After three years of beating around the bush and promising I’d get to it “when I’m in the proper mood,” I finally sat down and played through the entirety of To the Moon. I wish I had listened to the chorus of praise sooner; this tale of two scientists traveling through a dying man’s memories managed to balance wit and utter sorrow with masterful skill. By the end, I was a blubbering mess, desperately hoping things would work out for this jumble of pixels I only met a few hours ago. As moved as I was by the love story at the center of it all, there was one barely-mentioned character on the side whose reality reflected mine more closely than I’ve ever experienced before.
In the midst of the game’s first act, it becomes clear that River, the old man’s love, has a condition that makes her “different.” She can’t stand the ticking sound of clocks, is obsessed with old lighthouses, and silently makes hundreds of identical origami rabbits. Though no one ever explicitly mentions the name of her condition, I quickly caught on and recognized that many of her actions are associated with autism. Of course, like most stories with autistic characters, River never entirely matches up with my own behavioral patterns; she frequently misunderstands colloquial sayings and attends a movie date without making her presence known to the other party. All I could do was silently nod with sympathy and appreciate this developer’s attempt to portray my condition.
At some point, Nicolas and Isabelle, a friend of the couple, join them in a bookstore. Though Isabelle also has autism, she understandably can’t explain River’s fascination with the origami rabbits, so she chooses to talk about the way autism affects her differently. Isabelle isn’t given much time before or after this moment, but her small moment of character development knocked the wind from my lungs.
“For one, I was diagnosed when I was still young. With effort, it’s not impossible 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’s the only way for me to be ‘normal’.”
“But River…She never did that. She remained an outcast and refused to learn to step against it. I don’t know if it was by choice or by limit, whether bravery or cowardice. There are days when I just can’t stand faking it anymore. And then, I realize that it’s too late. The Isabelle 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.”
For a solid chunk of my youngest years, my off-kilter behavior didn’t make me the most popular kid. I would do something a little too off-the-wall or goofy and send the surrounding students bolting out of my vicinity, or worse, mocking me. As I was diagnosed and worked with behavioral coaches at my school, I suppressed my outbursts and tics as best as I could. I didn’t make noises, shake my legs or laugh at inappropriate times nearly as often, and I finally learned how to have a normal conversation with another human while making eye contact.
But with all these additions and my attention heavily focused on acting like everyone else, something that was verifiably me vanished. While I could force a smile or frown when I had to, it felt like part of my soul died out and was never coming back. I didn’t even know what was “natural” to myself anymore; I was an empty husk of a person, a robot that could imitate and interact with humans successfully without any humanity to call my own. It made me feel like an impostor and an utter failure. There were times when I would be stricken with pain all alone in my room, wondering if I could ever muster up a shred of outward personality that felt like myself.
Thankfully, things are looking brighter these days. It’s a gradual process, but I’ve unearthed parts of my personality I’d long forgotten about, and I no longer feel like I have to hold my close friends at arm’s length. I can even let loose and have a good time at parties without feeling like I have to stick to some carefully-memorized script. More than anything else, I’m relieved that I finally found a way to be happy for who I am.
There are plenty of portrayals of autism in popular media, but while they focus on the outward tics and cultural misunderstandings, To the Moon is the first… anything I’ve seen that touches on our struggle to be accepted in everyday life. When I meet other people who are shocked someone as “normal” as I am happens to be autistic, they can’t see the lifetime of work I’ve done to blend in, nor the price paid by the effort. As much as I love the growing number of Rivers in movies, games and novels, the world needs more Isabelles, too.