Thomas Was Autistic? – An Alternative View of Mike Bithell’s Indie Darling

Bit of back story folks. When I was in my late teens I worked with the local youth centre to provide support and encouragement to children with a variety of educational and physical needs. My mother and sister have both followed the caring and support career path which obviously drips into *every* conversation we have. As such I have a keen interest in the levels of support and acceptance that people with emotional, physical and educational needs are afforded in both society and the media. The interesting off-shoot of this is that I sometimes find myself wishing for more of a representation of disability in gaming, to the point that while playing Indie game ‘Thomas Was Alone’ I thought that I had finally encountered the gaming equivalent of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”, more specifically a game that dealt with disability without the disability being the centre of the protagonist’s adventure. The game is minimalist to the point of almost not existing at all, but is enhanced by the addition of pop up text (famously narrated by Danny Wallace). This text is sometimes guilty of pop culture indulgence, but it also wanders into an area of life that jumped off of the screen to me as the perfect way to illustrate the mind of an autistic child. In my head the game was not about AI constructs fighting to free themselves from regulatory code at all, and right up until the end cut scene I was absolutely convinced that the ‘big reveal’ would be a young child in a research centre. It’s all in the ‘narrative’ really. Taken out of context – and I appreciate that this would make almost any point somewhat valid, but bear with me – the comments from the emerging AI seem more and more like understandings of the actual world. Thomas, for example embodies the curious mind. The list making:

Thomas decided to start listing his observations.

As he makes lists he starts to seem to be able to understand things more, taking the emotion out of the thought process it allows him to process data more effectively.

This all seemed a little dangerous. The world was not to be trusted. It was unstable, and it seemed to Thomas that it could let him down at any moment.

Mistrust of the world and of people is another very common thought pattern when looking at an autistic mindset. The difficulty in reading emotions and meaning in actions can often lead to withdrawl and confusion. And so it continues. We witness the collective cast of geometric shapes (co-incidentally also a trope of an autistic mindset as geometry and maths allows for little misunderstanding. Data can’t be subjective. Patterns and form are comforting). Laura (the bouncy rectangle) expresses mistrust in others, a fear of being abandoned – in fact many of the characters worry about how their differences are perceived by others – finding herself concerned about the interest that Christopher is showing her, but also thrilled by the potential. Overall it is clear that in context the emotions of an Artificial Intelligence are at the heart of Thomas Was Alone and there is little room for alternative interpretation, but I really find myself wishing I had been right. That the game was always intended as a reflection of a disability that many don’t understand. But it isn’t. And I’ll have to just accept it. So why should I care if the game wasn’t about a disabled child’s view of the world that seemed so confusing and strange? Well in short I feel that gaming has tackled some incredible issues over the last decade. We have seen characters fleshed out with realistic lives and back-stories. We have witnessed games that deal with ultra-violence in a questioning sense, as well as games that have challenged the ideals that a female gaming character should be the ‘damsel in distress’. We have seen an entire movement rear it’s ugly head because someone dared to point out how women are treated in many games and we have witnessed barriers of race and religion be broken down by gaming greats. But disability is a rarely touched upon. Specifically in the last couple of years I can only recall Lester in Grand Theft Auto V, Frank Woods in Black Ops 2 and Joker in Mass Effect. You could probably consider Adam Jensen from Deus Ex:Human Revolution, Spencer from Bionic Commando and other amputees/enhanced characters from games but as their enhancements give them borderline super-human abilities. With Lester his condition is never explained and barely reference – quite right too – but he is also not what you would call a positive reference point. A delusional, paranoid loner he is less the poster boy for positive disability profiling and more a case of playing to ‘type’. Which isn’t great. Frank Woods is a mainstay of the Black Ops series and his appearance as a veteran living with the crippling injuries of his past it is clear that his disability is used to highlight his regrets and vengeance. Again, good to see a disabled character in such a huge franchise. Leave it to BioWare to hit the nail so squarely on the head with Joker then. If you didn’t talk  to your crew much in the first game you could easily assume that Joker was as able-bodied as anyone else on board, but a few conversations and it is revealed that Jeff was born with Vrolik Syndrome (Brittle Bone Disease), which make the times that he is pushed to the limit to save crew members in later games all the more heroic. BioWare are never one to shy away from providing a level playing field full of diversity and Joker is definitely a great example of using a disability to flesh out a character without relying on cheap tropes. But he isn’t Shepard. Usually we can only expect a disability to come before some augmentation creates the ‘hero’ protagonist. Blindness is often used with enemy types to offer a strategic edge (Resident Evil 4 immediately jumps to mind, as well as the Clickers in The Last of Us). And no NeverDead doesn’t count. At all. I guess in a time in which it is difficult enough for a developer to create a strong female protagonist without a flurry of complaints/abuse it may be a little while longer before we see a disabled protagonist, but I’d love to see more games at least tackle the subject more openly. Games are, for many kids, a window into other worlds and other lives. They should be populated with as many real-life scenarios as possible. So while Mike didn’t create the ‘Dog in the Night-time’ of games, the opportunity is still there. I hope I get to see the potential realised.

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