Kan Gao and To the Moon on Top Score

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
November 7, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — To the Moon is a very special video game.

Composer Kan Gao explains, "The story is basically about these two doctors who travel backwards through their patients' memories in order to fulfill their last wish. But due to the nature of the operation, as soon as the wish is fulfilled, the patient dies.

"So it's a story about this particular patient named Johnny, and his last wish is to go to the moon. And the two doctors essentially travel through his life, from when he's old to when he's a kid, in reverse, and find out just exactly why he wants to go to the moon."

It's also a story about autism.

"It was inspired from some real-life experiences and my past experiences with dealing with people with autism, in particular Asperger's. That definitely played a role in the characterization. And as I was making the game, I participated in this forum for individuals with Asperger's, and I got to know a lot of them and hear their stories, and I actually even got someone from the community to check through the game after it was completed just to make sure the portrayal was on the mark."

In the past, Gao used to have a friend write music for the games that he made. One summer, however, Gao decided to try his hand at video-game scoring.

"And one summer he [my friend] went on a vacation, so I figured, ok, well, I guess I should probably give this a try myself because I needed some music at the time, and it pretty much started from there."

Now, Gao writes his own music. And he learned to play piano in an unusual way.

"I wasn't the most social kid in high school, so during the lunch hours, I went to the practice room and basically locked myself there. And I just messed around on the piano. I still remember the first time I got to...I think that literally the first time I got to touch a piano was in high school. So I was sitting down there, and I spread my three fingers out, and I pressed down the keys, and it was like this arpeggio chord. And I thought, wow, this sounds so good, I can play piano now! And that was how it started really."

The art in To the Moon is deceptively simple. With blocky graphics, it's a lot like an Impressionist painting up close. But as you sit back, the images come alive. Gao says there are benefits to using a simple design.

"It gives more emphasis to the music itself, because then the entire atmosphere and mood is almost entirely relied on the music."

Gao had some help with certain tasks, but he mostly made the game on his own. He found it helpful to take breaks from writing the story by making music.

"That, in turn, made writing the actual words, like the actual dialog and whatnot, so much easier."

Hear Kan Gao's music for To the Moon on the new episode of Top Score from Classical MPR, also on iTunes.

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