To the Moon and back: a journey of connection

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Written by Angelina Bellebuono . Angelina is a photographer and writer living in rural Georgia. This is a combination personal essay and interview about To the Moon and creator Kan Gao. Because it discusses the story and themes of the game, there will be spoilers.

Act I: How to Connect Stars

The opening graphics in Kan Gao's To the Moon reveal starlight first, then moonbeam, before steadying into a night sky and a lighthouse in the bottom left corner of my laptop screen. The game has been out for almost three years, but it's new to me. And I know only a morsel more about video games than I did a few months ago when I used my goat-farming experience to review Goat Simulator . I expect To the Moon will transport me farther afield, into much more serious terrain.

But I do not anticipate the deeply layered plot or the complex characters. I do not predict that a video game will hold me spellbound for five hours straight, and I certainly don't imagine that I will have an equally riveting, two-hour conversation with Kan Gao. But I do know, from the opening lines of dialogue and the first notes of Gao's mysterious, magical soundtrack, that I will not just be entertained—I sense immediately that spending time in Gao's world will be an experience worth my time. This will be a different kind of adventure, I think, traveling to the moon and back.

* * *

I am in the mountains of North Carolina with a group of women writers. We are sitting at a table dripping in sunlight and loose papers, pens nestled in the space between journal pages, bottles of water warming as we lean our bodies forward, listening as one writer reads aloud, tightly gripping her notebook.

“I just wish I had known sooner. It would have made everything so much easier,” she says to us.

She is talking about her husband. A gifted theologian with a Ph. D. A father. A professor. Also, she tells us, an Aspie.

It is 2004, and Autism has not yet become mainstream news-worthy, and we all lean in closer. No one there knows what an Aspie is, so we need her to tell us about his too-intense focus, his inability to connect emotionally, his seeming lack of social mores and his limited communication skills. What she perceived as shyness in their early relationship shifted into a barrier that has become insurmountable, she confesses.

The diagnosis is recent, she says. Knowing makes it easier to understand, but not easier to accept.

“I just wish he would reach out to me and our kids,” she says. She wants to write a book so other Aspie wives won't feel so alone. She wants to stay married, but she isn't sure she will, despite the love she feels. She is no longer just reading her work aloud to us; we are all her friends, although we barely know one another, and we meet her eyes with something as close to empathy as we can find. We know we don't know her loneliness, but we sense it in each carefully selected syllable that escapes her lips.

* * *

Now that I've just spent five hours immersed in Gao's To the Moon world, I am transfixed by the memory of the woman's shared story around that writing table so many years ago. It seems as if I hear Johnny Wyles' voice reach out to this woman from my past. “I get it. I know how you feel. Really. I do,” Johnny would say to her.

He would understand. I have walked with him and the woman he loves in their virtual world. Such sadness and such love; how has the game packed such emotion into these tiny sprites? And so much humor? In my head, I hear one of the game's main characters, Dr. Eva Rosalene, chastising me for my narrow-mindedness: “Oh, cucumbers! What's that 'serious' fluff about? Dr. Watts and I share a wicked sense of humor."

I laugh and add cucumbers to my working list of swear words. In the game, Dr. Neil Watts interrupts my thoughts. “Please, can we just get on with this already? I've got work to do,” he demands.

I've really had enough of him. I realize the idiocy of responding to a RPG character, but I do it anyway. I fire back, “Watts, for cucumber's sake, shut up. You think you're a badass, but I see your heart—despite your cynical words. And watch out for those squirrels, will you?”

Act II: Personal|Universal

I have now played the game, but in order to immerse, I have to play it all over again.

I stumble, even the second time through— excavating memory links because I bump into them, not because I understand or am in control of my destiny. I make a note to be honest with Gao when I talk with him, which means I will admit that I am fed by the dialogue in each scene, but that I blunder my way into each new setting with little grace: Is that the path? Did I really just need 37 attempts to make a toy platypus whole again and how do I get past Eva zombies and control horseback riders as they careen wildly across my screen?

I will admit to him that far beyond the cascading dance of music, birdsong, wave crash, I resonate with each of his story people—characters who seem cleverly articulated into virtual existence from real life—the close-knit, working-squabbling-bantering relationship that Eva and Neil share. Lily's dedication to John as his health worsens. Arguing, sugar-craving kids with a fascination for locked rooms. A friend who questions motives. Old books with secrets. And, of course, a dying man with a wish that seems as mysterious as the origami rabbits that fill his life and his memories, and a wife whose physical being is depicted by a pinky-nail-sized presence on the screen, but whose distracted oddness dispassionately fuels an entire, five-hour virtual experience that deftly ventures into themes which are, when played out among breathing humans instead of tiny sprites on my laptop screen, the nuts and bolts of the life I live.

I will tell him that the characters and the unfolding of their stories intertwine with the melody of “For River” that I find myself humming as I sweep the front porch or collect eggs from my chickens. I will tell him these things because I believe that anyone who creates a virtual world like his would want to know how it makes us feel to experience it.

