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One designer’s quest to demystify life on the autism spectrum

The main character in the video game ‘An Aspie Life’ was modeled after its creator, Bradley Hennessey, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and first designed the game when he was just 16 years old.

One designer’s quest to demystify life on the autism spectrum
[Photo: Thanassi Karageorgiou/MoMI]

I’m standing in front of an arcade machine. I grab the joystick and walk my character into a loud room and the screen starts to shake. I watch the boy on the screen press his hands to his ears as little pixels burst out of him and I try, frantically, to fiddle with the controls to turn the volume down. The experience lasts 10 seconds, but it’s enough to leave me flustered.

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This is An Aspie Life, a video game that helps people experience the world through the lens of autism. Its creator, the Australian video game designer Bradley Hennessey who has Asperger’s Syndrome, first released the game in 2018. But an updated version is now on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, as part of a broader exhibition featuring works from media makers on the spectrum.

[Image: courtesy MoMI]
According to the CDC, about 1% of the world’s population, or over 75,000,000 people, have autism spectrum disorder (ADS). As of 2018, 1 in 44 children were diagnosed in the United States, but ADS comes with such a wide range of symptoms and levels of severity that it can be hard to understand what it’s like to live on the spectrum.

[Image: courtesy MoMI]
Titled Marvels of Media, the exhibition includes documentaries, animated shorts, and experimental films, plus three video games that can be played on vintage-looking arcade machines. One of those games is An Aspie Life, and the goal is to survive regular tasks like going grocery shopping, talking to the cashier, or even getting caught up in a public protest, all while navigating sensitivity triggers like bright lights and loud noises. Starting April 15, the exhibition will also introduce a beta version of an upcoming game titled An Aspie Life Beginnings. Designed as a prequel to An Aspie Life, the game will bring in two other characters with other disabilities, including a low-vision girl and a hearing-impaired boy.

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Hennessey was only 16 when he created An Aspie Life. “I was frustrated about the lack of understanding of what it was like,” he says, drawing comparisons between physical disabilities that may involve crutches or a wheelchair, and neurological disorders that may not be immediately apparent. “That visual understanding and quick identifier is lacking,” he says. “And on top of that, because it’s a spectrum, that spectrum makes people confused.”

The character in the game—a moody-looking teenager who often walks with his hands in his pockets—was modeled after Hennessey. “I looked into myself and tried to see what things affected me,” he says, citing noise sensitivity as an example.

The look and feel of the game—a pixelated world of dark blues and eerie purples—helps set the scene, too. “The color palette was developed to reflect my isolation at the time,” he says. And every single character appears as a black outline, a nod to Hennessey’s struggles to interpret body language and facial expressions.

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[Image: courtesy MoMI]
I walked away from the exhibition with a better understanding of life on the spectrum, but Hennessey notes that the game is only one of the myriad interpretations of life on the spectrum. “If you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” he says.

Now, Hennessey is finalizing the design of his prequel, which will be available to play at the museum (and on Steam soon). The prequel is set on an island, where characters discover more about themselves as they solve mysteries. “You have little battle situations where you have to fight monsters that are incarnations of your emotions,” he says. The island is a nod to the isolation caused by autism, but Hennessey says it was mostly informed by his childhood growing up in a tight-knit community on Australia’s Gold Coast.

The game is centered around three characters, and players can swap between them to step into their shoes and see how they experience the world as the parameters change accordingly. For example, the sight-impaired character has tunnel vision, so the screen becomes darker on the edges. “It’s a visual metaphor,” says Hennessey, who drew from his partner’s sight impairment.

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Looking back, Hennessey says that designing An Aspie Life gave him a deeper understanding of who he was, but with the prequel, he was curious to dive even deeper by drawing from his younger years. I ask if he has plans to make a sequel. “I want to make a trilogy,” he says, “but maybe in 20 years time, once I’ve gone through the stages in adulthood.”

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