Friday, 4 January 2013

To The Moon

In September, my friend Bev sent me a link to a game called 'To The Moon'. She said that she'd watched the trailer and it looked quite like Final Fantasy 6, which is one of my favourite games, so she thought that I'd like this. Watching the trailer, I learned that the game is about a dying man's wish to go to the moon: two scientists offer to give him memories of having accomplished this by going through his life and changing certain memories in realistic ways so that his memory-self would be motivated to pursue this dream. It looked charming, and the music was beautiful, so I thought I'd give it a go. To be honest, I then looked at the price of the game - £6.99 - and thought "Maybe another time."

On Boxing Day, I remembered the game and went to see if it was any cheaper. It was on offer at Steam for £3.49, so I decided to spend some of the Christmas money that my grandmother gave me on it. I'm not wholly sure what my grandmother would make of this, since she's very set in her ways and doesn't like technology, sometimes my mum wonders if she has Asperger's too. Anyway, I bought the game, settled down on the sofa with my headphones to block out the sounds of my brother's Youtube videos in the next room (he has autism and severe learning disabilities, since we got him an iPad he's been happily watching videos on it at full volume, much to my ears' dismay), and began to play.

When I wrote my blog post on Katawa Shoujo, I think that I managed to get my point across without revealing too many plot details of the game. I severely doubt that I can do this with To the Moon, so if you've not played the game and would like to discover it for yourself, proceed with caution since there'll be spoilers from here on.

The game is played with the two scientists as main characters. The gameplay itself is quite simple: guide the characters around to find objects that contain a memory. When all five objects in each level are collected, the player must solve a puzzle (flipping tiles to get the desired picture) to get to the next level. The bulk of the story takes place inside the memories of the dying man, Johnny, starting with shortly before the present day. Going back in time, most of the scenes involve Johnny with his wife River, who died from a terminal illness shortly before the last memories. In a memory from late teenage years/young adulthood, River is diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), and given a book about the symptoms written by Tony Attwood.

While not specified what type of PDD River has, it has largely been accepted by the internet community (myself included) that she fits into Asperger Syndrome. For one thing, Tony Attwood is a real-life author in the field. Secondly, one of the scientist, on hearing River's condition described to Johnny, comments that he wasn't aware of girls being affected - a common misconception for Asperger's. Thirdly, her symptoms fit the diagnosis of Asperger's - I'm not wholly sure how to describe her, so I'll go through some of the game's scenes with her in them. In the first memories we see her as a middle-aged or so woman, appearing quite normal but in the habit of making lots of paper rabbits (it's later revealed that a childhood memory involved a rabbit, and she was trying to remind Johnny of this). She has a strong attachment to the lighthouse by her house, naming it Anya and making Johnny promise that he'll always care for it: we later learn that as a child she believed that stars were lighthouses, lonely in the sky, and that she'd like to befriend one. As a teenager, she and Johnny arrange to go to the cinema: she doesn't understand why her sitting apart from Johnny in the same screening didn't count to him as 'going together'. As children, River sits apart from others at a fairground to watch stars: when Johnny finds her, she begins to leave, but after some prompting she stays and has a factual conversation about the stars. Throughout the game, River has with her a stuffed toy platypus, which accompanies her in most scenes up until her death.

Here's the thing. I've seen a lot of portrayals of people stated to have Asperger Syndrome (or in this case an unspecified PDD) before, and they seem almost too exaggerated a lot of the time. River seems, to me, like many Aspies I know, including myself. Take the scene at the cinema, for example: next week I'm going to see a film with a group of friends, and it makes most sense for me for everyone to buy their own ticket so we can all watch the film, even though we'll all be seated randomly across the cinema. In my mind, the outcome is the same. One of the group said that she was happy to organise a group booking so we'd all be together, so it clearly makes a difference to some people even though to my mind it largely doesn't. At the beginning of the game when we meet her in middle age, River seems normal aside from making paper rabbits: when we see her as a child, she's more of a textbook Aspie. Most Aspie adults I know don't appear to have anything other than a quirk at first, I know that I've learned to act more 'normal' over time and that my displayed traits have largely reduced on the whole. River seems apart from the group as a child and teenager, but can have conversations, and clearly develops a strong relationship and love for Johnny. Like I've said before, many Aspies can and do have friendships and romantic relationships.

