TW: Ableism… what did you expect in a game subtitled “An Autistic Journey?”
The observant eye might have noticed that the puzzle piece is a common symbol that is used to represent people with autism. The reasoning behind this was to represent both the puzzling nature of the condition as well as the fact that every autistic person is a unique individual. The puzzle piece is also a recurring symbol in Max, an Autistic Journey, due to the game’s focus on autism as a central theme.
As a “high functioning” autistic individual (that means I can talk), I dislike the use of the puzzle piece as a way of representing autistic people as a whole. We should not be labeled like autism makes us some kind of unnatural enigma that is incomprehensible, when we are human beings just like everyone else. I am not the only one who feels this way either as this can easily be seen by Google searching “autism puzzle piece” and seeing several articles stating their disfavor with the symbol. Also it does not help Professional Imagination’s case when they specifically choose a blue puzzle piece as their logo, a symbol that is associated with Autism Speaks (who is up there with PETA in terms of the worst charities in America due to their dehumanizing advertisements that have hurt the public image of autistic people far more than helped, and the fact that their funds are spent towards attempting to “cure” autism, despite the fact that autism is brain pattern and not a disease, and is impossible to cure).
The puzzle piece icon, does however, fit the game Max, an Autistic Journey to a tee. The reason for this is that I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this game. On one hand, I should love this game due to it trying to educate and promote autism awareness, and the fact that a portion of the developer’s profits are being donated to the Miriam Foundation (a decision that makes it clear that the above incident with the blue puzzle piece was thankfully just a reverse fluke). On the other hand, I have been spending almost two years bashing these types of “SJW games” for their insistence on putting artistic statements above being a quality experience.
My initial impression of this game upon discovering that it is a thing was that it was a terrible idea for a game. The premise of Max, an Autistic Journey, is that the developer Stephane Cantin, has made a game showcasing a day in the life of his ten year old son Max through the lens of a traditional turn based RPG made in RPG Maker. Of course, Stephane deserves credit for actually having gameplay in his game as opposed to simply releasing a shallow walking simulator or Twine novel. However, it still does not change the fact that most people play games as a form of escapism and to be entertained, and thus playing as an elementary school kid on an ordinary day with nothing remotely exciting happening is going to come across as being just as boring as the real life that it represents; and putting an RPG coat of paint over it is not going to make the story it tells any more interesting. Despite this, I still decided to give this game a chance, and it turns out my impression was correct.
The star of our story is Max, a ten year old who is diagnosed with autism and attention deficit disorder, a disorder commonly associated with autism that makes it difficult to keep one’s attention fixed to one area. The game opens up in a scene where Max is diagnosed as autistic when he is five years old, and the scene is played out as melodramatically as possible. The doctor claimed Max was autistic in the same tone as if they were saying he had cancer, and the parents are shocked by this. They do however, swear that they will do their best to make sure Max goes on to live the best life he can.
Five years later, you get put in Max’s shoes as he goes through an ordinary day of elementary school while trying to cope with his autism. As previously stated, nothing compelling happens and this entire game is just an ordinary day in the life of Max. There is never any big twist or moment where the game attempts to be anything other than an autism simulator or to do anything deep. All that happens is that Max does something, and an unnamed narrator explains how his condition comes into effect.
This game is structured more like a documentary than a narrative. Specifically, it feels like a documentary on an animal that points out how it functions in the wild; except that Max is a human being and not an animal. This is one of the key flaws with the way this game tries to educate people about autism; it makes Max’s autism his defining feature and it overshadows the rest of his personality. Now I feel like I need to choose my words carefully considering that Max is actually a real person and that this game is obscure enough that its developer could actually be reading this review, but I don’t know what there is to say other than that, as a character, Max is not an enjoyable protagonist.
That is not to say that Max is a badly written character by any means, it is just that he is not someone I enjoy playing as and I honestly found him rather grating. I should disclose that I am not exactly fond of young children in real life. I don’t hate them, but I just find their general mannerisms and their immaturity to be irritating even though it is not something they can help. Max is written to be exactly like a real life child with ADD and he comes across as exactly as the game intended; for better or worse.
Nearly everything about Max just makes me cringe and I can’t help but feel that this was intentional. I found myself just sighing to myself every time he brought up that his brother Jimmy is growing a mustache, when he tries to interrupt someone to bring up something related to either Five Nights at Freddy’s or the game’s Godzilla expy, and whenever he says the words “in fact” at the beginning of random sentences where it would not be grammatically correct like it is a verbal tic. I just find myself getting irritated by the smallest of things when it comes to Max, but I feel bad because it isn’t like he is doing anything wrong. Hell I have even known people in real life who behaved similarly to Max that were full grown adults who had autism as well.
Even though it is a realistic portrayal, I still do not feel like this is a good choice with how Stephane choose to depict Max for a few reasons. Firstly, if the purpose of this game is meant to educate people about autism then maybe having your example of an autistic child as irritating and grating will send some negative messages about autistic people as a whole. I am almost certain that if someone who was prejudiced against autistic people played this game, they would come out with even more hatred towards them.
