“With effort, it is possible to acquire a guise of social norms systematically. But you know what? I both envy and pity River. Me..? I’m an actress because I’ve been doing it all my life. Not only on-stage, but off-stage…and at practically every moment. I’ve gotten good at it because acting is the only option I have. It is the only way for me to be ‘normal’. But River…she never did that. She remained an outcast and refused to learn how to step against it. I don’t know if it was by choice or limit, whether by bravery or cowardice. There are days where I just can’t stand faking it anymore. And then I realise that it’s to late. The Isabell that people know of is all an act and the real me has long become a stranger. I think in the end…I just envy her.”

I played To The Moon expecting I’d finish it, write a standard review of the game and leave it behind in my life, ready to move on and start on the next game ASAP as I so often have to do in my line of work. Instead, around half way through the game I hit the segment of text quoted above and realised this was a game that was going to hit much closer to home for me that I had expected and as such would need a very different kind of coverage. To The Moon is the story of an old man’s dying wish to visit the moon, but much more importantly it’s the story of a pair of women, in particular one woman’s life long battle with Aspergers Syndrome.

I want to start things off with a little bit of context for where this article is being written from. I’m a woman who happens to have been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, a condition effecting interpersonal relationships and my reading of social cues among other things. Feel free to google the symptoms if you want an in depth breakdown, but bear in mind that not everyone presents the same symptoms in the same ways or to the same degrees.

ttm2Here’s a quick recap of the story of To The Moon for those who’re rusty (or anyone reading without playing the game, I’d really recommend playing the game first). You play through the story of a pair of scientists a little way in the future. This pair, using future technology, are tasked with going into the memories of a dying man and help rewrite his life in his own head, allowing him to live out his final wishes. This particular man, John, wishes to go to the moon before he dies, but he can’t remember why. This means that the scientists have to go gradually further back in his memories, experiencing the events that shaped his life most and find out both where the desire to go to the moon came from, and how to help him achieve it.

The thing about this game is that it quickly becomes obvious that the centre of most of John’s life changing memories is his deceased wife River and their life together. Travelling backwards through their life together we eventually learn the series of events that transpired in John’s life that lead him to want to travel to the moon was that when the two of them both met as children they created a rabbit constellation in the starts, with the moon as it’s belly and promised each other that if they ever became separated they’d make sure to meet each other there. We see John ask River out on a date (though his motives for doing this were less than ideal), grow closer to each other despite the differences in the way they see the world, then eventually see her diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome (While it’s never mentioned by name, the doctor who gives them a book written by himself is named Tony Attwood and is a real world author of several books on Aspergers Syndrome). From there we see her struggling increasingly to deal with life the same way as John does, particularly in regards to her obsessive desire to befriend a lighthouse that she sees parallels to her own loneliness in.

Due to a traumatic event in his childhood John forgets their promise to each other and their whole first meeting, leaving River struggling to work out how to remind him of that very important day in her life. She resorts to obsessively folding paper rabbits day and night, all white besides one specific one which is blue with a yellow stomach to represent their constellation. Due to her difficulties opening up emotionally she continues to create these until the day she dies, withdrawing more and more into herself and even refusing to accept medical treatment for a separate and fatal condition so that John can afford to finish building a home near her lighthouse, despite his inability to understand why the lighthouse is so important to her.

 

River: “I wouldn’t mind. Just for once… to have the same name everyone else has. It’s like those lights in the sky… They all look the same from here, but that doesn’t make them any less pretty.”

Johnny: “So… what do you think they really are? The stars, I mean.”

River: “I… I’ve never told anyone, but… I’ve always thought they were lighthouses. Billions of lighthouses… … stuck at the far end of the sky.”

Johnny: “Wow, it must be so lively up there.”

River: “But it isn’t. They can see all the other lighthouses out there, and they want to talk to them. But they can’t, because they’re all too far apart to hear what the others are saying. All they can do… is shine their lights from afar. … So that’s what they do. They shine their lights at the other lighthouses, and at me.”

Johnny: “Why you?”

River: “Because one day… … I’m going to befriend one of them.”

