To the Moon, Autism and Me

A couple of months ago I saw a psychologist after years of seeking mental health help. I've tried pills and other forms of therapy, but haven't had much luck. Almost immediately after talking with me the idea of some form of high functioning autism was brought up. Something I had never considered. At this point I had two friends with Aspergers. One new, one old. That new friend is now my girlfriend. A gamer, with Aspergers. Out of nowhere, I'm suddenly undergoing diagnosis for something I knew little about but makes complete sense to me.

This week she bought me To the Moon, and told me how it made her feel. I've gotten emotional about games in the past but I didn't really expect much from the game. If you want to know more about the game I suggest reading a wiki, but the way the game deals with the mental health of the couple that the story is centred around is something I have never seen in a game before. The wife character is hinted at having a kind of autism throughout the game. Most likely high functioning. The narrative doesn't hit you over the head though, for those who aren't fully aware of the disorder.

They do constantly make reference to the effects that her condition has on the characters and world, such as the obsessions, difficulty with people and (what I thought was a nice touch) the ticking sound of clocks. This might seem overly obvious, but that's how it can be to live like that. These things affect almost every facet of your life and is not represented in games often. It still manages to remain in the background and provide a tragic flavour for the story without being the focus. It enhances the sadness you feel for the husband who has to deal with this, while also coming to terms with his own issues.

The game left me a little shaken and very emotional. It hit home in a way that games rarely do. Yes, straight white males can feel alienated in mainstream gaming. The things typical of the wife in To the Moon are not necessarily how I am. One of the other characters with autism in the game even explains that it is different between people. I still recognised some of myself in her, and the effects on the people in that world.

It left me wondering what will come of this diagnosis. I've spoken to them a few times, filled out some tests. They've interviewed my mum. I am waiting to hear back but... I don't know. I hate waiting. I guess it's not like an illness, where things will change depending on the result. I'll still be me. There's so much I don't know or understand about it though.

In the context of gaming, I don't know where to go from here. I finished up Steamworld Dig (the shiny new PC version) as that is a very light experience but the kind of impact To the Moon left on me makes it hard to think about playing something like Batman Arkham Origins, something that has sat installed on my PC since release and I have yet to play it. I've slowly been churning through games. I have an impossibly long backlog, but this is one of the games I bought recently and want to play. Wanted. I don't know.

Even though I didn't relate, Gone Home was also a very emotional experience for me

I think I'll be more at ease once all this has passed, and I know, though it's unlikely many more games will have this kind of impact. I've heard of depression quest, and I guess that might be relateable in a similar way, and there are games that deal with other issues like Gone Home dealing with discovering sexuality, or Spec Ops The Line dealing with PTSD.

I'm curious if anyone had similar experiences to me, or any giant bomb members who have dealt with this kind of thing before. It would be good to hear from you.

47 Comments
49 Comments
Edited by AlisterCat

I edited the title but my typo is still there on the forum... ugh.

Edited by AMyggen

Nice read, man. My brother is autistic and also loved To the Moon for many of the same reasons as you.

Posted by audioBusting

Thanks for sharing mate. I haven't thought about the game from that angle until just recently when the developer talked about it in an interview. I never really had that sort of reaction from a video game, but it's great when a serious topic is being explored without being heavy-handed about it. Depression Quest doesn't take too long to finish, by the way, just go and play it!

Posted by ZombiePie

This was a fantastic read and thank you so much for sharing this story! On a more humorous note I have no idea how to write a 140 character bio for this for Twitter.

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Posted by DeadpanCakes

Good read. It makes me so happy when I hear people talking about games affecting them on this kind of level.

I'm really interested in trying this game now too, 'cause it seems to deal with some themes I'm rather interested in.

As for games that have affected me like that, I'd say Journey. There's something about my experience in that game lined up so perfectly - the two companions I met and quickly lost, the music, the visuals, the feelings of the controls - that evoked latent feelings of abandonment, anxiety, and loss, and how all those emotions pertained to my own struggles with my mental health.