While Stephane did mention on one of Steam discussion pages for this game that this game was meant to be more about one specific autistic person rather than all of them, it still feels more harmful than good when your portrayal is of the most common autistic stereotype. It is the equivalent of if someone tried to make a game that was pro African American rights and meant to challenge racism but had the main character as an uneducated hoodlum walking around with his pants sagging and carrying a gun. It would practically be doomed from the start even if our character was realistically written. Yes, I get that this was based off of Stephane’s real son, but did it have to be so stereotypical? Couldn’t there have been something to maybe subvert people’s expectations of autistic people?
Everything about Max, an Autistic Journey is meant to fit perfectly in line with how the typical narrative of what an autistic person is like; including the idea that adults with autism do not exist. This is all the more frustrating because the real challenges of coping with autism is when you are thrust into the outside world without the aid of your parents or teachers, and you are entirely on your own. In fact, that would be an excellent idea for a sequel. It is just unfortunate that it wouldn’t be made for another decade since the real life Max needs to grow up first.
Instead, we have a game with virtually no conflict and that makes me feel like I’m back in elementary school myself. The reason for this is because this game feels like the game equivalent to something you would watch in elementary school health class. Something that wants to educate kids about an important topic but is too afraid to mention anything scary so it is dumbed down for them. There is one exception to this pattern in a scene where Max enters into a state of self loathing due to his autism and even alludes to self harm urges. The scene where his inner voice tries to tell him that his autism is a gift actually made me, for a moment, feel bad for being annoyed by Max and made me feel he was endearing.
Unfortunately, this scene turns out to be a big lipped alligator moment seeing as how there was no foreshadowing beforehand and it was never mentioned again afterwards when it should have been a major theme of the game. While playing the game, I found myself kind of curious as to what the final boss was going to be seeing as how the enemies in this game represent Max’s difficulties or are figments of his imagination. The idea that popped into my head was something that represented life itself and the difficulties it throws at you; something that EVERYONE could relate to even if they aren’t autistic. Instead, the final boss is a representation of Max’s fear of a thunderstorm, that’s it.
This entire game feels like it could have been so much more than it is, but everything is just so simplistic and elementary. It makes me feel like I am back in elementary school myself, and that is not a good thing. It felt as though this game was treating me as a child most of the time and was talking down to me. The fact that this was made by the father of an autistic child , and not an actual autistic person, shows; and it feels more like something he made for Max himself rather than a gamer audience.
Part of me wonders how the real Max will feel about this game ten years from now. Chances are there will probably be a bit of embarrassment for him seeing as how the game portrayed him at a point where he had less knowledge of social skills and that he will be most known for that. Granted he will likely appreciate his dad’s gesture towards him but I find it hard to imagine that he wouldn’t cringe at the game itself.
Max, an Autistic Journey is a game that is made in RPG Maker, very similar to a lot of games on Steam. I have not used RPG Maker to develop anything, so I do not know which of the resources used in Max are stock and which were created from scratch. I say this because Max’s aesthetic basically comes down to looking and sounding like the most stereotypical JRPG in existence, and it succeeds in doing that. There is nothing in terms of graphical effects that stands out in the slightest and everything looks like it is stock. This includes the character sprites that do not look like their character portraits (then again that could partially be due to how small and undetailed they are) and enemy sprites that look like very typical JRPG monsters. To give credit where it is due, the sprites do at least have some animation in that they tend to rock back and forth while giving off a pseudo 3D effect. The backgrounds also tend to waver sometimes in a similar manner to Earthbound, and a lot of them are made up of puzzle pieces.
The sound effects, I actually know for sure are stock simply because I have heard just about all of them in other RPG Maker games. As for the music, it also sounds like what you would expect from a very stereotypical JRPG. Songs tend to be uplifting adventurous songs outside of battle, while normal battles use an intimidating and serious song. The boss theme is a very intense guitar track that made boss battles much more interesting. The most out of place songs are the final boss themes. The first one is a “One Winged Angel” like hybrid of metal and orchestral complete with a Latin choir (well I actually don’t know what language it is) and the second one is a melancholic and somber chorus based track that would be an unusual choice even in a normal RPG. (Update: I checked, pretty much every track is an RPG Maker default or some other royalty free music)
I do understand what the game is trying to do with these unfitting aesthetics and sounds; it is attempting to have the game be presented through Max’s vivid imagination as opposed to being as is. For instance, when Max is playing with his toys, the scenery changes to represent the scene he is imagining. These imaginary scenes are where most of the gameplay comes in as opposed to being applied to Max’s real life conflicts. It is basically a game about playing a game (queue Inception reference).
This concept has been done in some other games as well, one of the most recent examples being 2014’s South Park: The Stick of Truth. The difference between these games comes in how they were executed. In Stick of Truth, it was just the music that was unfitting while everything else looked realistic (by South Park standards at least). Max however, does nothing with its own setting and completely separates the gameplay from its story.
