MAX, An Autistic Journey landed on Steam last summer to a relatively muted reception. Some players loved it — particularly those who saw aspects of themselves or their loved ones in Max’s character. Others knocked it for what they saw as amatuer design choices and execution. But for developer Stéphane Cantin, the game was exactly what it needed to be: a journey with his son Max, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
In an interview with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Cantin explained that the representation of autism found in To The Moon inspired Max to want to make a game of his own. It quickly became a family project, headed up by Cantin but with input from Max and his three siblings. After talking with Max about what he wanted to see, they decided it would star a fictionalized version of Max himself.
“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 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… “
Some players did judge out of hand, and trolls did what trolls will always do. But Cantin and his publisher at GPAC handled it, and so did the community that sprung up around the game. But even without public support, Cantin suggests Max: An Autistic Journey would have been a worthwhile endeavor, if only for the family experience and Max’s response.
I could very easily say that Max loved it and voilà, 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.
Making a game can be a profound act of self-expression. For Max and his family, it was a chance to learn, to work together, and to grow — and now the world can enjoy their labor.