Posted by PurpleMoustache

As someone who also has Aspergers syndrome, and has known about it for about all my life, it also touched me more personally than I imagined. It was really refreshing to see an honest, real life, look at Aspergers that the media doesn't do (Big Bang Theory, Rain Man, etc).

This game had me in a blubbering mess, not only because of the story, but I also saw myself in the characters.

Edited by AlisterCat

Thank you for the kind words everyone. It's too common to see these games simply dismissed as pretentious when people can't relate to the issues.

Edited by LackingSaint

@alistercat said:

Thank you for the kind words everyone. It's too common to see these games simply dismissed as pretentious when people can't relate to the issues.

I feel like it's more than people can let the fact that they relate to a game cloud their judgement. I loved your piece and overall I really enjoyed To The Moon (made me cry), but I still think anyone that doesn't think that game looks and plays like ass are crazy. When people talk about how that thing is "one of their favourite games", I dunno it just seems strange.

Edited by Winternet

I've heard that Dota can be very emotional ;)

Take care, little buddy.

*Thomas Was Alone could be an interesting choice. Not that it dwells on these issues, but it is a fun game and it lightly takes on the theme of friendship and cooperation.

Posted by Yummylee

I've heard that Dota can be very emotional ;)

Take care, little buddy.

*Thomas Was Alone could be an interesting choice. Not that it dwells on these issues, but it is a fun game and it lightly takes on the theme of friendship and cooperation.

Yup, I would also recommend Thomas Was Alone for something that's simple (but fun), short, with plenty of opportunities to get dem feels a flowin'. Danny Wallace done such a fantastic job in that game as the narrator.

Edited by selfconfessedcynic

Good Read. You certainly have a different perspective on the game than me, but I'm happy you connected with To The Moon. It's certainly one of my favourite games of all time - and the single most emotionally effecting one for me.

Man, I wish more people would give it a chance.

As for follow ups, perhaps try Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (deals with loss, though I am not going to say of whom or any more than that). I know it's become a bit of a joke here on GB, but its certainly an emotional ride.

The Last of Us and The Walking Dead come at it from a bit of a different angle - exploring both the brighter and darker side of human interactions, along with themes of love and survival. Honestly, those two games are so good that people forget they both have honest to goodness messages about life and living.

Of course, there's also Journey which touches on many of those same things but has that unique twist to it.

I will admit that these recommendations don't fit the envelope of being about specific disorders, but I think they strike a similar vein of being meaningful overall.

Posted by Pezen

I really really wish I could play that game without a ton of hassle. As it's PC only currently, my Mac does me no good. It sounds like an interesting experience and as someone with "something" out of the ordinary in regards to how I handle life (but I've never made an effort to diagnose what that might be), sounds right up my alley.

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Edited by AlisterCat

@alistercat said:

Thank you for the kind words everyone. It's too common to see these games simply dismissed as pretentious when people can't relate to the issues.

I feel like it's more than people can let the fact that they relate to a game cloud their judgement. I loved your piece and overall I really enjoyed To The Moon (made me cry), but I still think anyone that doesn't think that game looks and plays like ass are crazy. When people talk about how that thing is "one of their favourite games", I dunno it just seems strange.

Game is just a general term. The tile puzzles were awful and out of place, and all the art that wasn't the pixel art were terrible but I really liked the graphics. It's a point and click game. A bit too pixel hunty.

Posted by Cyrus_Saren

Good read. I have heard of the game, but didn't know about the story and what it was about. If it talks about autism (whether it is hinted or not), that alone has me interested. This might be because, while I have not been diagnosed, I do believe that I have Asperger's. While it may not be the same for me, the fact that you and a friend of yours connected to the game has me wanting to try it out.

Edited by CptBedlam

Videogames have come a long way, haven't they?

Right at this moment I'm sitting here, writing my final thesis on storytelling in videogames. Just yesterday I finished the chapter about Gone Home.

Loved To The Moon as well.

Posted by AlisterCat

@cyrus_saren: Might be worth getting checked out. You can't get help until you know. Plus self diagnosing will just make you crazy.