While I am normally hesitant to put any weight into claims of “ludo-narrative dissonance,” I feel that this game is an exception. The reason for this is because Max uses a setting that is very atypical of games, which is its main selling point. Despite this, Max does not try to use its gameplay as a storytelling tool and instead only puts gameplay there so they can call it a game.
There is still the question of whether the base gameplay is fun or not, and to answer the question, it kind of is. As stated, Max is made in RPG Maker, so it is obvious that this game is a turn based RPG. However, this game actually puts a slight twist on the usual RPG mechanics. Instead of like most RPGs where you have to conserve HP and MP as you make your way to the center of a dungeon, Max has your HP and MP restored after every battle. To balance this out, a lot of your most powerful attacks require another currency known as TP. TP starts at zero and fills up during battle as you either inflict or take damage, similarly to Final Fantasy VII’s limit breaks. Unlike limit breaks, however, TP does not carry over from one battle to the next, so you need to put thought into how you want to use it during boss battles.
In regards to the strategy required, most battles just came down to either spamming your overpowered, blind inducing flashlight and saving up enough MP to use your strongest attack. There was a bit of thought that was required, but the only battle that was remotely challenging was the second phase of the final boss, and even then I still did not die once in the entire game. There is no alternate equipment or money and the entire game is linear with no exploration. There are also some very simplistic mini-games that you will have to do occasionally, but they really do not change anything. The game is also over in about 2 hours so there is not much content.
It is important for autistic people to know that they are much more than their disorder. Autistic people are individuals each with their own thoughts and their own hopes and dreams. The same cannot be said for this game. Max, an Autistic Journey never tries to be anything more than “a game about autism” and its premise is its only notable quality. It does not even try to do anything interesting with its premise and the only thing that it accomplishes is that you can learn a bit about autism from playing it if you are interested.
While Max does tell you about what autism is, it does not do so in an interesting way and is not a game I feel I could recommend for fun; and all I can think about with this game is how things should be different. Max, an Autistic Journey could have been great if tried to go beyond its own premise and speak to people as a whole. It is clear that Stephane’s heart was in the right place while making this game and that there was passion put into it. This unfortunately does not change the end result. In fact, it just makes things all the more sad.
Before re posting this review on this site, I was planning to play through the DLC episode just so I could go over it quickly. I could not figure out how to access the DLC so I refought the final boss (which took a LOT longer than it should have) and then I sat through the intro… or at least I got as far as I could until I turned it off in disgust.
I was WAY too nice on this game when I originally reviewed it. When I did, I found it merely cringeworthy and awkward. Now I find it one of the most disgustingly offensive piles of dreck I had the displeasure of experiencing.
I LOATH this game, and let me take a second to explain why.
This game was not made for autistic people. It does not humanize autistic people in any meaningful way. In fact, it does the exact fucking opposite. In fact, it reduces autistic people down to the absolute worst and most obnoxious stereotypes and serves no purpose other than to mock us and talk down to us like we are idiots. In fact, It is the embodiment of almost every ableist stereotype in existence. In fact, it gets very fucking annoying to hear in fact at the beginning of every line of dialogue even when he’s asking a question. In fact, are you getting annoyed yet? In fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, In fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, In fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, In fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, In fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, In fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, In fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, In fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, in fact, I almost decided to put over 30,000 “in facts” in this article resulting in over 60K words added to a review that is otherwise less than 4000 words. In fact, you are lucky I am so merciful.
And I do not like being this harsh on someone who was trying to help us… I really don’t (although I do my best to make it funny). I am finding myself torn between just how grating and unpleasant this game is and my desire to be compassionate and understanding towards others. But here’s the thing that just really gets under my skin about this game; no one asked for this. I find it strongly unlikely that the real Max asked for his dad to make a game about his autism and make him out to be a complete moron. This is the typical status quo of people claiming to care about autistic people while also talking down to us.
Stephane, if you are reading this and you seriously do want to help autistic people out, then heed my advice. let Max speak for himself. I know that you care a lot about Max and want to teach other people that there is nothing wrong with being autistic, but when you try to do so without the input of other autistic people (and if there was then you certainly fooled me), you do nothing but confirm the very stereotypes about autistic people you are trying to combat. When you try and represent autistic people while also talking over us, it damages us all. You repeatedly emphasize “autism” while making Max out to be a grating jackass, and then you use autism as an excuse to hand wave those actions. This is the precise reason WHY so many people have become prejudiced towards autistic people, and you only validate their reasons for doing so.
Let autistic people speak for themselves. Let Max himself create the sequel if there ever is one, and if he decides not to then please don’t decide to make it anyway. Max isn’t just a character in a game meant to be observed as if he’s some kind of animal; he’s a human being, and using him this way is immensely disrespectful and exploitative. Seeing as how this game was not too bad gameplay wise, there is definitely at least SOME talent at making games so I’m sure you could make something good without exploiting your son.
As for this game, I cannot recommend it in good conscious even if some of it DOES go to the Miriam Foundation. You are better off just donating to them directly than by playing this game.
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