the cues that something is off are palpable: a path through Colin’s memories that won’t stop wandering, a presence. Having established the ground rules of this world, Freebird now uses it to model the gaps between how an entire worldview looks from the outside, and how it feels inside.

Which is crucial, because Finding Paradise orbits a family and community defined by intense, guarded withholding. Colin’s emotional life is oblique when it’s not absent: glances or dry, teasing comments for affection; intimacy as insisting you’re fine; not playing with your child because you’ve already pictured the playground accident. On his delayed, expensive tropical dream honeymoon Colin still can’t relax, saying: “Well, when you’ve got expectations…” Nothing measures up to the ideal, and if you can’t have the ideal, nothing suffices.

Alert to the tie between themes and mechanics, Finding Paradise also changes its puzzle mechanism to a matching game that’s all about clearing obstacles. What in To the Moon was about context — completing a picture — becomes a tiptoe around increasing obstructions and obfuscations. Nuanced, animated body language — improved from the last instalment — makes Colin’s defeated passivity palpable.

Finding Paradise gets wilder, weirder and more playful than its predecessor, and it’s because its emotional core reaches for trickier communicative territory. It’s difficult business to coalesce story around people who are profoundly inarticulate bystanders in their own lives, creating wild fantasy scenarios to try to scratch itches they can’t well define.

But again, the central axis of Finding Paradise is how structure meets themes: the spiralling order in which you puzzle out Colin’s history, rotating your perspective on Colin, his life, his best friend and his last wish. Colin’s elderly memories and his early childhood tightly intertwine in what Eva calls “the pattern of a decaying orbit.” (Gao tends to play overwhelmingly fair when cueing readers about what matters.) Despite Neil’s insistence it’s an equipment malfunction, that interconnection is increasingly evident as how Colin thinks: he’s a nest of cobwebbed temporal interconnections, and everything reminds him of being small. You can’t stop being thrown back into his earliest lonelinesses and traumas because Colin never quite lives when he is. It’s not for nothing that the musical theme that anchors Finding Paradise is titled Time is a Place.

The solution to Colin’s dilemma is ultimately simple, powerful and eminently possible —and asks readers to peel apart some of To the Moon‘s base assumptions: that what people have done, where we’ve been and how we feel about it are fixed stars. That you must give up things to gain others; that grief and regret need to be repaired.

Asking those questions signals a maturation and complication of craft, character and content, refocused on how To the Moon‘s ideas of regret and coping impact everyone around the client silently rewriting their own memory. Relationships aren’t a one-to-one game in Finding Paradise: people are situated in communities that reverberate with consequences years after the fact. And that understanding of the nature – and importance – of community consequences underpins Freebird’s first attempt to work the problem of relational distance in Impostor Factory.

III. “Whenever we look, they do not die.”

On first glance, 2021’s Impostor Factory seems like a departure: the befuddled Quincy Reynard arrives at an isolated estate for the kind of party where invitations come with NDAs. It’s not five minutes before the hosts are bloodily murdered, and Quincy’s plunged into an Agatha Christie-style country house mystery. It’s not five more minutes before the time travel starts, and he’s chasing down chronically ill neuroscientist Lynri, a guest whose elusive excuses may mark her as the killer—or the key to why he comes unstuck in time whenever he uses the bathroom sink. When she offers him a full explanation — the story of her own life — the murders and his place in time complicate delightfully, in ways no reviewer should spoil.

If Impostor Factory sounds lighter, it is: better showcasing Gao’s exquisite comic timing. One of its best characters is an AI-driven rice cooker who steals the show when the tone needs levity — and steals it more in its most serious moment.

But it’s also plain how every moment of the last two games builds Impostor Factory. Thoroughly entangled in the same universe and politics of simulation, it iterates its craft approach to think differently about the same ideas — this time, toward subtractive design: removing every mechanic that doesn’t serve the central theme. The effect’s somewhat like erasure poetry, where absences are part of the poem. Without To the Moon and Finding Paradise to read against, it’s easy to miss the profundity of what Impostor Factory chooses not to do — what’s not here, and what those absences illuminate.