* * *

Kan Gao's voice travels from his home near Toronto to my home in Rutledge, Georgia via an unreliable cell signal. He is so quiet and serene that at times I am unsure that he's on the line. He is humble, and he chooses his words so carefully. He is unequivocally polite.

When I share my experiences with his game, he is kind. He even laughs with me a few times. It is a gentle sound.

Occasionally, during our conversation his voice sinks so deeply into my phone that I can't extract any words from our conversation at all. When I tell him I'm struggling to hear him clearly, his voice shimmers sharp for a moment: a ribbon of subtle warmth across miles.

The irony does not escape me when he explains that the heart of To the Moon is connection.

“Everyone has longings,” he says. I expect to hear melancholy in his voice, but instead the words whisper something more matter-of-fact.

Gao explains that at age eleven he moved with his immediate family to Canada from China. His extended family did not come with them. For the next several years, he worked to learn English, but when he entered high school, he felt like he didn't fit. Besides the cultural barrier, he says, there was a mental barrier.

Sketches courtesy of Kan Gao, by artist Alisa Christopher (left) and Gabriela Aprile (right).

“Maybe I could have done more at school to connect, but I didn't. I wasn't very social. I was withdrawn. I spent my lunch hour in the music room playing piano,” he says. He played flute in the band, but mostly, he says he felt a lack of connection during much of his high school years.

I ask him if he can elaborate, but he defers kindly. “In my work, I often deal with loneliness,” he says.

* * *

During his childhood and as a teenager, Gao enjoyed comic books. He also immersed himself in the worlds of RPGs. But as we discuss my lack of aptitude at the actual game playing needed for To the Moon, Gao cheerfully admits that he also would race through the battle scenes to get to the story and the characters. “I wanted to spend my time walking around in their world,” he says. “That was my takeaway from those games. And when I learned that I could make games, I wanted to make games that I wanted to play.”

When I ask him what it is like for him to have enough courage to create games that tread on such quiet but powerful ground, he answered with a measured fervor that I did not anticipate. “I do not create out of courage. I create out of necessity. Everyone wants connection. Everyone needs a way to reach out. Making games is my way of reaching out. Making games is my way of communicating,” he says.

* * *

Gao says he writes love stories. And he claims that he only learned how to make games so he could tell those stories. “I'm a terrible programmer,” he says, that familiar, soft laughter shimmering behind his voice. Since I don't know much about programming, I mention the final scene between Johnny and River in To the Moon.

“The hand-holding,” I say, my voice tapering off because I am not exactly sure what I want to ask.

“The hand-holding,” he repeats, as if he is reading my mind. He says, “Exactly. What I want to do is extremely simple. It all comes down to connection. It all comes down to River and Johnny holding hands.”

Act III: Development {Disorder}

She said, “I'm sad,” somehow, without any words

I just stood there, searching for an answer

from “Everything's Alright” by Laura Shigihara

In my first round of To the Moon, as I wander through the rooms of Johnny and River's seaside house, I say aloud to no one at all, “River is different.”

Soon after the words escape my lips, I realize that by peopling his To the Moon world with characters coping with the very real, very complex developmental disorder known to most of us as Asperger's, Gao has elevated his game to a vehicle for connection that transcends virtual.

Gao says he never dreamed a game he created over a span of two years, in his dorm room and bedroom, would inspire players to reach out to him. But it has. “I have received wonderful messages from folks who tell me they have found parts of themselves while playing To the Moon,” he says. “It is overwhelming in wonderful ways.”

Yet he refuses to take credit for those connections. “I am surprised it was taken seriously. I just wanted to make it something that players could research if they were interested,” he explains.

Because Asperger's affects each person so differently, Gao notes, he chose to have both River and her friend Isabelle diagnosed with the disorder. However, he says, “Isabelle is diagnosed young, and learns how to cope. She is the voice of the condition in this game. River shows the variance.”

From online forums to game comments, reactions to Gao's treatment of Asperger's in To the Moon are profoundly moving. Players affected in some way by the disorder write that this game has helped them feel understood and validated.

For me, until I stepped into Gao's virtual world, the closest I've come to Asperger's was in that writing circle a decade ago. If I had the woman's contact information, I'd call her right now and invite her to play To the Moon, in honor of Kan Gao, in honor of connection.

Epilogue

According to Gao, his next game will also explores loneliness and companionship.

“A Bird Story is the story of a boy who finds a bird with a broken wing. And he nurses the bird to health, with a predictable ending,” Gao adds, laughter shimmering again. Ultimately, Gao assures me, A Bird Story has the same heart as To the Moon.

“It is a love story, told in a different way,” he says. “It has no dialogue, and it is focused and simple, but I hope it appeals to those who enjoy To the Moon.”

Gao says A Bird Story will be released this year. He's wary about giving an exact date, because he says he's missed release dates already, but he promises “definitely sometime this year.”

“I will set a date when the trailer is released,” he writes in a follow up email to me. Gao also says the future will hold a second episode of To the Moon. “The patient in the second episode will be the main character in A Bird Story (all grown up by then, of course),” he explains.

For fans of Gao's work, any wait at all is too long. But, I'm wagering, the wait will be worth it.

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