In late 2016, Brad Hennessey made one of the toughest decisions of his life. He took the game he’d spent two years of his life on and he trashed it. He wanted to make something different. Something that mattered. He wanted to make a game that reflected his life experience as a young man living with autism.
That’s when he decided to start working on the game that became An Aspie Life.
Before An Aspie Life, high school student Brad Hennessey spent two years creating a platform shooter.
At what should have been the end of its development, Hennessey looked back at what he’d made and realised he’d been struck with the classic creative dilemma. With the skills he’d learned creating the game, he’d improved. To the point that everything at the beginning needed fixing to be on par with the rest of his work.
So he let it go. This was in November 2016.
Brad had something else in mind. It was around this time he noticed the increasing use of autism as a slur, as an insult.
“As someone who has Autistic Spectrum Disorder, I wasn’t offended,” explains Brad, “but I just thought, why?”
Diving into researching the misconceptions he was encountering, he found the common source of the ignorance and fear: a lack of education.
“I was alarmed at the rising number of people who were not getting vaccinations, or not vaccinating their children, because they think autism is worse than death,” Hennessey said.
“I was even more alarmed at the lack of information and resources trying to show people what autism truly is!”
Brad decided to use his experience with autism to craft a game that was both fun and enjoyable, but also represented what having Autism is really like to live with.
Compared to other sources of media, video games have very few characters with autism, Hennesey tells me. So few, in fact, that the Wikipedia page only has 10 entries.
“The thing with autism is, it’s a hard thing to correctly represent,” Hennessy explains. “It’s all in the brain.”
He uses an analogy to make it clearer.
“If you see someone in a shopping centre struggling to walk, but then you see they have a broken leg – you know why they are acting that way. If you see someone who might have autism struggling, how do you know they have a disability? You don’t.”
I asked Hennessey if any games have come even close to getting it right. He points out Symmetra from Overwatch and Brigid Tenenbaum from BioShock as being decent AAA examples.
“Even then, they are not very good at representing Autism,” Hennessey says. “Autism is more used as a scapegoat to satisfy other elements of the story.”
“They do have little autistic traits here and there, but I would not really call their characters autistic.”
When someone really wants an autistic character, they do their research, he says.
Indie games Max, An Autistic Journey and Auti-Sim rate a mention from Hennessey as being good representations of autism within a school environment. He wanted to focus on living in the outside world.
Ultimately, An Aspie Life is all about trying to let people experience Autism. It exists because Hennessey wanted to help educate people about what it really is like to live with Autism. But he wanted people to enjoy playing it, too.
“Of course it didn’t take me long to realise just how hard this was going to be,” Henneseey says, pointing to the need to balance sound, music, gameplay and story.
Every character in the game is nothing but a black outline – as with Autism you can’t tell body language, Hennessey says – so the player can’t either.
“In the end. I’m hoping this will be the most effective representation of autism to date.”
Hennessey says An Aspie Life is important because of what it’s telling the world.
It’s not about stereotypes or basic reflections. It is an experience that dives into the deep end to provide something that will effect our understanding and pre-existing notions of Autism.
It’s a game that’s relevant to the ever-changing landscape of the world and its values, and it’s here to help people understand something that only can be experienced in your head.
Even right now, in what Hennessey describes as “its buggy development phase”, An Aspie Life has already won the national senior student iAward, and ACMI’s Screen IT senior game award.
“Those who have played it, told me it was an eye-opening experience,” Hennessey told Gizmodo.
Importantly, it has also been widely accepted in the autism community. Tony Attwood, for example, is one of the world’s leading psychologists in the Autistic field. His response: a big thumbs up.
“I knew then that I had captured Autistic traits the way I had intended to.”
This story originally appeared in November 2017 and has been retimed to help highlight the wonderful contributions women have made to Kotaku Australia over the years, our way of acknowledging International Women’s Day.