To the Moon by Freebird Games is a 2011 game renowned for its story which moved players to tears. There’s a lot to analyze in this game even years later, but I want to address one specific aspect which is personally important to me: autistic representation.
The game has two canonically autistic characters: River, the wife of the main character John, and Isabelle, a friend of the couple. Isabelle was diagnosed young and given social skills training and assistance, and as an adult, she is not obviously different from those around her. River, on the other hand, isn’t diagnosed until adulthood, and so remains more obviously different from her peers.
The game’s writer, Kan Gao, has done a lot of things right in terms of representation. There are multiple characters with different personalities and autistic traits, and one character even talks about how every autistic person is different. Both of the characters are women, which is rare for any media. Both characters are married and shown to have successful relationships. Isabelle explains at one point that she envies River for not having had the “training” she did, remaining authentically herself instead of learning to mask her true personality, something many autistic adults struggle with. The fact that River is able to have a successful life and relationship without having been forced to learn to appear “normal” to others is a wonderful example to set.
On the other hand, the representation is not perfect. For one thing, the characters focus primarily on the struggles and downsides of being autistic, and basically nothing is said about the positives (of which there are many). But the most glaring problem is this: at no point in the game is any form of the word “autistic” even used.
To be clear, it is not ambiguous what “syndrome” the characters have. It is indirectly referenced many times and the doctor who diagnoses River even gives her a book to read by Tony Attwood, considered by many to be an expert on autism (though he is not himself autistic and many autistic people disagree with some of his ideas). Half of the proceeds from soundtrack sales even go to ASAN, a charity that supports autistic people.
As I played through the game for the first time several years ago, I knew almost immediately that River was autistic. I found myself crying at many points as I played. I was overwhelmed to see characters like me in a popular video game. On the other hand, I knew that the average gamer wouldn’t know that these women were autistic. I kept waiting for the big reveal. I kept waiting for the game to tell the player, “This is what autism looks like. This is what autistic people look like. If you didn’t know that, it’s time to broaden your understanding.”
But the revelation never came. Any time the game got close to being explicit, the characters made a point of saying: “She’s not our client.” The story wasn’t about River or Isabelle. It was about John, River’s husband. It was about how his wife’s disability affected him and his life. And to autistic people in the real world, that’s a message we get all too often from the media and the people around us: your difference is a problem because of how it affects your families, your teachers, and the allistic (= not autistic) majority. The popular narrative is almost never really about us and what we need.
I was moved to tears by the end of To the Moon, and I still think it’s a beautiful game. But I was also heartbroken. When I thought of how big an impact a game like this could have made, if only the representation had been explicit. If only the doctor had said “River is autistic.” I’m sure that a small percentage of players looked up Tony Attwood and learned about autism after playing, but I’m afraid most did not, and never knew what it was they’d seen.
Representation in media is important for the people being represented, but it’s also important for everyone else. When someone plays through a story with a type of character they don’t know in their real life, they learn to empathize with that character, and that can make a huge difference in people’s lives. If you want to give representation (and you should!), be explicit. Don’t be afraid to tell the world who they’re learning about.