 

There are several things about River’s character that are rare when looking at depictions of characters in games, or any media really, who have Aspergers Syndrome or any other Autistic Spectrum Disorder. The games writers avoid the overused trope of making her a super obsessed genius when it comes to her area of interest. Like most people on the spectrum, while she does have an obsessive subject she likes to focus on, it’s never anything academic, it’s more something that she obsesses over because it’s important to her understanding of the world. As you can see above, her obsessive interest in lighthouses comes down to an underlying issue regarding her own ability to communicate with and befriend those around her.

Also, she’s not presented as someone who’s weird for the sake of making her a joke or someone to be pitied, she just sees the world in a different way. On her and John’s first date, she doesn’t realise that John expected her to sit next to him. As far as she was concerned, they were both watching the film which was what the plan had been to do, and sitting with him wasn’t important to the experience of watching a film. It’s a great example of someone who’s not unable to make friends, she just sees social situations a little differently to those around her.

to_the_moon_by_keterok-d5bxw38Lastly, it uses portrays her late game breakdown not as someone loosing their mind, but someone desperate to reach out to a world without the words to make her point understood. She obsesses over the rabbits because that’s the only thing she can do to keep herself going and reduce her anxiety, while simultaneously trying to remind John that they made a promise to meet on the moon and more importantly the conversation surrounding that promise. She needed him to remember why she wanted so badly to befriend Anya (the name given to the lighthouse) and why finishing the house that would overlook Anya was more important to her than even her own life.

However, River’s not the biggest reason that TTM’s writers should be applauded. Rather than just focusing on the character with Aspergers who was integral to the story they wanted to tell, they also introduced a second female character with Aspergers called Isabell, who provides some much needed balance to the games portrayal of Aspergers as a spectrum condition. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the games portrayal of River, but on a personal level I connected much more to Isabel as a character and felt that her role made the game not just feel inclusive of my condition, but that it actively went out of it’s way to represent the fact that many people with Aspergers fight a very different battle to the one we see River face. One that’s much more linked to personal identity, how the world sees us and the sacrifices that have to be made to live a “normal” life.

Isabel is a friend of John’s who also suffers from AS. She was diagnosed much later in life than River and as such didn’t have the same opportunities when it came to support. She followed the path that many people with AS follow, working incredibly hard to construct a form of social face, something they can wear as to pretend that they’re like everyone else around them. She’s regularly John’s reference point for coping with River’s personal issues and the character through which the player is presented with the fact that no two people with AS are the same as each other, that just because someone doesn’t show affection doesn’t mean they don’t feel it and most importantly in terms of this games coverage of AS, she shows that just because someone appears normal, doesn’t mean they struggle any less with the condition and it’s effects.

“With effort, it is possible to acquire a guise of social norms systematically. But you know what? I both envy and pity River. Me..? I’m an actress because I’ve been doing it all my life. Not only on-stage, but off-stage…and at practically every moment. I’ve gotten good at it because acting is the only option I have. It is the only way for me to be ‘normal’. But River…she never did that. She remained an outcast and refused to learn how to step against it. I don’t know if it was by choice or limit, whether by bravery or cowardice. There are days where I just can’t stand faking it anymore. And then I realise that it’s to late. The Isabell that people know of is all an act and the real me has long become a stranger. I think in the end…I just envy her.”

In terms of this article, I feel it’s important to explain a little about my personal background, and why I relate to Isabel’s situation so much. I wasn’t diagnosed until my late teens, meaning that for the bulk of my childhood I grew up in a house where my stimming (repetitive quirks and obsessive actions used to lower anxiety) were something my parents cracked down on. They’d make a point to tell me off and stop me if I made every third step a hop or made weird noises or obsessively adjusted and readjusted my clothing. They forced me to invite people over, to make friends with children of other parents at the school they knew and didn’t leave avoiding social situations as an option for me. They wanted me to appear normal, and they went to great lengths to push me to present myself in as normal a way as possible.