Posted by Pezen

So I finally managed to figure out a way to play the game by way of a wine wrapper and buying it from GOG. Overall I really enjoyed the game, some pointless gameplay sections aside. The story was heavy but well worth the time. Though I can't deny part of me feels like the outcome of the story felt hollow in a way. I can't quite put my finger on it. I think I need to go over this story a bit in my head. As I just finished it. Still very pleased I was finally able to get around to playing it, and had it not been for your blog I probably wouldn't have gone the extra mile to do it as I have given up on this game previously. So, thanks!

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Edited by AlisterCat

@pezen: That's great to hear. The gameplay outside of the point and click is bad. Such as the zombie shooting section, and the tile puzzles. They don't undermine the experience much. I think I might have expected a bitter sweet ending, rather than everything working out. Maybe that's what you were after? It goes against the themes of dealing with life, though I would be a lot more bummed out if a dying man couldn't get his final wish even in a memory simulation.

Edited by Marokai

I've dated two guys with Aspergers, and learning their quirks and was always difficult and occasionally amusing. It gave me a completely new perspective on folks with autism, not to mention giving me a keen ability to recognize certain commonalities, and it's upsetting how misunderstood that whole spectrum of disorders is by most people. Despite odd traits, despite occasional impediments, they were delightful and otherwise normal people, who, as soon as you say the word "autism" are treated super weird.

I wish I could feel the desire to play these games, though, and it makes me sad that I just don't feel it. Being gay I should also want to play Gone Home, but... the desire isn't really there, for whatever reason. I'm happy that games are connecting people in this way, though.

Edited by Fredddi43

@alistercat: While I don't personally know anyone with Autism, I can personally relate to Gone Home and enjoyed it for that reason.

While not dealing with health issues directly, I greatly enjoyed Persona 4 and Last of Us for their emotional depths, if you haven't already, you might wanna check them out.

Also know that you're always welcome back at DRM, if you decide it helps your illness in any way :)

Take care, buddy

Edited by Belegorm

As someone diagnosed with asperger's, I've always been confused by the autism connection, as I interact socially in a way dramatically different from those I know with autism. I've always thought of it as something related to autism. However, I was diagnosed years back when asperger's was only just starting to become a bit better known by most people; maybe it's a broader term than I'd thought and I just have a mild form of it.

In any case this thread kind of highlights the fact that these days almost no AAA publisher is willing to put out any game dealing with difficult issues or experiences, it's largely in the indie scene where you can actually expect something a little more advanced from the story. Not indie per se, but I enjoyed a translated version of Clannad and it had a great effect on me several years back.

Posted by Pezen

@alistercat: I'll put my thoughts behind a spoiler tag just in case;

I think the issue I had stem from feeling like the end was sweet looking subjectively to John's overall life. Instead of the troubles of childhood, complicated marriage and financial issues and what eventually brought us to the start of the game he was given basically an "ideal" version of his life. But that felt false. It made River a footnote and thus the whole reason for going to the moon completely arbitrary. Well, not completely, but I couldn't shake the feeling that.. OH wait! Well, color me surprised. I just realized something. Fascinating. Now I remember the talk John had with Isabelle and his "Can't I be selfish just once?" -- That was his last wish. To think about himself, for once. Most of his life he's been living in someone else shoes (joey) or to care for someone else (river). The end basically was him, by way of the people you play, giving something back to himself.

Oh man. This game just got even better.

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Posted by fisk0

As someone who's been diagnosed with asperger a few years ago (originally atypical autism was suggested, but apparently changed during the years of follow up tests/examinations), and who bought To The Moon on GOG when it was released but never gotten around to playing it, I guess I should give it a try.

I'm also in the seat where I really have no idea of where to from here, after getting diagnosed, and I also had to get through a lot of waiting, took about 1½ years from the last meeting to finally beeing handed the paperwork that the work placement service was asking for.

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Edited by Khann

As someone with quite severe ADHD-PI (sharing some fairly significant traits with Asperger's... in fact, Asperger's was my original diagnosis), great post. I was diagnosed as a child, and have been re-diagnosed several times since, so I don't really know what it's like to not be aware of my "condition".

As you've said, you're still you. Nothing has changed. Don't use your diagnosis as an excuse, and don't let it have a significant impact on your life. Just think of it as a way to better understand what's going on in your head, as seen by people who study this stuff for a living. There is some valuable information to be learned.

