Für River? To the other side of the Moon...

Freebird Game's "To the Moon" has been lauded many times over for the engaging story. Despite it's pixelated cartoony graphics it's well known for making grown men cry. If you haven't played it yet, please do yourself a favor and give it a go. It's cheap & deep, but once you've read spoilers there's no going back.

Throughout the game a wonderful musical motif called "For River" (and in one instance, for other reasons, "To the Moon") is introduced in a number of variations. For example, the following clip is simply called "Johnny's Version" after the character Johnny who is also the in-story composer of the piece.

"Johnny's version" was written at a younger time in Johnny's life, when his wife River was still alive and life to him seemed apparently good. The structure is quite free-form and he dances around the higher notes playfully.

By contrast, Sarah and Tommy's version is played at a time closer to Johnny's death by his caretaker's two children. They are reading from the sheet music on Johnny's piano, so presumably it's a more recent revision of the piece in terms of game-time. Johnny seems to have switched to a slightly different key and brought in a more refined A-B-A-C structure, which is why I'll use this version as the basis of my comparisons.

If you compare Sarah and Tommy's version to Ludwig van Beethoven's Für Elise, there doesn't initially appear to be much in common...

As you'll probably notice the time signature is completely different as For River is arranged in a more contemporary 4/4 while Für Elise is in 3/8. That, and the A-B-A-C-A rondo form of Für Elise is somewhat different to the open-ended structure of Johnny's earlier versions, although Sarah and Tommy's version is quite similar with an A-B-A-C structure, it seems the final piece of the structure is missing. If this was a deliberate omission then my respect for the game and its creator jumped up a notch or two.

Aside from the time signature which adds an extra note to each bar, if you play Für Elise and For River on a piano and interchange between sections from both, some similarities begin to appear.

Starting in the first bar of Für Elise, you'll alternate E-D# repeatedly with your right hand in poco moto before arpeggiating E-major and A minor, with a variation around C and G major.

Starting in the first bar of For River, you'll alternate D-E repeatedly with your right hand in poco moto before arpeggiating C, A, F and G major with your left hand. The difference here is the poco moto melody is sustained throughout rather than being replaced with arpeggio chords.

Of course this can just be coincidence, and only the first section and general structure of Für Elise bears any remarkable resemblance, and if it were purely on the basis of the music alone I would chalk it up to a coincidence. However the similarity of the titles adds weight to there being a connection, and even if I am hopelessly off the mark I would like to entertain the idea that For River is a tribute to Für Elise and that the themes thus derived from Für Elise's links to the tragic side of Beethoven's life overlap those of the game.

If there's really a connection, how and why?

In the game you play the role of two doctors exploring the mindscape of a dying man, Johnny, trying to piece together his memories in order to rewrite his life to fulfill his dying wish. Early on it becomes evident that his deceased wife, River, is a huge mystery. Who was she?

As you dive down into the deeper levels of Johnny's subconscious and past, you uncover small pieces of who she is and exactly why she was embedded so firmly in his psyche. Like a river, she flowed through his life, but the source was unknown, shrouded in tragedy.

<spoiler>Even as you rewrite Johnny's memory to fulfil his final wish, it is tragic that she had passed away already in "real life" before its realisation, and also that Johnny's passing thoughts of a life well-lived were a lie - he never had an epiphany about their deep connection. We never got to know River directly - only through the half-remembered scraps of a dying old man's mind, however it becomes clear towards the end that, despite a promising start to their relationship, River died deeply unhappy, seemingly alone and unloved.</spoiler>

If we dig deeper we can find some similarity to the story of Für Elise. No one knows for sure who this "Elise" character really was but whoever she was, Beethoven composed and dedicated a piece to her. Some studies say that even the progression of the main melody spells "Elise", however others claim that her name was misinterpreted and that Therese Malfatti was the true identity of the song's dedicatee. Herself a musician, Beethoven had courted her and was ultimately rejected in favor of an Austrian nobleman.

Coupled with the mystery of Elise is that of his "immortal beloved", an unknown person to whom he wrote a series of undelivered letters proclaiming eternal love, letters which were only found after his passing. While there is some speculation that Therese may be the intended recipient of his desires, there is greater evidence to indicate Josephine Brunsvik, an Austrian aristorcrat and widow, was the true "immortal beloved" as they had a well documented affair in which his letters specifically referred to her as his "eternal beloved".

The identity of Beethoven's "immortal beloved" may or may not be congruent with the identity of his Elise, however for the purposes of the analogy, the specifics are not important. It suffices that the materials surrounding the composer's life suggest a series of doomed relationships and a lifetime spent longing for a deeper connection that never eventuated, as evidenced by these words to his "immortal beloved":

I can live only wholly with you or not at all - Yes, I am resolved to wander so long away from you until I can fly to your arms and say that I am really at home with you, and can send my soul enwrapped in you into the land of spirits - Yes, unhappily it must be so - You will be the more contained since you know my fidelity to you. No one else can ever possess my heart - never - never - Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves.

One need look no further than the Heiligenstadt Testament to see how miserable his life had become:

With joy I hasten towards death. If it comes before I have had the chance to develop all my artistic capacities, it will still be coming too soon despite my harsh fate, and I should probably wish it later - yet even so I should be happy, for would it not free me from the state of endless suffering? Come when thou wilt, I shall meet thee bravely. Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead; I deserve this from you, for during my lifetime I was thinking of you often and of ways to make you happy

It's not difficult to draw an analogy between the themes of Beethoven's life and the game To the Moon. That feeling of missing a deeper connection in life, of trying to deal with a seemingly impassable divide between two souls such as Beethoven and his "immortal beloved" or Johnny and and his wife River is a central theme to the game. Additionally, the mystery of just who River really was is the strong central theme of the entire game and mirrors the mystery of Beethoven's Elise.

Of course I may be making a complete fool of myself here. I'm by no means an expert on music or history. Kan. R. Gao himself says the triggering inspiration for the game comes down to close personal events. However these coincidences, including the song name, the chords, the playing style of some of the notes, the relevance between the stories of the game and Für Elise may all simply be accidental. If they are, then it's a happy accident, perhaps one of the many repeating patterns of the human condition, hence their similarity in nature.

However if this is deliberate then I have to tip my hat even further to Kan. R. Gao for the sheer depth of the themes he's woven into his creations.

[2016 edit]

Others I have spoken with have noted a more obvious link to Debussy's famous Clair de Lune:

I agree this is an influence. For River / To the Moon seems to borrow the feeling or themes from Clair de Lune, but the motifs or patterns seem to me more closely related to Für Elise to my ear at least.

Who knows? Either way, all of this is beautiful music and all this high-falootin' talking is all in good fun.