Game Review: Social Cipher's Ava

Ava is the autistic protagonist of the game, and explores trust through interactions with various space pirates.

Disclaimer: I am currently considering applying for a curriculum writer position for Social Cipher, but have not made a decision and this review is being written as an independent writer, not as a prospective employee of Social Cipher.

Doing something different today, instead of talking about applied RPG work, I'm going to be discussing  an exciting new video game! A while ago I was contacted by Social Cipher, a company making video games that teach social-emotional learning. Fascinated by the concept, we met and I agreed to do a review once they could get a beta version to me. A few weeks ago they did, and after getting a chance to play the game and read the curriculum, I have to say that I am absolutely enamored with this game and very excited to see it get out into the broader world.

The game follows Ava, an autistic space pirate child traveling with her captain, Redbraid, as she searches for a crew after her ship is damaged and they are forced to land at a spaceport. The aesthetic is simplistic but cute, and the gameplay is typical for a platformer, with a grappling hook, wall jumps, obstacles, and various enemies and traps. Taking damage causes Ava to lose fortitude due to experiencing something uncomfortable, but there are various quiet spots where she can regain fortitude by being in a quiet space, petting her dog, and writing in her book. The real meat of the game, however, is in the nonplayer character interactions, where she is tasked with assessing the trustworthiness of various characters and determining if they would be a good fit for her ship. Included with the game is a curriculum for teachers and counselors to help gauge the trustworthiness of the characters, and help students think about how the character's actions and statements might reflect that.

Ava expresses that her autism can make socialization challenging. However, her captain expresses unconditional support for her, and she is able to succeed in finding new crew members.

All that is very good, but what I personally found more important overall was the representation, and how it never portrays autism in a negative light. Instead, it acknowledges the challenges characters experience in a way that is compassionate and understanding. There is a point where a character who is occasionally nonverbal identifies that the main character is stimming, and there a moment of joy in that shared understanding and communication. At other times, characters discuss sensory needs, becoming overwhelmed, or self-doubt around social situations, but they are always met with support and kindness. There are also some very clear opportunities for Ava to set boundaries and acknowledge that she is feeling overwhelmed, but it isn't punished, instead, there are very clear opportunities for her to take a break and try again.

Ava bonds with another character over stimming.

All in all, Social Cipher is doing something really important with this game. While the Social Emotional Learning aspect is very strong, I really appreciate the inclusion of autistic characters interacting in unique and special ways, even bonding over things like stimming. This is a really positive and kind game, and I am excited to see where it goes and what Social Cipher does next. To close, I'll include a piece from the curriculum that stuck out to me: "...the goal of these lessons is to support neurominority youth in realizing two things: they, and others, are worthwhile as they are, and, it’s important to respect and show that respect to oneself and others."

This game achieves that goal wonderfully, and I for one am looking forward to seeing what adventures Ava goes on next!