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To the Moon and Autism

to the moon

I’ve been noticing something about myself recently; my interest in video games is declining rapidly. They simply don’t pique my interest in the same way they used to. However, something I do love is a good story, and story-driven games seem to be the one exception to this trend. So I decided to try out the 2011 title To the Moon, which I had heard good things about. I was expecting a solid, engaging story. What I got was so much more. It nearly brought me to tears, not only from the plot itself (which was terrific), but from two of the characters: River and Isabelle, both of whom are on the autism spectrum. So without further ado, here’s my “review” of To the Moon.

Brief Plot Synopsis
I won’t spend too much time on this one, since it’s not the focus of this blog, but it is important to understand the basic gist of what’s going on in this world the writers have created. Basically, the story takes place somewhere in the unspecified future, where a controversial technology has been created that allows those who operate the machine to enter someone’s mind and alter their memories. The fictional Sigmund Corporation uses this method to grant the last wishes of people on their deathbed, who want to experience something they never got to do in their life. Our story opens up with 2 Sigmund employees, Dr. Neil Watts and Dr. Eva Rosalene, who have been contracted to fulfill the last request of an elderly man named Johnny Wyles, who wants to go to the moon, though he is unsure as to why. Along the way, we see Johnny’s life unfold through the eyes of Neil and Eva. Most importantly, we see Johnny’s now-deceased wife, River, before, after and even during her diagnosis with ASD. I won’t spoil any of the specifics of the story, both out of courtesy and for the sake of time, but I truly can’t recommend it enough. You do not have to be a gamer to enjoy To the Moon (in fact, with the exception of an arbitrary puzzle mini game every now and then, there’s no actual game play here besides walking around).

Portrayal of Autism
We see two vastly different depictions of ASD in To the Moon, which I’m glad to see, considering how it is a spectrum and no two people on it act the same, something which is addressed in the story. As I mentioned before, there are two characters in the game with high-functioning autism (heavily implied to be Asperger’s, seeing as how this came out before ASD became the all-encompassing term), River and Isabelle. River never got diagnosed until she was already a middle-aged adult, and by that point it was too late for any real therapy. She spent her entire life being an outcast with little to no social skills, as well as habits that no one else could understand. The only people she connected with were Johnny and Isabelle, who could appreciate her. Speaking of Isabelle, she represents the other side of the coin. Her ASD was caught early on in life, and she was able to receive the help River never got, and as a result, emulate the behavior of the ‘neurotypicals’ as she calls them. You might think that Isabelle was the lucky one here, and in some ways you’d be correct, but Isabelle herself actually envies River. Since she went through so much therapy, she never really got to be her true self; she sees her entire persona as a mere facade. This really spoke to me on a deep level, because it brings up a major ethical question: is it truly better to change who you really are for the sake of fitting in with society’s expectations? For someone on the spectrum, whose way of life is preferable: River’s or Isabelle’s? To all the parents out there: do you think that treatments are worth it, if it means fundamentally changing who your child is? I don’t think that there’s a right or wrong answer either way; it’s situational and up to personal preference. But it’s a question that I certainly believe is worth asking.

Overall, To the Moon was a satisfying experience, and I’m glad I picked it up. It explores its narrative in a way that the medium is reluctant to emulate. If you want an interesting take on ASD, alongside an emotional, at times heart-wrenching story about loss, regret and the power of love, then I suggest you try it out too.

Written by Gage S.

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