Living with autism in Max, an Autistic Journey
18 November, 2016
As someone who has previously worked within an autism service I was interested to play Max, an Autistic Journey (MAJ), both to see its portrayal of autism spectrum disorder, and also to see what the game had to say about it. The game is described by the developer, Stéphane Cantin, as a 'true labour of love'.
The game aims to 'help explain to everyone a typical day for a ten year old who has autism'. It is notable that the titular main character Max is based upon Stéphane's own son.
A sense of heart
The first thing to say about MAJ is that it has a sense of heart, from the generally upbeat tone of events to the occasional flecks of pop-culture-referencing humour. The four-hour long game truly feels like a story written by a father about his son.
The challenges Max experiences throughout an entire school day are portrayed with sympathy. Regular pictographs pop up to help explain in layman's terms the elements of autism that have been depicted in the game.
Symptoms and behaviours of autism are explained regularly throughout the game
MAJ plays like a traditional top-down roleplaying game (RPG), reminiscent of the Super Nintendo era, and it was created using the RPG Maker engine.
The game involves strolling about Max's home and school while talking to his family and friends, in addition to battling enemies which appear to represent a mixture of creations of Max's imagination and metaphorical representations of his anxieties. This RPG gameplay standard is interspersed with a variety of mini-games.
I feel this is a good medium to tell such a story (as opposed to passively reading a book or viewing a film on the subject), as playing through the events of Max's day can bring home how Max's symptoms can functionally affect his day to day life.
Max battles metaphorical manifestations of his struggles, such as this fight with Anger
MAJ manages to cover quite a few concepts relating to autism. The behaviour portrayed in the game rang true to my personal experience working within an autism service.
While the game does acknowledge the variety of ways that autism can present, this game is very much about Max's particular situation.
As Max becomes distressed by noise, his classmates are depicted as monsters
Max's distress at the amount of noise in the classroom is vividly shown when his fellow pupils are depicted as monsters until Max manages to obtain a pair of noise-reducing headphones. There also seems to be evidence of stilted/stereotyped language: for example, most sentences spoken by Max begin with the words 'In fact'.
Need for routine
The game also demonstrates Max's need for a regular routine and how distressing it can be to have it disrupted. Early on, Max has to use a toilet other than the one he would typically use, causing Max to become anxious.
An on-screen meter 'anxiety meter' visually provides an indication of those situations that Max finds difficult or anxiety-provoking. When this meter fills up, Max can have a severe tantrum, which is another behaviour that Max and his family have faced difficulty with.
One of the coping strategies that Max uses to avoid tantrums is breathing exercises, and there is a simple mini-game used to demonstrate this.
Max is shown to have specific and in-depth interests, such as his interest in different breeds of dinosaurs, which feature throughout the game. The game also features a brief reference to repetitive behaviours when it is mentioned that Max has drawn the exact same pictures in his art class for years.
MAJ includes scenes demonstrating some of the difficulties in social interaction seen with autism; for example Max states that he finds a friend 'boring' and then does not understand why his friend becomes upset.
MAJ gives what feels like an honest description of the typical difficulties related to autism spectrum disorder that a father has noted in his son. When I state honest, I am not claiming to have witnessed the real Max but rather that there were a number of little touches in the story had that had a ring of truth for me.
The game is not too information-heavy, but it does break up the gameplay with occasional facts about autism. By and large the game portrays autism spectrum disorder in a positive and frank way.
I enjoyed playing MAJ and being given a little window into Max's life. It is reasonable to say the game succeeds in its aim to 'help explain to everyone a typical day for a ten year old who has autism', if you give the proviso that autism spectrum disorder presents in a variety of ways and that this story is solely focused on this boy's specific experience.
Max, an Autistic Journey is playable on Windows PC. Review key was provided by GPAC Games and Dietrich Online Services
Authored by Donald Servant