Oh, and I bought To The Moon a long time ago but had some issues running it; will have to give it another go.

@belegorm Yeah autism is a spectrum. The degrees that people are affected can vary pretty significantly.

Posted by Wyld

Great post! As a clinical psychologist in training, I appreciate stories that can relate psychological well-being with video games. An important thing to remember is that a diagnosis is not what defines your life, it is the support you can receive to improve your personal level of overall functioning.

Edited by HerbieBug

@marokai said:

I've dated two guys with Aspergers, and learning their quirks and was always difficult and occasionally amusing. It gave me a completely new perspective on folks with autism, not to mention giving me a keen ability to recognize certain commonalities, and it's upsetting how misunderstood that whole spectrum of disorders is by most people. Despite odd traits, despite occasional impediments, they were delightful and otherwise normal people, who, as soon as you say the word "autism" are treated super weird.

Unfortunately, certain disorders gather a reputation and common usage in public casual parlance that differs quite dramatically from the actual truth of the disorder. This isn't just true of autism spectrum. I am autistic and also have OCD. Sometimes I will tell people I am autistic, but never, not ever will I bring up my OCD dx. People haven't a goddamn clue what it actually means.

Alister, if indeed you are diagnosed with an ASD, you might find this book helpful. My pdoc recommended it to me and I quite liked it: Living Well On The Spectrum by Valerie L. Gaus, Phd.

Posted by Scampbell

Its been a while since I played To the Moon, but I still remember how powerful that story was and how completely it blew me away. I have some mental issues, but nothing as severe as autism can be, and I didn't really recognize myself in the character River. Though that didn't prevent me from being deeply touched by this modest looking game. When it comes to stories in games, this is undoubtedly still my favorite one.

It is one of the rare instances where playing a game has felt like doing something truly meaningful.

Posted by BisonHero

My brother has, uh, particularly low-functioning autism. Sorry, probably not the proper terminology, but my parents were the ones to read all of the literature obsessively when he was younger, not me, and it's something I've never had the heart to do. He'll likely never be able to speak or care for himself.

So I didn't see a lot of my brother in River, but the story was still really powerful to me, just in the sense that I know what it's like to have a loved one that you're never going to fully connect with or understand for their whole life due to a mental disorder.

Posted by HerbieBug

My brother has, uh, particularly low-functioning autism. Sorry, probably not the proper terminology, but my parents were the ones to read all of the literature obsessively when he was younger, not me, and it's something I've never had the heart to do. He'll likely never be able to speak or care for himself.

'Low functioning' is acceptable terminology, sure. Your brother has classic autism. Which isn't to say that all people who are classically autistic are on the lower end of functioning ability. The primary difference between Asperger's and classic autism in the DSM-IV was whether or not the patient experience significant language development delay during childhood. As such there are low-functioning Asperger people and high functioning classically autistic people in addition to the commonly assumed inverse.

Edited by Hassun

Still haven't played To the Moon. It appears my backlog is even more gargantuan than yours, AlisterCat.

And while I don't really recognize the things you mentioned which happen in To the Moon, except for the lack of social skills, maybe I should give it a try.

Posted by Spuirrel

I just finished it, and having been diagnosed with AS a while ago, I really identified with the affected characters in a way that I never have before. It leaves me wanting for stories that can strike me like they seem to everybody else.

Thanks for making this post, as it reminded me to play the game through.

Posted by TehChich

Looks I gotta play that now * u*; I noticed there were also themes of this in Persona 4 Arena, during Labrys' story, or at least that's what I interpreted. I felt like I could relate to what she was going through; She wasn't quite like the humans("normal" people), but she also wasn't like the more robotic girls(lower-functioning autistic people). It was surreal.

Gone Home hit me hard. It was like it was reading my mind and playing it back to me. Even the part about running off. I've considered it. Strongly.

