Autism, Kan Gao, and To The Moon

March 8, 2016 – Game Dev

To The Moon is a game about relationships. It’s a game about the part memory plays in building and interpreting relationships. Johnny lies on his deathbed, alone at the end of his life. His wife, River, died some time ago. A team of scientists arrive to help him achieve happiness before death. Much like Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the secret to helping Johnny achieve happiness is to enter his memories and alter them in order to remove his mistakes. A misguided project, maybe. To The Moon deals with themes of regret, autism, emotional neglect, and emotional projection.

Although it never mentions the autism diagnosis by name, the disorder plays a central part in the game. This is one of the first games to deal with autism this deeply. For those seeking to understand their relationships with autistic people, To The Moon is very potent.


Stephen Totterdell: Do you consider this to be a game about autism? Was the use of autistic culture words like ‘Neurotypical’ any kind of political statement?

Kan Gao: I think I consider the game to be about a human story that simply has a character who happens to be autistic in it, rather than about autism as a whole.

It’s actually something that I was consciously trying to be careful of — while there were some words that were used to specify and indirectly identify autism & the spectrum/Asperger’s (at the time), the word “autism” and “Asperger’s” were never mentioned.

ST: Yes, certainly one of the things I really liked about it was that it was a complex and nuanced human story, rather than a moralistic story about autism.

KG: I’m glad, I feel like it’s actually easier to be inclusive and get folks to be interested in a topic by indirectly involving it rather than labeling it as that in the spotlight head-on.

I think it has something in part to do with how folks learn the fastest when researching based on their own intrigue rather than being funnel-fed.

That being said, that’s not to say that there’s no occasion where direct info like that would be fitting.

ST: That’s an interesting idea. It’s rare to see women with Asperger’s portrayed in any kind of media. Do you recommend that autistic women play To The Moon?

KG: Hm, I’m probably not the most unbiased person to ask [about] that, hahah! But from my perspective, I always find it interesting to hear from their perspective on how the game’s portrayal comes off to them.


ST: How has the game been received by the autism community, and autistic women in particular?

KG: From most of what I’ve seen, surprisingly well, given that I had no idea what to expect. I’m sure there are folks who have issues with it, as with any piece of media — and I actually remember fearing for backlashes of some sort when it comes to writing with these sensitive subjects, but it never came.

 ST: Yes, I’ve read a few forum posts that suggest it really helped people come to terms with their own autism. The reaction seems to have been very positive.

KG: Mm, it was the best I could have hoped for.

 ST: Autistic women have a statistically higher frequency of being in bad relationships. Do you think To The Moon could help autistic women understand their relationships?

KG: That might be a bit too grand of an assumption for me to make, but I think (and hope) that it could intrigue folks enough about themselves to look into the subject and better understand themselves in that regard.


ST: Do you think the relationship between Johnny and River is a bad relationship? Why?

KG: Mm. Well, I don’t think it was necessarily a bad relationship. In some ways, they were like ying and yang that completed each others’ longings; the flaw, as exists in most relationships, is miscommunication. Although framed in circumstances where the spectrum had factored in, I feel like it’s actually part of a shared experience that both the autistic and neurotypical can relate to — hence folks “understood” the bittersweetness of their circumstances, both on and off the spectrum.

And if anything, having the issue is one thing, but the important thing was that they were actively engaged in resolving it — albeit difficult circumstances created by environmental factors that were beyond themselves.

In some ways, it was two people trying to resolve the difficulty they’ve encountered from outside of themselves, and they tried until the end — if anything, I’d say that would be a defining factor of a good one

 ST: That’s true. Do you consider River to have agency?

KG: Hm. I think I would say she’s had about as much agency as Johnny did

It also makes me think of one point in the story, where Isabelle, another character in the game with Asperger’s, described her and River’s contrasting natures — about how she herself essentially bent to the expectations of the society, and became an actress while losing her own identity in a sense, yet River remained to be herself the way she naturally was despite the conforming forces of society.

So in that sense, I think she did.


ST: My next question was absolutely about Isabelle. Did you write her to provide contrast to River?

KG: Partly, yes. I think she was the one who was able to be informative about the condition [that she shared with River] — it was partly done by her monologues, and partly to provide the contrast that I felt was needed to convey that not everyone with the condition is quite in the same labeled box per se.

ST: Yes, that really came through for me. They are two individuals, which offsets any stigma. What was behind the decision to write River as autistic as opposed to Johnny?

 KG: Honestly, I don’t know — it was never a decision to choose between her and Johnny to be autistic, really, it was just her from the very start.

 ST: Do you see To The Moon as part of a wider tradition of writing about autism, or films/games about autism?

 KG: I suppose as I said earlier, I see it personally as more of a human story that connects both folks on and off the spectrum, rather than “about autism” per se. But it certainly has a lot of weight in the themes, so in that sense, perhaps so… Frankly, I’m honestly not certain what to say about that, since it feels to be more a matter of semantics to me, heheh.

I never thought much about the categorization aspect of creative works, like the whole talk about whether or not games are art before. I just make things and don’t think much about what they are, hahah.