To the Moon: “Fitting in” vs. “Being yourself”

To the Moon screenshotThanks for reading my introductory post about the computer game To the Moon!  This post will start to get into the details of the plot in earnest, so only continue reading if you don’t mind finding out what happens in the game.

My girlfriend Megan has already written over a dozen posts reflecting on her reactions to the game and how it relates to Asperger’s syndrome, and they are really neat!  Her posts are a lot less spoilerish than mine, so you can check them out if you want to learn more about the themes of the game without being spoiled about the details of the plot.

Megan seems to have less trouble expressing her thoughts in words than I do; I usually have to have all of the details laid out in front of me before I feel like I can say anything.  With that in mind, the spoilers begin below…

It quickly becomes clear that solving the mystery of John Wyles and his desire to go to the moon is intertwined with the mystery of his wife River’s unusual behavior.  The memento that starts the chain leading backwards in time is an origami rabbit that River folded.

Towards the end of her life, she folded paper rabbits obsessively, hundreds of them, and it seemed like she was trying to communicate something to her husband by doing this, but he couldn’t understand what it was.

River:    Johnny?

John:    Yes?

River:    I made this.
River:    Tell me what it is.

John:    What?

River:    Just tell me what it is.

John:    It’s a rabbit, like all the others you made.

River:    What else?

John:    Um, it’s made of paper.

River:    What else?

John:    Its body is yellow, and the rest is blue.

River:    Good. What else?

John:    Look, River.  *throws rabbit on floor*
John:    I wrote a song.  It’s for you.

River:    Okay.

John:    Well. . .  Would you like to hear it?

River:    Yes.

Dr. Rosaline and Dr. Wyles watch as Johnny and River discuss her illness.
Dr. Rosaline and Dr. Wyles observe invisibly as Johnny and River discuss her illness.

River died of a disease that the game doesn’t name, but it sounds like it could be cancer, in that John says it was “diagnosed in its late stage,” but “fortunately, it’s treatable.”  But they can’t afford to pay for the treatment unless they abandon building the dream house they’ve been working on– the one by the cliffside overlooking a lighthouse.

John decides to tell River that they can afford to pay for both when in fact they can’t, because “If she found out, I’m not sure which she’d choose.”  But she instantly knows he’s not being truthful, telling John “I don’t like it when you lie.”
She is determined to finish building the house, even if it means sacrificing herself, for the sake of someone she calls “Anya.”

River:    Do you know what makes me happy, Johnny?

John:    . . . What?

River:  Do you?
River:  Well, I do.
River:  I just. . .  hope you can help me with it.

John:    River. . .

River:    When the papers for my treatment get here, I will not sign them.
River:    What you do with our money is up to you,
River:    But if you would grant my wish, I want you to use it to finish building that house.
River:    . . . And then, for every day that you live there, I want you to watch over her.
River:    Visit her.  Speak to her.  Comfort her.
River:    . . . I don’t want her to be alone anymore.

John:    And what about you?

River:    . . . Happy.
River:   I’ll be happy.

As Dr. Rosaline and Dr. Watts continue to explore further back in time, they are shocked to discover that “Anya,”  the person River sacrificed herself for, is not actually a person– Anya is the lighthouse!

River:    Why would they abandon her like this?

John:    I suppose she’s just no longer needed.

River:    No longer needed. . . ?

John:    By ships, I mean.
John:    You know how it is, now that everything has GPS and all that.
John:    Look, River.
*takes paper from lighthouse door*
John:    This place means a lot to me too, and I’ve been thinking. . .
John:    In our current state, things have been pretty stable,
John:    If we save well, in a few years, we could afford to build a house on top of here.
John:    It’s going to be a squeeze, but I’m sur–

River:    We’d be able to see her from the window!!
River:    In the morning, at night, we’d always be nearby!
River:    And. . .  and we could walk here any time!
River:    She’ll never be alone again, John!!
*she hugs him*
River:    I’ll be able to watch over her every day!

John:    Yeah, we will.

This was an intriguing mystery!  At this point, I was wondering if we had been misled– perhaps Anya was a person buried near the lighthouse or something like that?

But something else had also grabbed my attention– something that a friend named Isabelle had said to John when he confided in her that he was planning to lie to River:

Isabelle:    I really dislike when you neurotypicals think you know what’s best for others.

John:    I hate when you call me that, Izzy.

The only people I’ve heard use the term “neurotypicals” are people on the autistic spectrum (though I wouldn’t be surprised if people with other mental disorders also used the term).  I continued on with the story…

Another leap backwards takes us to a scene set in the coffee lounge area of a bookstore.  John, his best friend Nicolas, and Isabelle are seated around a table while River is elsewhere browsing the store.  (I wasn’t able to tell for certain what the relation between Nicolas and Isabelle is, but I think they are brother and sister.)

