In Real Life

Can False Memories Be As Powerful As Experience?

The gateway to the mind, the self, who you are, what you believe in — the most complex structure in the universe, allegedly — is resting on your shoulders. I speak, of course, of the brain, that strange, wondrous organ that has given rise to many of our crown jewels as a species — science, philosophy, dreams.

Thought in particular is a powerful intellectual tool. Memory and remembrance are the cornerstones of experience. To The Moon is a game that toys with ideas surrounding mind and remembrance, ultimately posing an evocative question: is thinking you did something as meaningful as actually experiencing it?

To The Moon follows two doctors, Dr Rosalene and Dr Watts, as they set out to fulfil a dying man’s last wish. They’re like the Make-A-Wish foundation, only they don’t actually make the wish happen in a literal sense. You see, they fulfil final desires via artificial memories. They use technology to step into people’s minds. This technology has the capability of reconstructing memories, only they become interactive — the doctors can pause things, make people disappear, and change some elements of the memory at will.

The result is tragic, but romantic: you die, but before that, for a brief second, you’ve realised your innermost desire.

Once in the memories, the doctors have to travel back to the earliest possible waypoint, and use that memory as a nexus for the new, false memories. This is where the doctors are able to alter things to such a degree that the patients’ mind will then construct an entire alternate life from that point onward where they actually “accomplish” their dying wish. These memories cannot reconcile with the memories that are real, though, and there’s such a mental dissonance that the mind ceases to be functional. The result is tragic, but romantic: you die, but before that, for a brief second, you’ve realised your innermost desire. You go into the light at the end of the tunnel fulfilled.

The game is set up as a mystery. Johnny — the patient — has no idea why his final wish is to go to the moon. The journey to his childhood, then, isn’t just to find the most fertile soil in which to plant an idea Inception-style; it is also a mystery that the player peels back, layer by layer, memory by memory, until we find out exactly why he wants to go to the moon. These memories are stitched together by items called ‘mementos’; they are things like a soccer ball, a stuffed animal, a jar of pickled vegetables. These mementos are recurring and, at first, insignificant to the player. We don’t know why the mementos hold meaning to Johnny. We just know that we have to find a certain number of them, like any other video game collectible, in order to dive deeper into Johnny’s mind. The important people in Johnny’s life are recurring, as are some of the locations.

It’s through this repetition that To The Moon creates a sense of intimacy. As it exposes us to Johnny’s treasured mementos and the contexts that gave them meaning, they become meaningful symbols for us too. The brain has two types of memory: short term and long term. Immediate impressions like inputs from our senses and thoughts only last a few seconds — they’re just a blast of information, and we don’t necessarily file this information away. That’s short term memory. Things we learn, however, go into our long-term memory. The way the brain retains information is through association: if we have a previous experience that we can relate to the new piece of information, our brain clusters them together. This is why you read about geniuses who learn vast amounts of information through associative techniques, or even simple tricks we use to remember names — it’s called mnemonics. The more we see the mementos in To The Moon in different contexts, the more we strengthen the neural pathways that store this information. We’re literally internalizing the mementos.

This internalisation allows us to situate ourselves in the memories more comfortably. At first we feel like voyeurs, cautious about how we interact and view very personal scenes. The change we experience in relation to these memories is like the difference between overhearing a dispute between two people you don’t know, and walking in on your parents talking about how it’s important that you don’t realise how difficult it is to pay the bills. You’re not supposed to see either of these, but the closeness we’d have to the latter situation makes it more intimate, more “okay” in a weird way.

Growing up, I was always told that my mind would be the key to my success, that it would allow me to go farther than most of my poor, uneducated family had. “You don’t want to clean toilets like I do,” my mum always warned me. To highlight a point, she’d occasionally take me into her job to let me see the life she was trying to save me from. I dreaded those days. It wasn’t that I was sick of hearing life lessons, or even that being at work was boring for a preteen or anything. I was just terrified of Ophelia.

My mother, you see, took care of the elderly. Part of that job was cleaning, yes, but it was also helping seniors like Ophelia with their day-to-day needs. Thanks to Alzheimers, Ophelia lost her mind just south of being 50 years old. Every day, Ophelia ‘met’ my mother anew, and every day Ophelia didn’t understand why in the world a stranger wanted to go into her home. As the day wore on, Ophelia would discard her estrangement to my mother and welcome her to the family. The stranger became the mother, long dead, the aunt, who actually lived in a different country, the old friend, who she hadn’t seen in decades. Me, I became the dearly beloved sister, complement to Ophelia’s son, whom she regarded as her brother (and sometimes, her husband).

I didn’t know why she scared me back then, but it’s much more clear to me, now. Everything about her felt off. In my culture, you don’t ship away the elderly, no matter how demanding their needs might have been, and especially if we’re talking about mental illness. That sort of thing was considered a very private battle, a responsibility nobody but family should be inflicted with. Ophelia was also the oldest person I knew at the time, and I had yet to have anyone I knew die, or be close to death. My mother often remarked Ophelia probably wasn’t long for this world. Between dialysis and an assortment of illnesses, and most of all, that murky stench of life barely hanging off her bones, it was difficult to disagree with that assessment.

