To the Moon and back: a journey of connection

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.


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.

Angelina Bellebuono is a photographer and writer living in rural Georgia. She owns 13 goats and has written for publications including Paste Magazine and Georgia Trend. In 2010, she created an interactive photography/writing project called Goatballad: A Pasture Hymn.