Stéphane Cantin on why he took us on 'an Autistic Journey'
06 February, 2017
Max, an Autistic Journey (MAJ) is a roleplaying game for Windows, which has you take on the role of Max, a ten-year-old boy with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
It allows you to experience one day in Max's life, showing a flavour of the challenges he faces both at home and school. Battles within the game are fantastical in nature and stem from Max's imagination, and the monsters he fights represent the stresses Max is experiencing. MAJ is notable in that it was developed by the real life Max's father, Stéphane Cantin. Having played through and very much enjoyed MAJ, I was keen to contact Stéphane and learn more.
Donald: MAJ is a very personal work. What made you decide to create this?
Stéphane: I was playing a wonderful game called To The Moon from Freebird Games and Max came to me and watched me play. Then, out of the blue, he said: "Papa, I'd like to make a video game like this someday..." And the light turned on in my head! I started asking him about what he would do and it evolved into Max, an Autistic Journey.
To the Moon is another RPG featuring a character thought to have ASD
Donald: What did you hope people would get out of playing MAJ?
Stéphane: I wanted to use the video game format to illustrate some of the challenges that Max has to go through. If that helps some people better understand what a ten year old boy with an Autism Spectrum Disorder could go through in a typical day, and in a fun way as well, then that's a goal I can definitely aim for. I don't think a game about ASD had ever been made before, so I thought that could be a great personal challenge to take on. I never wanted to explain autism; that's not the point. It's such a vast and complex spectrum, with so many facets... That being said, some people might recognise some of the situations that Max goes through in the game and get a better understanding. Judging is easy when you don't understand the reason behind a behaviour...
Donald: I love the turns of phrase used by Max in the game, such as "In fact..." How much of the real Max has gone into this game?
Stéphane: Thank you! A lot of Max's quirky expressions went into the game. Our family is French Canadian and our first language is French. So I translated things like "En fait..." into "In fact..."The conversation between Adam and Max about the Mario princesses actually happened! I was listening to them like a fly on the wall and absolutely loved it!
Donald: MAJ uses the art motif of the puzzle piece, which I understand originates from the original National Autism Society (NAS) logo and was felt to represent autism as a 'puzzling' condition. Some have expressed a desire to move away from this image and the ideas it represents. What are your thoughts on this?
Stéphane: That's a really good question! I had no idea when I started the game that the puzzle piece was somewhat controversial to some people. In Canada, it's an accepted and recognised symbol for ASD that we see pretty much everywhere. I fully understand and respect that some people have a problem with "the missing piece" interpretation and that it suggests that people with an ASD are "incomplete" in some way or another. I personally see it more as a positive and constructive symbol, something challenging, yes, but also incredibly rewarding! All of the puzzle pieces represent every day victories to me.
Donald: Computer games are unique in that they are an active medium. How do you feel MAJ benefited from being a computer game rather than any other medium?
Stéphane: I wholeheartedly agree with your statement! I made this game so that, to some extent, the player would get to experience the everyday challenges that Max has to face, sometimes. Reading about it or watching a video will give you some information, but actually playing it, fighting with your rising anger or anxiety, makes it much more tangible to me.
Donald: Were you worried how people might react to it? What has the response been like?
Stéphane: Worried? Yes, definitely... Sadly, Autism is often used in a very derogatory manner and I was ready to face some "trolling". My great publisher John Kaiser III at GPAC Games and I did get a lot of insulting comments and we dealt with them accordingly. However, what was really surprising to me was how much and how fast the fan community took care of a lot of the trolls and made sure that the whole experience remained as positive as it could be! That's what I focused on. We received so many positive comments, personal stories of parents of children with an ASD who found some comfort in playing Max, or even adults with an ASD who shared their experience with us. I shielded Max from the negativity but I also showed him the amazing support and love that we received!
Donald: What did you learn from the process of creating this game?
Stéphane: Making games is hard! Seriously, aside from learning about the technical stuff, I mostly learned that there are amazing people in this world! It might sound a bit corny, but the support that I received really made it all worthwhile! It took Max and me about 15 months to get to our final product. It has truly been a labour of love over many nights and weekends. It brought me so much closer to my kids and they blew me away time and again with their imagination and involvement with this project! There were many more highs than lows!
Donald: Early on in MAJ, there is a mini-game involving vaccinations, following which the game points out the importance of getting immunised. Given the controversial media coverage from 1998 onwards that the MMR vaccine might be linked with autism (exhaustive research has since provided very strong evidence that there is no such link), is this not somewhat provocative?
Stéphane: Yes, absolutely! It's my 'tongue-in-cheek' jab at anti-vaxxers. I believe in science... It's time to get rid of all these falsities and the agents that spread them.
Donald: What does Max make of starring in his own game? I note you made sure to include his siblings!
Stéphane: That's a great question! I made this game with Max, as well as Jean-Michel, Elisabeth and Charles, to simply have a whole lot of fun discovering what a day in a life can be like sometimes for this ten-year-old boy who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. I could very easily say that Max loved it and voila;, that'd be that. But it goes deeper as Max uses the game as a tool in his everyday interactions! That blew me away the first few times I noticed it. Let's say we just sat down and discussed a scene together (I wanted to get his insight constantly throughout the process, of course). Then, I would create the scene and show it to him. He would play the game, comment on it and then, a week later, he would come back from school and say: "Today, I did like the Max in the game does! I closed my eyes and I took 3 deep breaths. Phew! Then I was Ok. No need to get angry..." and he sings the "Victory" sound from the game. I had to pick up my jaw off the floor...
Max must tackle everyday challenges, such as overwhelming noise
Donald: What do you think is the next big thing in computer gaming?
Stéphane: I'm not an expert at all, but just from my own experience, I see a lot of gamers looking for nostalgia and finding it in retro-style games. With the availability of software like RPG Maker, Game Maker Studio and Unity, to name a few, it's become much easier for a lot of indie developers to create great quality games! The retro-style seems to be very popular, especially with more seasoned gamers like myself.
Donald: What are your plans for the future now?
Stéphane: Ideally, I would love to make downloadable content for MAJ, as well as a whole new game. For now, I'm just so grateful for all the love and support that the game has received! Thank you so very much to everyone and please, let's raise awareness about the challenges of Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Donald: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me Stéphane, I really look forward to hearing about your next project.
Find out more about Max, an Autistic Journey
Authored by Donald Servant