Most of all, Ophelia made the fragility of the mind painfully clear to me. She made me realise that I could live life, do things, learn things, remember things but that it was all ephemeral and could be lost to me. The currency of my future, my mind, felt threatened — sure, a silly thing to worry about being so young, but still. It’s scary to think about.

Most of us feel the same way, really — we place an extraordinary amount of importance in our brains. The idea, popularised by the philosopher Rene Descartes, is that if ‘everything’ is housed up there, which implies a separation between mind and body, then perhaps we can transcend death. In that situation, a brain could hypothetically be uploaded to a a digital world. I think that video games and the ‘immersion’ we strive for (along with other aspects of the digital age) have helped pave the way for that line of thinking; we already see that it’s possible to be “transported” to a place where our bodies do not encumber us. Our language, often influenced by the technology the time, reflects this ideology: we think of brains much like we do computers. The brain’s plasticity is something we like to refer to as “rewiring” or “programming” ourselves. The hope science holds is that memories, knowledge, and identity can perhaps be altered, transplanted or uploaded like information can. What is interesting about all of this is to consider how all of science — from our fixation on genes (which we consider a “code” waiting to be crack), to augmentation ala Deus Ex — is working toward the manipulation of even the most minute aspects of what makes us ‘human’.

That is the heritage from which To The Moon pulls from — a history of scientific inquiry into the understanding of and alteration of the mind, fuelled by the desire to overcome the limitations and degradation of our bodies When you take into account the Cartesian heritage To The Moon pulls from and consider that we live in a reality that has figured out how to visualize thought, translate thoughts into words, or more eerily, implant dreams to combat PTSD, its premise doesn’t sound particularly far-fetched, does it?

Still, I found something off-putting about To The Moon‘s premise. The discomfort was in the implication that we could find value, meaning, if not fulfillment in something that never actually happened. The idea is that as long as you thought it happened, then that’s all that matters. I thought to myself, isn’t there value in actually experiencing what you thought you experienced? Isn’t the premise privileging the mind over the body? Isn’t it essentially romanticizing delusion?

The idea is that as long as you thought it happened, then that’s all that matters.

Is an idea alone worth as much as an actual experience? That can’t be right. I think of Marcel Proust, a French writer, and his famous story about a madeleine. While eating this madeleine, he teleports back to childhood, he remembers eating the same snack as a kid. My strongest memories invoke me just as profusely, they instantly situate me in things I’ve experienced before. Memories are tied to sensations. A game has never immersed me in the same way a memory entrenched in the senses has. Think of how suddenly everything around you can disappear in the stead of a memory. Memories of a feeling, a taste, a sound exist potently in the mind. Smell in particular is a sense that has a direct gateway to the brain. Remembering is “in the hands and in the body” argues Katherine Hayles, a literary critic central to these ideas of materiality. Given that, I’m not convinced that an idea that never happened, that is not tied to sensation in our bodies, is as valuable as something we’ve actually experienced.

Games know this deep down, I think. The best games have sticky friction, as Tim Rogers would put it. Mechanics abstract feelings, they are kinaesthetic, they are microcosms for the idea of movement. We can’t get rid of the body, instead we endlessly mimic its experience with our digital marionettes. Gears of War is a prime example of this phenomenon: the roadie run is exhilarating, sticking to cover feels like a full-bodied thud, a roll swishes, a headshot crunches. Everything in the game is visceral, is felt.

Still, there’s something that makes it difficult for me to embrace the idea that thinking you did something isn’t as meaningful as actually experiencing it.

Think back to your earliest memory. For me, that memory is my father. I’m sitting in the back seat of his newly-bought truck. My mother is outside of the car, she looks angry. She’s trying to get me out of the car. My dad locks the car before she can open the door, pulls the windows up and almost snaps her hands in place. He starts driving away, and I look back on my mother, who is running after us, screaming, screaming, furious and crying. She falls on her knees.

“Where are we going, daddy?”

“Any place but here.”

We arrive at unfamiliar house. He leads me by the hand inside, where a woman smiles at me. I’ve never seen this woman before, but I later come to know this smile as the smile that women like to greet my father with.

“Just wait down here honey, I’ll be back in a while, OK?”

I watched them both hurry upstairs.

Our brains are fickle tricksters. Memory can become decreasingly accessible over time — perhaps you’re getting old, perhaps your grey matter is decaying, or its become damaged somehow. Memory can be influenced. Being told something repeatedly can make you forget whether or not something happened, being asked something in a certain way can cause you to reconstruct the memory in a very specific, incorrect framework. Perhaps stress or trauma is mucking around with what’s in there, causing you lapses in attention, making it difficult to commit things to memory. Entire segments of your life can be erased from you, others are more vivid than you’d like them to be. Feelings toward things, toward people can affect affect how you remember things, too.

How can I say that To The Moon‘s false memories are worthless when it’s possible that a good deal of what we think we’ve experienced doesn’t quite line up with what’s actually happened?

Years later, after he’s abandoned us, after it’s been so long that his face is a distant fog and the only reminder I have is the resemblance that a mirror suggests, I resentfully confront my father about my earliest memory. This is when I find out this memory never actually happened. There was arguing, there were fights, there was cheating, but this memory never actually happened. And yet the memory seems like such a concise amalgamation of everything I associate with my father that I can’t help but consider it more meaningful, more authentic than the memories of him that actually occurred.

Patricia Hernandez is the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Mode, a site devoted to writing critically about games.