Josh Sauchak, Watch_Dogs 2
A bit of backstory first. Doctors told me that I was on the autistic spectrum back in elementary school, and later on I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s made some things harder for me, like socializing and paying attention in school. But If someone came up and told me that they could “cure” my autism and get rid of my Asperger’s, I’d tell them to take a hike, because it’s been a part of my life for so long that it’s a part of who I am. I wouldn’t be the same person otherwise, because it’s so deeply ingrained into my personality.
When I was growing up, the autistic community was mostly ignored by the entertainment media. Video games and movies didn’t have too many good characters with autism or Asperger’s (this has gotten much better in recent years with an autistic Sesame Street character, and Billy in the recent Power Rangers movie). The lack of representation wasn’t a huge problem for me, but it would have been nice to have a character I connected with for more personal reasons than just “he’s funny and he wears green.”
This brings me to Josh from Watch_Dogs 2. Josh is part of the DedSec ‘hactivist’ group that the player is a part of, and is one of the major members of the game’s supporting cast, conversing with the player through phone calls and in cutscenes. While playing the game, I found Josh’s behavior to be…familiar. Then I watched the Helter Skekter cutscene where Josh talks about Marijuana being researched as a way of treating…something. He gets cut off before he can finish, but I realized why Josh felt familiar.
In the base game, Josh is highly implied to be autistic, evidenced through his introverted behavior and exhibiting a number of defining traits that are common amongst the autistic community, traits that I have seen in myself and in friends of mine who are also autistic. It felt good to finally see an accurately-portrayed autistic character in a major video game. The only other use of a confirmed autistic character in a video game that I knew of was in Amy, but that was a horrible game with an unlikable character.
But then I played the Human Conditions DLC. During the DLC, there’s a mission involving nanobots during which player character Marcus asks Josh if he’d theoretically be willing to use nanobot technology to fix his autism. Josh responds to this by saying that he would be willing to test it, but only if it’s reversible, and says this:
“I like who I am. I might not like who I would be if I didn’t have Asperger’s.”
Josh responds the way I and many others would have answered in his position. I’ve never seen a piece of media treat autism or Asperger’s as respectfully or as realistically as Watch_Dogs 2 did. Josh was the relatable autistic character that I never had growing up, a character I and other people on the autistic spectrum could look at and go “I totally know how he feels.” So congratulations to Watch_Dogs 2 for having what is, in my opinion, the best portrayal of a character with Asperger’s in video gaming.
When Night in the Woods came out back in February, I was in a low place. I’m in enough of a better place now to admit that. I had recently gone through some drawn-out personal changes, and I was only just starting to come to terms with the reality that I had been emotionally abused and manipulated for a large part of the previous year and a half.
Almost a year before that time, through a combination of being a victim of abuse and the school I was attending not being what I had thought it would be, I watched myself grow detached from reality in a way that I just couldn’t put into words. I first really noticed it back in the Spring of 2016. Quite simply put, I felt disengaged from my surroundings. People, places, events, all of it. I would say that I was terrified, but I was too out of my own head to even feel terror.
And I existed like that for the next year. At its worst, it felt like I was watching a first-person TV show about my life, rather than living it.
So, in February, along came Night in the Woods. I immediately grew very attached to the game’s protagonist, a depressed but snarky cat-person named Mae. I was a final-semester senior in college (now a very happy graduate), and I was feeling really disenfranchised with a lot of the things that my college experience had become. Some of it just didn’t feel right, like I didn’t belong there. I found myself making more and more frequent trips back home, just because home was where I had something more of a sense of belonging. I closed off from chances to deepen friendships that I still feel bad about. Under different circumstances, Mae did that, too. Her character is a college dropout, and one whose reasons for leaving are kept obscure for over three quarters of the game.
I followed Mae through this strange journey, as she tried to reconnect with the town she left, and strived to get back what had once been. Near the game’s final act, Mae talks to her best friend Gregg about her reasons for leaving college, which go all the way back to a violent episode she had as a teenager. She describes to Gregg a sensation that the world was suddenly just a collection of polygons and pixels. That everything just became “shapes.”
She tells him how she floated along though that sensation all the way to college, and how badly it emotionally crippled her. She recounts hiding in her room even during breaks, unable to fit in because of how unable she had become to see the people and experiences around her as anything other than shapes. In the end, Mae returned to Possum Springs for the same reasons I started taking those long drives through the woods and mountains, back home. Home was the only place with shapes that were already familiar to her.
I’ve never seen a video game explore this before, and I never would have expected to, honestly. I never expected that a small indie mystery game would feature a protagonist whose depression-fueled, distorted view of the world was in so many ways close to my own. And at the bitter end, Mae doesn’t have some giant epiphany that cures her. Well, okay, she actually does have a pretty major epiphany, but there’s no sign that suddenly, all wrongs are made right; that suddenly, all is well again. No, what Mae does at the end is take a step forward. She goes to her parents, and finally opens up to doing the one thing she’s been finding reasons to avoid; talking about it.
And in that way, Mae helped me take those small steps, too. Steps away from the pain and hurt I had endured, to look back on it sadly, but from a distance. The kind of sadness that’s nothing more than a passing breeze, as opposed to a nightmare storm of the stuff that had kept me pinned down, shutting myself in and away from the world and my loved ones at my lowest points.
I’m still taking those steps. This site helps me do it. Creating projects like this list, which I really and honestly hope you’ve enjoyed, is part of it, too. Everything that one lets be part of the healing process, becomes part of that healing process. Mae Borowski came in and played the opening fanfare for mine, just as, in playing the game, I saw hers.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone from our staff who contributed to this list.