I never thought a video game could make me cry, that is until I played Max: An Autistic Journey.
This top-down, retro role playing game was created by Stéphane Cantin, the father of a 10-year-old boy named Max with autism spectrum disorder.
The instant the game starts, a blocky interface shows the picture of a man in a white lab coat with the title “pediatrician.”
The text is clear and concise and oh-so-familiar to me.
“We just received the test results and can give you a conclusive answer… Max is a very intelligent boy with a lot of creativity and a vivid imagination. However… a lot of the signs are here… his peculiar accent, his lack of empathy, his fixation on dinosaurs, his rigid behavior and meltdowns, his wandering eyes… Max is autistic.”
In the time it took to read those first few screens I had re-lived the two separate worst days of my life. The first was the day my youngest was diagnosed with ASD at 3 years old after still not developing any verbal skills; the second was when my eldest child (whom we considered to be the more “normal” of our two children) was a week away from starting first grade and we were informed that he was “barely” on the spectrum.
Cantin explained that I wasn’t alone. As a dad of a child on the spectrum, developing the sequence was emotionally taxing for him as well.
“The opening scene was one of the hardest for me to do,” he said. “I pulled from that maelstrom of feelings — from confusion to anger and helplessness — all at the same time.”
As I played through the game I was introduced to dinosaur-loving Max and I encountered a very retro design courtesy of game development software RPG Maker. The software makes it (relatively) easy for someone to develop a game with little to no development experience, which made it ideal for Cantin. Not to mention, he also sees value in the retro style.
“I’m not an expert in game development at all, but just from my own experience, I see a lot of gamers of all ages and backgrounds looking for some nostalgia and finding it in retro-style games,” Cantin said. “The retro style seems to be very popular, especially with more seasoned gamers like myself.”
Be warned, if you are a hardcore Call of Duty-type gamer, this game may not be for you. Where some games may have ammo packs and first-aid kits, Max collects juice boxes and ice packs. Instead of a post-apocalyptic world, we navigate around Max’s home, neighborhood, and school. Instead of insurgents, Max battles imaginary toys that are monstrous manifestations of his anxieties.
Additionally, Cantin uses an Asteroid-like mini game to make a statement about vaccinations, a hot-button issue for many parents who believe that vaccinations can cause autism.
“It’s my tongue-in-cheek jab at anti-vaxxers,” Cantin said. “I believe in science and science has proven over and over again that there is absolutely no link between vaccinations and autism. It’s time to get rid of all these falsities and the agents that spread them.”
After 20 minutes of game play most players will still be working on Max’s morning routine and I start to realize why it takes my son so long to get ready in the morning. Finding clothes for the day turns into a mini-game where Max’s imagination gets the best of him and he has to battle bats and other creatures to retrieve each article of clothing. I can imagine my guy getting easily distracted with a quick game of Angry Birds.
While I identified with many aspects of Max: An Autistic Journey, I also realize that there are many things about Max that I don’t see in either of my children. After all, autism is a spectrum, meaning no two people with autism are exactly alike. This is a point that Cantin is sure to point out.
“It’s such a vast and complex spectrum with so many facets,” he said. “That being said, some people might recognize some of the situations that Max goes through in the game and get a better understanding (of autism). Judging is easy when you don’t understand the reason behind a behavior. Put simply, different doesn’t mean less, it just means different.”
A portion of the game’s proceeds will be donated to the Miriam Foundation, an organization which helps individuals with ASD and other disabilities lead fulfilling lives.