While for the most part I’ll always thank them for the way they handled that aspect of my life, there are times I can’t help and wonder what life could have been like for me. I’m hugely glad I’m able to present myself during the bulk of my time as normal, it’s one of the few reasons that a career in games journalism is as open to me as it is, but it means that people will forever assume that there’s nothing wrong with me. People are caught off guard when I stim, I don’t have the option to excuse myself easily from situations without having to explain why I’m leaving and when I do melt down, people assume I’m putting it on to try and get something out of the situation or achieve some kind of situational advantage. The veneer of social normality I’ve been able to construct is convincing for the most part, but it takes a huge amount of energy and concentration to maintain, and sometimes I just want to be able to relax, drop the façade, and just be myself. But it’s not an option, because people will view that as me moving backwards, playing up symptoms for sympathy or simply start to view me in a negative light. I can’t drop the façade, but it’s unlikely anyone around me will ever understand how exhausting it is to maintain, why I’m always so worn out when I talk to people. Why I’m always so unbelievably awkward at networking events.

to-the-moon

When I have issues around people and try to explain to them that I have AS I’m always greeted by the same responses. I fit in too well. It’s okay because I’m so “high functioning” (a term I’ve always hated, as it suggests that how much someone struggles with the condition is directly linked to how well they fit in socially and not their internal struggle with issues). I’m told that I don’t act Autistic enough to have Aspergers and that I clearly don’t have anything wrong with me because they’ve never noticed anything before. Is it so hard to believe that someone could learn to bluff their way through a conversation like a poker player? Is it impossible to imagine that with enough plotting of social flow charts alone in their room someone might be able to learn when to say enough to keep a conversation going, while terrified on the inside that they’re about to say the wrong thing and completely ruin a social situation? I spend half my life hiding myself behind a social construct and making it look effortless, meaning that I somehow lose my right in other peoples eyes to occasionally need to get my headphones on, play my favourite song on loop while rocking back on the floor to calm down. Somehow that avenue of venting my anxiety is no longer something I’m allowed to do, because I’m too good at acting okay even I feel fundamentally broken.

This is why Isabell’s inclusion in TTM is so vital, it provides that balance and explains something that is all too often ignored by the world at large. There are people all around with Aspergers that manage their condition incredibly well on the surface, but you’d never know it because the only time the condition is visible is when people are outwardly doing things considered abnormal, not when the person struggles along and deals with things privately in a very controlled manner.

The last aspect of Aspergers Syndrome that’s important to look at in terms of To The Moon is the fact that the only characters in the game on the Autistic Spectrum that we know of are both women, which goes completely against the very commonly held belief that Aspergers is something that only really effects men. Referencing one of Tony Attwoods books on the topic of Aspergers Syndrome, he explains that in his opinion the weighted nature of diagnosis of men over women comes down to the fact that “Girls are more able to follow social actions by delayed imitation because they observe other children and copy them, perhaps masking the symptoms of Aspergers syndrome”. Another book on the topic by writer Dale Yaull- Smith described the difficulty of diagnosis as being largely attributed to this widespread issue of women being more able to, with effort, mimic social norms. He described the issue as being one of the current diagnostic criteria asking the wrong questions and not putting women into a situation where they can’t copy their way out of a situation, saying that “The fact that girls with undiagnosed autism are painstakingly copying some behaviour is not picked up and therefore any social and communication problems they may be having are also overlooked. This sort of mimicking and repressing their autistic behaviour is exhausting, perhaps resulting in the high statistics of women with mental health problems.”

Whatever the reasons, Women with Autistic Spectrum disorders are seen by many as either a rarity, or non existent. Pair this with the fact that many of us construct a social persona that takes a huge amount of effort and you can see why women with Aspergers have such a tough time being taken seriously. This is one of the most important things about the way the game portrays AS, it portrays it as something that effects women, showing a real understanding on the part of the writers.

All in all I highly recommend To The Moon as an exploration of Aspergers Syndrome, whether you’re someone looking for a game that features characters you can relate to, or looking to relate to and understand someone in your own life better. I’ve never seen such an amazingly handled piece of fiction on the subject before and the fact that this is all hidden inside a game that on the surface seems to be about time travelling and helping a Neurotypical (non Autistic spectrum) man to achieve his personal goals is a stroke of brilliance. One of the most moving games I’ve played in a long time, as well as one of the best in terms of making me feel included by an industry that so often portrays me as essentially being Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.

