To the Moon was Kan Gao’s first commercial success, a game about memory, loss, and dreams of being an astronaut that many players felt a strong emotional connection with (by which I mean everyone cried). To the Moon exceeded expectations for a game created with RPG Maker, but it was not his first. Before that, he spent many years working with the much-mocked engine, refining his poetic writing through many smaller games.
Though lacking polish and scope, those first projects are an intriguing glance into Gao’s mind, and share many traits with the award-winning To the Moon. They have lovingly crafted soundtracks, deep themes and a focus on storytelling and atmosphere, on small gestures and human emotions (plus annoying puzzles and birds). Those early experiments can be downloaded for free on Freebird Games’ website, and can be a nice appetizer before To the Moon’s new sequel Finding Paradise.
But are they all worth playing?
Superficially, Quintessence looks very much like every teen’s first RPG Maker game, with default art assets, rough menus, and a wonky battle system. As soon as you start playing, however, you realize it has one big redeeming quality: craft.
It may look cheap, but its cutscenes are composed with the care you’d expect from a Final Fantasy game. The camera movements, the lovely animations, the pacing of the dialogue, the music, the expressions: everything is calculated. Quintessence feels cinematic.
It’s a game that starts at the ending, with a final dungeon and a hardened group of heroes solving puzzles and battling monsters. After their tragic defeat, we’re back to the start to witness how everything started. This is not a start in medias res followed by a flashback, though. Thanks to a pact with a deity, the protagonist effectively rewinds time, getting another chance to relive events.
Unlike To the Moon, we’re not back in time to make everything better: the protagonist wants to avoid getting involved in this mess in the first place, but it doesn’t take much for him to get tangled again in a story full of shapeshifters, magic, and lies.
It’s an intriguing tale, but its pacing is glacially slow. Every map change is an excuse for a new cutscene, a conversation, or a new character to be introduced. Quintessence is packed with details, and the never-ending dialogues, combined with the intricate maps, can sometimes feel overwhelming. Battles, on the other hand, are a convoluted real-time affair, often just an excuse to stretch your fingers before the next dialogue.
It’s a game that demands patience, and unashamedly wears its JRPG influences on its sleeve. Those willing to give it a chance will get to enjoy a lengthy, compelling story full of twists—albeit one that might possibly never get an ending.
As Gao’s attention shifted to commercial work, the fate of Quintessence became uncertain. Although Gao stated his determination to finish the game, it has been officially on hiatus for more than five years, and it’s still missing its final chapters. Even if you are interested in a look at his early work, you may want to hold off for now.
The Mirror Lied
"This is NOT a horror game," the description says. There are no monsters, no jumpscares, and no ways to get a Game Over: you’re just a faceless girl in an empty house, tasked with the duty of… watering a plant.
Weird, but not horrifying. And yet, there’s something palpably disturbing in the way the house withers and shifts as you explore it, looking for answers in dusty rooms illuminated by crepuscular lights.
Books in the libraries have titles, but the pages are all blank. The phone keeps ringing, ominous messages telling you that a mysterious "birdie" is coming to get you. And the world map pinned on a room gradually gets emptier, continents disappearing one after another.
This is not a horror game, not one of the many Yume Nikki-inspired RPG Maker titles with small girls fighting big monsters. And yet, it’s impossible to walk away from The Mirror Lied without feeling a bit uneasy. What was it all about? I don’t know. Nobody knows (the most accepted theory: "some metaphor about the bird flu"). Perhaps not even Kan Gao knows for sure—people tried to ask him, and this was his official response:
While Gao hasn’t made proper horror games, this sense of uneasiness, of crumbling realities and distorted dreams, brings to mind the two mini episodes that were released after To the Moon, the Holiday Special Minisode and Sigismund Minisode 2.
Do You Remember My Lullaby?
Kan Gao’s works are sometimes criticized for their lack of interaction. His virtual words can sometimes be reduced to little more than the occasional puzzle or brief walk from a cutscene to another. In this case, he solved the problem by simply not having a game at all.
Do You Remember My Lullaby? is an immersive movie about a mother and child, narrated with few words and many small gestures. It’s a Christmas story, perfect for this holiday season—though being a Kan Gao game there is no happy ending and everything is terrible. Even in this game, Gao used RPG Maker’s default assets to paint its world, but to call them simply "default assets" would belie what he did with them.
Instead of making assets from scratch, Gao focused on improving what he already had, giving each character a full range of small movements, expressions and gestures. Simple scenes, like a mother making a cake, are portrayed with an attention to detail that makes everything feel more humane. A perfect non-game to try if you have half an hour and a pack of tissues to spare.
It’s another sad game, this one. But not for the usual reasons.
Lyra’s Melody is the forgotten idea for a full-fledged game, that became less and less important as To the Moon became Gao’s main project. The only trace of its existence are some forum posts that gives us a brief summary of what it could have been:
When Ralle Peregrine was a child, he began to hear a mysterious melody in his head. Around the same time, his childhood sweetheart, Lyra Shire, began to lose her hearing.
As they grew up, Ralle became a guitarist to accompany the strange melody that only he hears whenever he closes his eyes. By then, Lyra had gone completely deaf.
He wrote many songs for her, but she could hear none of them.
One day, when Ralle was playing the mysterious tune at his usual spot, a wagon came by and stopped. Out came a man; a wanderer named Traviston Estel, with a piece of rye hanging out of his mouth.
That of which he soon spat out, as he took out a music box, echoing the very melody that Ralle has been hearing all these years.
The only playable demo is a lovely, criminally brief affair with no fights and the usual mix of cutscenes and minigames. Not much happens in terms of plots, but the interactions between the two protagonists are pleasant enough to leave us wondering. As it stands, it's the ghost of a tale that may never be, worthy of a play only for the most fervent fans.
If you didn't enjoy To the Moon, Gao’s previous works aren't going to blow your mind. There’s no artistic revolutions here, no dives into new genres or new ideas. Kan Gao’s path has been focused on polish—on the meticulous refinement of his particular style of storytelling over the course of 10 years. It makes me wonder what he could do with a bigger budget and full team behind him, but I think I already know the answer. Gao’s games are popular because they manage to strike a chord even in their primitive, pixelated form. Additional resources would help him reach a bigger audience, but his games would remain exactly the same. Because this one time, they sent a poet.