It’s always like this, my brain says, to start me off here, it’s always like this; I am in need of a pattern to make sense of the many things, a string to put several beads on, to tie into a bracelet that I can touch to affirm my body of our presence here.
The thing about neurodivergence is that people really like to point out when you’re doing something differently. Like, I know the way to do stuff that works for me, I have it in my head, and I know it works, and it’s going to take a lot longer if you keep trying to make me do it ‘normally’.
To the Moon (2011) is about a guy (Johnny) who doesn’t want to accept his wife (River) is autistic, but who fetishizes her uniqueness, and the end of life struggle to right that wrong, all portrayed from a neurodivergent standpoint. It’s not what I expected when I started the game to be honest, I reckoned it would be some sappy sentimental crap about sending an old man to the moon. Which it kind of is still, but with an underlying narrative that, despite its odd amoral romanticising, captured me with thoughts about what it is to be neurodivergent and up against the brick wall of ‘typical thought’, especially in a relationship sense.
I would love to map every point at which having ADHD has royally fucked me in social life, to the point I was convinced that I was fundamentally broken. I would love to do that, but the list, like the book of love, would be long and boring. To the Moon emphasizes the need in close relationships with people, whether friendships or romance, for a deep-seated understanding of the way that neurodivergence is just fine. Not special, or interesting, or weird, or whatever causes insecurities, but fine. Sure, sometimes funny maybe, yeah, because I think some of the stuff I do is obviously ridiculous when the working cultural framework is one of immediately making sense, but, that’s something I’ll accept from people who can relate. In many ways, being funny is a defensive thing. I point to what’s weird about me, knowingly, to make neurotypical people feel okay, and while laughter sets off those good brain chemicals, I resent that I have to do it. The difference between humour that nervously qualifies my actions, and humour that knows I am already accepted, is immense.
The game goes to great lengths to explain the character’s actions historically, the reason River makes paper bunnies, the reason the guy likes olives so much he eats jar upon jar of them… and turns that all into plot, which drives us to a brighter future where changing when and where these characters meet up means that they actually achieve their goals and a relationship that isn’t torn by misunderstandings. It’s a lot, the emotional impact it has made me cry, and I think this is a beautiful game. But, the fact this guy was a real fucking jerk to his wife for years because he straight up refuses to understand her, which is fixed by a different version of him maturing out of a fetish for weirdness first before meeting her again, and the sci-fi time hopping that drives that via memory mechanics, that’s like, sure.
It’s funny, because, having been in a relationship where on a fundamental level we could respect each other’s neurodivergence, because we got it and knew it, it’s odd to see the story being instead about a relationship I’ve also had, of being an object of curiosity for my strangeness, and see that be the one that gets resolved and is happy in the end, because reflecting on that time makes me feel like shit.
I guess the point is that we don’t have to feel like shit, and let neurotypical society dictate to us the brackets of joy, that indeed we are the ones who need to have power over that. I get it, I like it, and I especially like the scientists who themselves kind of seem to represent a neurodivergent approach to working on this problem and to having conversations. In a way it’s kind of a flip on the way that we’re treated, a big group of ND people get together to help fix this NT guy so he actually understands shit, and hey, I’m a much more cynical storyteller than that usually, I get why it makes me a little sceptical.
PS: Shout out to Bioshock Infinite which totally seems like it stole a bunch of stuff from To the Moon’s narrative framework and poetic imagery. Billions of lighthouses and two whacky portal hopping scientists in a plan to alter one man’s past and make him embrace a different self… Bioshock Infinite is To the Moon for neurotypical people.