Edited by xaLieNxGrEyx

To the Moon and Gone Home are two games that I'll remember as bringing tears to my eyes until the day I die

Posted by envane

thanks for sharing

Edited by paulunga

Nice read. I don't know if you ever played Katawa Shoujo, the game where you date disabled girls. That game also had a character that on the surface had an obvious physical disabilty but the more you interacted with her it became quite clear (to me, at least) that she had mental problems of some sort, as well. I'm not sure what, high-functioning autism, asperger's, something else. In a way she reminded me of my girlfriend as well, though I'm not an expert on those things.

Anyway, I definitely recommend playing that one, you can turn off the sex scenes that basically come down to about 2 naughty pictures per girl and aren't in any way important. Though I suppose there's a pretty fucked up scene with that girl that you'd miss. Oh yeah and I'm talking about (for anyone who wants to discover this for themselves): Rin, the girl with no arms

Posted by GaspoweR

@alistercat: Great read, duder! Don't worry too much about it. For as long as you feel that you are still you, it'll be fine. There might be some things that you might not be aware about yourself that other people notice and you can probably just take those into consideration as things that help you understand yourself more.

Also on a tangent, I don't know if you listened to the Gamespot GamePlay episode from last year but its a Spec-Ops spoiler cast with the lead writer, Walt Williams talking about the game's story with Tom McShea, Kevin van Ord, and Jeff. Jeff mentioned it briefly during the Bombcast about the conversation they had with Walt about the "true nature" of the story. If you think that ending was nuts, wait till the writer himself actually explains what really happened.

https://soundcloud.com/gamespot/gamespot-gameplay-special

Edited by Petrok

@alistercat: I have never heard of to the moon, however I am now interested. I am the proud father of a beautiful little girl who has "classic autism." I constantly wonder what things are like from her perspective. I am often asked if I would fix her if i could. i respond that she isnt broken. . . it may not help you out right now and things will be frustrating at times but keep your head up. Oh and The game that probably had the deepest emotional impact on me was journey the ending took me through quite a few emotions.

Posted by Dagbiker

@alistercat: Good. I too have aspurgers. Everyone is diffrent, the way people think is miles apart. I kind of gave up on interacting with actual people. and find my self on message boards, online games, and so fourth, just because i hate interacting with people, also i cant read emotions at all.

Its something I have learned to adapt to. But Im glad.

Having everyone stop telling you you are wrong, and tell you you are right for once fells great.

Even if it is just to tell you something, that on any other day, would have been bad news.

Posted by scrappypixels

I saw To the Moon on steam a few times, reading this has peaked my interest. Cheers for the suggestion and i hope everything is alright! (P.s like you said regardless of the outcome, you'll still be yourself) :)

Posted by Bigandtasty

Don't want to read too deeply, because I have yet to play To the Moon and Gone Home. =p

I can't say I have had quite that emotional experience from a game, but maybe in the future I will find something that hits the spot and I am glad people including yourself have drawn that from improving storytelling in games.

(for contest, I would appreciate the Battlefield 3 code; thanks!)

Posted by mageemagoo

I would really enjoy the copy of battlefield 3. My brother has autism spectrum disorder (hes a giant bomb fan as well), so now this comment is relevant!

Posted by believer258

@alistercat For that giveaway, I'd like To the Moon, please.

I'd read your blog but I don't want to be spoiled on the game.

Posted by billymagnum

To the Moon, please!

Posted by BisonHero

I don't know if you can edit the title, but I just noticed you spelled "autism" as "austism". I kept not seeing it.

Posted by BillyMaysRIP
Posted by Video_Game_King

This giveaway's still going? Seriously? Then I will enter for To the Moon. I must connect to my Lunar heritage (or at least your interpretation of my Lunar heritage).

This is the problem with attracting people to your blog with a giveaway: all the comments are about the giveaway.

Edited by zombiepenguin9

@alistercat:

That was a good read. My wife used to work in childcare, and took care of a few kids with autism. She feels very strongly about the challenges those kids face in a world that oftentimes doesn't know how to best interact with them, if they're even aware of it at all. I hope that you have good resources and caring family/friends to help you on your journey. Hopefully you hear back on all this stuff soon, if you haven't already.

If you're still looking to get rid of them, I'd like either Dead Space 3 or Burnout Paradise.