I was planning to mention With the Light in my blog post the other day on juvenile and adolescent games, but I forgot. Actually, though, I’m kind of glad I did, because it’s a good enough work to deserve its own discussion as a positive example of those themes. So I’ll discuss it (or, rather, its first volume, because that’s the only volume that I’ve finished) here.
With the Light is a comic book (a manga, specifically), rather than a game; in this country, both art forms are similarly marked as juvenile/adolescent, though I suspect that isn’t as true (especially for comics) in Japan, where With the Light comes from. (I could easily be wrong, however.) This series isn’t juvenile literature, however, though my daughter can attest that at least one kid finds it accessible, even engrossing.
And I’m very impressed by the book. A few reasons:
- The variety and realism of its characters.
The book’s subtitle is “Raising an Autistic Child”, and the most prominent characters are Hikaru, the child of the title, and Sachiko, his mother. Which goes some way towards breaking the characters out of cookie-cutter mode, but runs the risk of setting up cardboard characters of a different sort. To me, though, the book never fell into that trap: Hikaru in particular isn’t presented as some sort of generic autistic child, he’s got his own specific characteristics, weaknesses, and even (as seems to be somewhat a theme of the second volume) impressive and idiosyncratic strengths.
- Its focus on interactions and interaction pitfalls.
Over and over, we see the book seeing people who are talking right past each other, acting at loggerheads; if and when they finally manage to understand what the other side is doing and get a glimpse of the other side’s perspective, everything about the pair’s interactions improves. The book is filled with compassion, but compassion in a hard-nosed sense: not “just try to understand the other person and things will magically get better” but “here are some of Hikaru’s triggers, here are some specific perception differences between autistic kids and non-autistic kids that can lead to behavior that you may misinterpret, here are some strategies that have been known to help bridge communication gaps in these contexts, give them a try and keep your eyes open as to what’s working and what’s not”. (There seems to be quite a lot of detailed research and experience informing the book’s descriptions of strategies and perception differences, incidentally.)
And the interaction problems aren’t just between Hikaru and non-autistic people: most of the characters in the book have their quirks and issues that cause them to behave badly at times, understanding what’s going on helps a lot. This was the part of the book that hit home the most to me—I’m sure that if I’d been in a slightly more maudlin mood while reading it, I would have broken down crying—because I’ve certainly been known to put a less-than-gracious mental spin on what I label as recalcitrant behavior from my own daughter when all that’s going on is that she’s tired! It’s a lesson that I still need reminders of; popping up the stack a bit, it’s a mistake that I probably make most frequently when I’m tired or upset for some other reason, so I should probably also use these tools to improve my interactions with my own mind…
- The way goals change when they meet reality.
The book doesn’t focus on Hikaru’s father Masato as much as on his mother, but he’s certainly there, and portrayed none too flattering at first. He has a goal for his life; it’s a lot more focused on his business success, with his family playing a fairly distant second fiddle, and Hikaru’s diagnosis throws a rather large wrench into those plans. Which Masato reacts badly to (to put it mildly); eventually, though, he comes around, and is much the better for it.
Which is, perhaps, a fairly banal plot point; I bring it up for two reasons. The first is that it’s a banal plot point that games don’t typically manage: while sudden disruptions are common in the start of games, games usually have characters react by attacking the disruption rather than by working with the disruption. (Though Passage did a wonderful job of handling having your plans change because of the presence of another person.) The second is that I’ve gone through one major career change in my life that wasn’t initially particularly of my own volition; even though my disruption was much less profound than Masato’s, I can sympathize with him, and I can very much relate to ultimately ending up in a better situation than I was in before that career disruption.
- Its balancing of contingency and personal efforts.
Hikaru and Sachiko go through a lot, but much of the time things end up turning out pretty well. Their own hard work is very important to that end, but equally important is the fact that they run into some pretty special people along the way. And, again, this matches my own life: I try to work hard to put myself in a position to succeed, but over and over again I’ve gotten extremely lucky with the people I meet and the situations I’m in. (There was certainly a good deal of both in the last two jobs that I’ve gotten, for example.) So I appreciate it when I see a book that doesn’t attribute good outcomes solely to one factor or the other.
It’s a really special book, and thoroughly engrossing to boot. I’ll certainly happily cite its existence as an example of the contingencies that have enriched my life: I’m very fortunate to be living in an era when manga featuring an autistic lead character is being translated and brought over the ocean so I can read it, because I can imagine many many worlds where that would never happen. And I look forward to a world where games’ conception of understanding interactions more regularly goes beyond finding the weak spots in a boss monster’s patters so you can attack it and instead moves on to lower key but much more profound appreciations of differences in perspective.
This post has not been revised since publication.