Another character in the game, Isabelle, says that she has the same condition as River, however claims to be less strongly affected. At one point she says to Johnny "I really dislike when you neurotypicals think you know what's best for others," - at this point I felt sure that River is an Aspie. I identify with this, having others assume they know what's best for me makes little sense since they're not me. Isabelle reminds me most of myself, since she appears normal but talks about how she really feels:

Isabelle: Just because she and I share the syndrome, doesn’t mean we have the same head.

Johnny: But you must be able to help somehow... Everything was okay at first, but now, she's even more aloof than before. Even when we're in the same room, she's never really…there. It’s starting to take a toll on me. I just don’t know how to take it anymore.

Isabelle: Well, I can’t speak for her, but many of us do long for connections... though, being able to articulate it is a different story. Just because she struggles to express it, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel anything. She's still there, right? Sometimes you just have to have faith that she cares.

Johnny: That's pretty difficult to do, day in and day out.

Isabelle: I know.

Nicolas (mutual friend): Wait, but why do you seem so normal, Izzy? I mean, don’t you have the same condition?

Isabelle: 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 onstage, but offstage…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 how to step against it... I don’t know if it was by choice or limit, whether bravery or cowardice... There are days where I just can’t stand faking it anymore. And then, I realise 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.

I had to put the laptop down before I could continue the game after this scene. I don't think that any portrayal that I've come across puts it so beautifully. I used to wish that I'd been diagnosed early on so that my behaviours and thoughts could be explained as Aspie traits rather than as things to be corrected in order to be normal, but reading this I wonder if the same self-esteem issues I had (and to an extent still have) are present for people with earlier diagnoses. Who is the real me? Is the real me like River, who reads complex books for fun and has a stuffed toy companion and can't stand clocks ticking? Or is the real me the front that I continuously learn to put on? This used to go round my head a lot, now I try to not worry since I have to accept myself one way or the other. Earlier when walking home I found myself stimming my fingers while feeling quite stressed: once I was aware I consciously stopped, then decided that I didn't particularly care if anybody saw me and continued. I hardly ever feel able to do that in public, and sometimes it's hard to let my guard down as it were even when I'm by myself. It's a bit like when I type - if I make a slight error, the word autocorrects itself often without me being aware of it. Even when alone, that subconscious autocorrect on my behaviour's still there.

I gained the majority of my friends when (not consciously) appearing normal - as an Aspie child I had only two 'real' (i.e. not forced to play with me by their parents/taking advantage of me) friends until I was about 11, then maybe five or so 'real' friends as a perhaps less-Aspie teen - and I sometimes worry that I'll lose them by indulging in Aspie-ness. That said, my feelings and thoughts are the same, when I do act Aspie I just have to hope that my friends have faith in me that I'm still the same person. Like Isabelle says, "Sometimes you just have to have faith that she cares." I have issues with trust, and assume that others would too, so I try to not push my Aspie-ness on people.

The main thing that the game gave me is hope. River makes it into a top-ranked position, marries, and has friends. Even though Isabelle feels that she's not herself anymore, she has friends and (to my understanding) is married (she mentions someone called Ted). I have friends who accept me as I am (whoever I am), I'm making steps toward a career (doing a part-time master's and about to begin an internship in a mental health hospital), and can see myself being married one day. The two women are accepted, seemingly have good lives, and not a huge fuss is made about their conditions. So far my uni and post-uni life is like that, here's hoping that it continues to be so.

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