Building Character: Johnny & River

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

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Welcome to a special series of Building Character for the month of February! Continuing last year’s tradition, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we will be focusing on couples this month instead of individual characters. We’ll take a look at characters who share all kinds of love, from romantic to platonic. We’ll also be putting out a few more entries than usual this month. And now, I’ll kick off this celebration of partnership with Johnny and River from To the Moon.

Johnny and River To the Moon | Building Character

SPOILER WARNING: This article will contain MAJOR spoilers for To the Moon. If you have yet to play the game, close this editorial and go play it! To the Moon is all about the story, so I guarantee this article will ruin what would have been an amazing experience.

To the Moon is an adventure game developed by Freebird Games. It features a lovingly crafted and original story with a gorgeous soundtrack to boot.

Johnny and River Grade School

Johnny speaks to River for the first time.

Johnny Wyles is the center of To the Moon’s story. When the game begins, Johnny is dying and wishes to have his last wish to go to the moon “fulfilled”, although he can’t say why he wants to go there. Enter Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, who can travel through Johnny’s memories in order to construct an artificial (but permanent) memory of Johnny’s final wish so that he may die happy. As the scientists work their way back through Johnny’s memories, they learn more and more about him and his life, so that by the time they reach his childhood, they may implant a desire to go to the moon. This way, Johnny’s artificial life will progress differently, and he will remember a life where he went to the moon.

As Eva and Neil work their way back through Johnny’s life, they find a common variable amongst almost every single memory: Johnny’s recently deceased wife, River. Through these memories, the game crafts a relationship that is believable and holds a remarkable amount of depth. While it often seems that Johnny and River have a fairytale romance (riding horses together, their beautiful lighthouse wedding) their hardship becomes more and more clear. But through it all, through the frustrations and the difficult times, their love for each other is always present. Johnny works tirelessly to love and care for River, although it is evident that he often finds himself frustrated with River’s odd and seemingly unexplainable obsessions and desires and her inability to communicate directly.

Johnny and River with Anya

Johnny and River with Anya.

For example, River is always constructing origami rabbits and giving them to Johnny. In one particular memory, Johnny grows frustrated with River’s obsession with the rabbits and her tendency to constantly ask Johnny questions about them. River also loves “their” lighthouse, which she has named Anya. She insists that she and Johnny build a house on the cliff next to Anya so that the lighthouse will never have to be lonely. She wants this so badly that, at Johnny’s immense frustration, she refuses to seek treatment for her terminal illness so that the house can be finished. And despite his misgivings about her choice, Johnny respects River’s wishes and puts her needs and wants before his own. River’s oddities can be partially explained by the fact that early in her life she was diagnosed with a condition which greatly impairs her social skills (heavily implied to be Asperger’s Syndrome). But through all his frustrations, Johnny always loves River and strives endlessly for her happiness.

On the other side of things, Johnny is certainly not perfect. He initially approaches River at school because “she was different.” Even when he admits to River the questionable nature of his original desire to be with her, she still loves him and does not fault him for it. For me, this is what makes the love they share so believable and so powerful. No relationship is perfect and there are bound to be hardships, but Johnny is able to recognize these imperfections and overcome them. He truly loves River unconditionally, and that love never fades throughout the course of their lives.

As the plot thickens in the game, we learn even more about the strength of Johnny and River’s relationship. Eva and Neil find themselves unable to implant Johnny’s desire to go to the moon, because River is such a driving force in his life. No desire can override the one he has to be with River, and Eva and Neil find they need to go further back into his memories, although they encounter a great obstacle.

Johnny and River Moongazer

Johnny and River’s first meeting.

In his childhood, Johnny was given Beta blockers, a tool to create memory loss. We later find out this is because his mother wanted Johnny to forget the tragic death of his brother Joey, but that another essential memory was lost along the way. Although Johnny does not remember, he initially met River at a carnival when they were very young. It was then that he gave her the stuffed platypus that she now covets, as the two gazed up at the stars. Together they invented a constellation of “a rabbit with the moon in his belly”, and River admits she believes stars to be lighthouses spread out across the sky. She explains to Johnny that the lighthouses must be incredibly lonely being so far away from each other, and that she wishes to befriend one of them. The two agree that they will meet again at this spot next year, and that they would regroup at the moon if they ever lost each other.

Now, the strength of the love Johnny and River share becomes so much clearer, as do so many of River’s oddities.  Likely due to her condition, River lacked the ability to remind Johnny of their first meeting directly when she finds out he has forgotten. So instead, she tries again and again to remind him, by making origami rabbits to remind him of the constellation they found, wearing a blue and yellow wedding dress (also representing the constellation), and cutting her hair short as it was when they met that day. Now, we’re able to see clearly that Johnny’s devotion to River is matched by River’s devotion to Johnny. She spends her entire life trying to remind Johnny of their first meeting because to her it is such an essential part of the love they share. And despite the Beta blockers meant to erase his memory, Johnny still has an intense desire to go to the moon, although he doesn’t realize why. In reality, it is because he has lost River, and wishes to fulfill his promise that the two would meet at the moon if they were ever separated.

Johnny and River To the Moon Together

Johnny finally makes it to the moon.

The love between Johnny and River is so deeply rooted that even when Neil and Eva are forced to prevent the two from meeting so that Johnny will pursue a career at NASA, he still eventually meets River, and they travel to the moon together. If ever there was a perfect example of what soul mates look like, it is Johnny and River. They are inexplicably drawn to each other, and no matter how much fate (or Neil and Eva) try to separate them, they always find their way back together. In both realities, they share a life of unparalleled love and companionship. And it is only fitting that in Johnny’s final memory, he and River end up on the moon together.

To the Moon is special in that it illustrates not only a beautiful and believable romance, but it lets us experience Johnny and River’s relationship throughout their entire lives. It shows us a deeply rooted partnership as opposed to the brief glimpse of love most games give us. Johnny and River’s relationship goes so far beyond passion and intense romantic love, and gives us a glimpse into what a lifetime of true love can look like.