The first notable subtraction is To the Moon’s puzzle-piece relationship with context, blown away in a funhouse first act where Quincy flails to find his feet in both the estate’s chessboard-like marble floors and any narrative genre. Readers expect to piece cipher-like subjectivities together; instead, we’re asked to hear and consider a straight-up explanation, centred around Lynri’s life, and why she’s chosen to devote her life to intervention instead of enjoying the moment. It’s a tangibly different approach to people and relationship than previous instalments, one that might not rate as thematic without that departure.

Impostor Factory‘s second subtraction confirms the first’s meaningfulness: puzzles and traditional active gameplay are gone. To the Moon and Finding Paradise tracked progress through a memory via small markers — orbs. Impostor Factory retains them for the long explanation that is its second act, but as Quincy you do not mechanically struggle to find them: nothing needs to be hunted out, clicked on, or discovered. You watch, you listen, you follow, you observe — you are in the moment — and in making those observations, you receive automatically what you need to move forward. When rare choices arise, they’re about what you say to others. They are overwhelmingly about whether to be kind.

Impostor Factory‘s shape emerges from those two choices, paired with a central metaphor about whether you choose to live a more austere life that impacts the world more deeply when you’re gone — or live more fully in the moment. After two stories of puzzling and clicking through the same systems, there’s a powerful message in how it’s arranged its systems: that the listening and witnessing we — and Quincy — do through the bulk of the story is an action, too. It constitutes progress. Without To the Moon and Finding Paradise‘s ways of marking progress to compare with, it’s possible to read Impostor Factory’s straightforwardness as an absence of craft instead of a presence: a deliberate, physical, emphatic, restrained choice to make a story about interference-free listening; where witnessing others is a choice we can make. Letting the absences speak is deeply characteristic of Freebird’s development style, but they’ve looked again at what we can communicate without words, and surfaced with something profoundly hopeful: the persistent choice to stay present.

This is, I think, a nearly impossible narrative structure to build in other media. As we read, we’re unconsciously tied and tethered to the baked-in physicalities of how stories come to us. In print, or other unidirectional media — where art talks, and we absorb — the act of not acting is baked into our relationship with the book. It renders listening invisible, passive, commonplace. But when we have to keep clicking to walk and listen, to support, affirm, but not interfere — when restraint is a choice our hands make and keep making against expectations — Impostor Factory can make active points about the value of choosing active, not passive listening.

It’s unspeakably rare for art to model, in our bodies, the act of good listening. It’s a comfort many are hungry for, and work that physically involves us in that process is something precious.

Freebird’s expanding core series is fundamentally a set of stories about not understanding; the spreading impact of physical, emotional, cognitive absences. They’re stories that function by having been told experientially, involving readers in the active communicative relationships they wants to dissect and repair. It’s an achievement and a statement to centre that repair in a video game — a site for play — that’s also delving, with a literary depth of insight, into the tangled ways we reach for and glance off each other; how we fail to grasp anything like the whole story.

No, we fundamentally don’t understand each other. The odds are, in so many ways, against us. With Impostor Factory, Gao and Freebird make a simple, perfectly calibrated statement about what we might begin to do with all those misunderstandings, together, in the dark.

Author photo of reviewer Leah Bobet.
Novelist, editor and critic Leah Bobet’s novels have won the Sunburst, Copper Cylinder and Aurora Awards, been selected for the Ontario Library Association’s Best Bets program and been shortlisted for the Cybils and the Andre Norton Award. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple Year’s Best anthologies and has been taught in high school and university classrooms in Canada, Australia and the US; her poetry has been multiply shortlisted for the Rhysling and Aurora Awards. She lives in Toronto, where she does mutual aid work and makes large quantities of jam. More:

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