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About The Author

Founding Member

Laura’s gaming journey began in the 90′s when she was given a SNES by her older brother with Mario paint. From that day video games were all she thought about day or night, be it playing them, designing them, discussing them or writing about them. Why does she want to write about indie games? Because indie devs are awesome and she wants to be their new best friend by telling them how terrible their games are. That’s how it works right? Twitter: @LauraKBuzz Email: Laurak@indiehaven.com

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  • McCoy

    Actually, Isabell was diagnosed much earlier in her than River, which leads some to believe that that may be the reason Isabell became more able to adapt into society than River, for example.
    It’s great to see the perspective of someone who have Asberger’s and played the game, so thank you for that!

  • Marc B

    Although I’m not officially diagnosed with Aspergers (and at age 30 I feel that there isn’t a whole lot that an official diagnosis could really offer me at this stage), I’m someone who self identifies with many of the symptoms of the condition such as social awkwardness, difficulty maintaining expressing myself emotionally, maintaining friendships, the need for clear routines, etc and it’s one of the main aspects of the game I felt most engaged with and moved by. It was really insightful to read an ‘insiders’ perspective of how this narrative is used through out the game and how it relates to your own personal experiences of dealing with Aspergers from both a personal and wider social perspective. Thank you. 🙂

  • Eintanata

    I absolutely adore To The Moon. Having Asperger’s, so much of it resonates. I do feel that it did a very nice job of demonstrating the spectral nature of the condition. For myself, while I think that everything that I do is artificial, crafted and cultivated, I truly do not feel the disconnect that Isabell professes. I was diagnosed late, but I had a lot of therapy from childhood onward and like Isabell definitely more socially functional for it but I just can’t sympathize with Isabella’s disconnect at all, because while so much of what I am is created rather than natural (nothing comes easily, all is through work, practice and conscious creation) it is still part of me. If I’ve had to take a more active role is creating myself; if little of me is natural; if I am my own invention – I am still me, and fully integrated with no separation between “faking” and “real”. All that I am is myself, regardless of the intentionality behind my development. I guess I just don’t get internal dysphoria. If her description rings true for anyone, they have my condolences.

    I do have to point out, though, that the game is very clear that River was diagnosed much later in life than Isabell, not before as your review states. An argument made by the game (which I strongly agree with) is that early recognition of non-neurotypicity allows therapeutic measures to be taken which can dramatically improve functionality (and, I would argue, quality of life).

  • MS Dale Yaull Smith

    Hi Laura Kate. I’m not a gamer. I am Dale Yaull Smith, a woman on the
    autism spectrum – not a man. Dale is both a man and woman’s name. I
    wrote an article in Communication magazine in 2008 (laterr renamed Your
    Autism magazine) by the National Autistic Society UK. I’d also like to
    point out that I don’t think; “women being more able to, with effort,
    mimic social norms…” I believe that girls are more likely than boys to
    be forced by parental and peer pressure as well as societal pressure to
    pretend to be normal.

  • Vincent Mariani

    When I played the game, I was in the middle of a sad time, but I didn’t know why. Then, when I read Isabella’s dialouge, I realized how perfectly that it fit how I felt. Even though I was diagnosed at a young age, and do put up a very convincing act (Convincing enough that my school no longer sees me as IEP eligible), Ive always felt very different from everyone I know, even threw people with AS. I was the one who didn’t want to be forced to be someone I wasn’t, and when I saw my friends, I couldn’t help but ask myself why they didn’t feel the same. Ive always had a strong sense of self awareness and free willwill, but the issue with society is that it expects children to listen and do as they’re told without question or second thought. I always get in trouble for asking why. Why do we need to do this? Why can’t we be ourselves? And adults call it “questioning authority” , but what’s wrong with that? (Yes, I am aware that I just questioned the concept of questioning authority). How do people expect us to learn life skills without asking questions to understand things? I’ve always viewed the way we’re told to act normal as a coat of paint: it covers a lot, but there’s always cracks. One more thing, when you’re diagnosed at a young age, you have absolutely no say in your own treatment, c and that always bothers me, if I appear to some random doctor or whatever to be ” normal” or something appears to help, it doesn’t mean that it does. The only person that can acuratey evaluate a treatment for effectiveness ( especially in things like this) is the patient.