This is the scene that really surprised me, not having known what the game was about.

Isabelle:    Everyone with it is different, John.
Isabelle:    Just because she and I share the syndrome, doesn’t mean we share the same head.

John:    But you must be able to help somehow…
John:    Everything was okay at first, but now, she’s even more aloof than before.
John:    Even when we’re in the same room, she’s never really… there.
John:    It’s starting to take a toll on me.
John:    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.
Isabelle:    . . . Though, being able to articulate it is a different story.
Isabelle:    Just because she struggles to express it, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel anything.
Isabelle:    She’s still there, right?
Isabelle:    Sometimes you just have to have faith that she cares.

John:    That’s pretty difficult to do, day in and day out.

Isabelle:    I know.

Oh, my goodness; they are talking about Asperger’s syndrome!  Both Isabelle and River are diagnosed with it.  A lot of things start to make sense to me, like River’s intense focus and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

There’s also the way that she speaks in short sentences (answering simply “Yes” or “No” without further explanation, and her cute repetition of “What else?” when she’s trying to guide her husband toward an answer).  Her speech shows a certain precision:  In one scene she gives John a hacky sack and asks him “Can you throw this as far as where Anya’s at?”  While slightly stilted, this wording does not imply that Anya can catch the hacky sack as “Can you throw this to Anya?” might, or that she can throw it as “Can you throw this as far as Anya?” would.

Isabelle’s advice about everyone being different sounds a lot like some of the things I’ve written about here.  I can also recognize John’s bewilderment somewhat– when I participated in a Q&A about Asperger’s syndrome with some psychology students, one of the questions I got was “Do you want to have relationships with people?”  I think my answer was “Yes, but not all people all the time!”  😉

I know I’ve read about neurotypicals struggling in marriages to autistics because they feel like their spouse isn’t relating to them emotionally.  At times, I’ve worried that I would run into that problem if I married.  But then, I think I’ve learned to express my emotions and to anticipate those of others through practice.

And that’s where the conversation in the game goes next.

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

Isabelle:    For one, I was diagnosed when I was still young.
Isabelle:    With effort, it’s not impossible to acquire a guise of social norms systematically.
Isabelle:    But you know what?  I both envy and pity River.
Isabelle:    Me. . .  I’m an actress, because I’ve been doing it all my life.
Isabelle:    Not only on-stage, but off-stage . . . and at practically every moment.
Isabelle:    I’ve gotten good at it, because acting is the only option I have.
Isabelle:    It’s the only way for me to be “normal.”
Isabelle:    But River . . . She never did that.
Isabelle:    She remained an outcast and refused to learn to step against it.
Isabelle:    . . . I don’t know if it was by choice or by limit, whether bravery or cowardice.
Isabelle:    . . . There are days when I just can’t stand faking it anymore.
Isabelle:    And then, I realize that it’s too late.
Isabelle:    The Isabelle that people know of is all an act, and the real me has long become a stranger.
Isabelle:    I think in the end . . . I just envy her.

There’s a lot of truth in Isabelle’s description of what having Asperger’s is like.  I have felt that sense of being caught between two extremes.  On one side there is being true to myself.  Aspies often intensely dislike anything that hints of fakeness or duplicity, and the idea of having to “act” at every moment in order to conform to social rules can feel stifling.  But if we don’t adapt, we risk becoming isolated like River, full of thoughts that we can’t express in ways that others will understand.  It can be very lonely.

But at the other extreme is the scary possibility of losing one’s self entirely– of suddenly realizing, like Isabelle, that the acting is automatic, and we’re not sure where it ends and the “real” person begins.  This is one of the reasons I struggle with the prospect of a career– I’m afraid of losing my ability to be myself because of the extent to which I’ll have to change my entire pattern of thinking and self-perception for the demands of my employer.

When I was first diagnosed with Asperger’s, I spent some time trying to figure out my identity.  Who was Nathan?  What kind of music did he like?  What kind of person did he really want to be?  What did he want to do with his life?  To my understanding, these are the sorts of questions that most people deal with in adolescence, but I was dealing with them much later in life.  Before I learned about Asperger’s, I thought such questions were pointless and selfish, but now I finally saw them as being important.

I think that I have found a happy medium between River and Isabelle, in that I feel the tug in both directions.  I have been able to work on adding new skills without losing sight of who I am inside, and I hope that I will be able to continue that balance.

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