—— By Addie Barron ——
The Sick Woman is all of the “dysfunctional,” “dangerous” and “in danger,” “badly behaved,” “crazy,” “incurable,” “traumatized,” “disordered,” “diseased,” “chronic,” “uninsurable,” “wretched,” “undesirable” and altogether “dysfunctional” bodies belonging to women, people of color, poor, ill, neuro-atypical, differently abled, queer, trans, and genderfluid people, who have been historically pathologized, hospitalized, institutionalized, brutalized, rendered “unmanageable,” and therefore made culturally illegitimate and politically invisible … the Sick Woman is who capitalism needs to perpetuate itself.
-Johanna Hedva, “Sick Woman Theory”
When we talk about roleplaying games, we necessarily enter a realm where acts of identification with characters and scenarios are crucial. RPGs by definition ask us to use the game interface and management of game resources (items, money, information, knowledge) as an avatar through which we experience and become embedded in a narrative. But if RPGs are about identification, they must also be about disidentification; parallel to the question of role-playing is the question of the non-player-character. What happens when we are explicitly asked not to identify, not to empathize?
In the case of River from To the Moon, this is exactly what happens. The game counts on us to distance ourselves from her, because her characterization depends on being “distant.” She is an NPC in more than one sense—unplayable, uncontrollable, and unpredictable. But for all the character traits we could name—spacy, mellow, antisocial, mindful, eidetic—they aren’t really character traits, since they are all narratologically filtered through her mental illness, a nebulous autistic spectrum disorder that the game hints, but does not confirm, is Asperger’s. River’s status as NPC, her distance from the player, is enforced by her primary categorization as “unwell.”
The sensational air of mystery around River’s unnamed syndrome panders to an able-bodied and -minded audience with the space to distance themselves from the institutional reality of autism. This doesn’t mean that a player who shares River’s experience, as I do to some extent, could not find space to identify with River or learn from the story she inhabits. Acts of identification often come unexpectedly, in spite of the walls set up to prevent them (see: Disidentification by José Muñoz). Think of the queer kids on the internet, who work in groups to dredge narratives of marginality out of straight characters on TV—it’s a way to force ourselves into worlds that won’t allow us to exist in the fullness of our political reality. For our survival, for our continued psychic coherence, these acts of identification are powerful and necessary. But they are not invited by To The Moon.
In an article on “Sick Woman Theory” from earlier this year, Johanna Hedva writes, “if being present in public is what is required to be political, then whole swathes of the population can be deemed a-political – simply because they are not physically able to get their bodies into the street.” Where this is true in political discourse around disability, it seems also true in the narrative and game space of To the Moon. River is positioned as unseeable, inscrutable, mysterious—many of John’s moments of character flaw involve his inability to “understand” her. One IGN review of the game chronicles the reviewers experience with John’s memories:
Some [of the memories] are pleasant, such as when he met his deceased wife, River, while others are unsettling, placing the doctors in places where John was obviously not satisfied or happy with his relationship with his wife. Each layer ends up being another place to learn more about John, who slowly goes from being an unconscious old man I didn’t care about, to a complex, multi-faceted human being whose life I empathized with.
I wasn’t at all surprised to read this; To the Moon BEGS this type of reading. It banks on John’s complexity to act as a foil for River’s simplicity, his visibility for her reservedness, his development for her underdevelopment. The specter of the “developmental disorder” (again, fully divorced from the reality of ASDs) is ever-present, and its weight limits River’s ability to fully materialize as an character with whom it is possible to identify.
I propose that, in thinking about To The Moon, we must critically engage with the game’s presentation of wellness/sickness and exercise caution in the acts of identification and disidentification we make with the game and its characters. River is not a real sick girl—if she were, her presence would be endlessly subversive and political. Rather, she is an artificial other, unplayable and unknowable, designed to be sick and nothing else for the purposes of the game’s wellness/sickness dichotomy.
But this is all a bit discouraging. Can River’s presence carry any weight for us at all? Maybe Hedva can help us sick girls again in reclaiming some of our dignity; she writes:
“Sick Woman Theory maintains that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression … it is the world itself that is making and keeping us sick.”
Then, perhaps To the Moon is just another oppressive regime, an extension of the systems that unite to generate an idea of sickness as we understand it and mobilize it against us. Maybe River is not to blame for her inability to fight. And in this case, maybe we can still find her—the real her—by herself in some corner of unexplored narrative, sitting with her stillness and raising her fist in silent protest.