May 9, 2014 9:30 PM | Lena LeRay
Educational games often get a bad rap, perhaps with good reason; most of them are little more than problem drills in an unrelated wrapper. Sometimes that works out. I, for one, have fond memories of Math Blaster. For the most part, though, games designed for educational purposes just... aren't much fun. That doesn't mean that continuing to try is a bad idea, though. Sjors Jansen is working on a game called Animal Album, which uses a vibrant fictional setting to teach about real world animals.
Jansen started developing AnimalAlbum after reading about the results of a study in which it was reported that children know more about the fictional creatures of Pokemon than they do about real world animals. When he first contacted me about the game and told me that it will have no combat and all encounters will be optional, I was skeptical about AnimalAlbum's chances of successfully meeting its teaching goals. It's not like kids memorize Pokemon type charts because memorizing things is fun, after all. They do it because knowing that information helps them in battle. It's understandable that he wouldn't want to encourage kids to make animals fight each other, I thought, but the battles in Pokemon are a key part of what gets the kids learning about Pokemon traits.
"I'll be blunt and say that in my opinion most of the main Pokemon battles you have in a single player game are not that interesting," Jansen replied. "I think a case can be made against a lot of turn based RPGs there. The course of action is obvious for a large part of the game. Do you a) use item, b) hit things with your sword, c) make meteors rain from the sky, d) flee!
"...I would argue that in a lot of cases it's not so much the battle system that draws people in, and that it's more the obstacle that stands in the way of exploring the game world, characters and story. I think what makes Pokemon such a success is that they're able to bring the creatures to life very well."
Jansen allows for the difference between single-player and multi-player battles in Pokemon, but
for the single-player-only AnimalAlbum in AnimalAlbum, the player takes on the role of a robot tasked with observing, analyzing, and cataloguing wildlife with an option for a co-op helper. By exploring the world, talking to people, and encountering animals in the wild, the player will add information about real animals to an album similar to the Pokedex in the Pokemon games. Battles have been replaced with things like blind trivia qizzes in which the player starts with vague hints and can ask for more hints until they can answer the question. The more hints they need, the fewer experience points they gain for answering, but that's still better than getting the answer wrong. And if a player chooses to "cheat" and look the answer up on the internet or in an encyclopedia, chances are good they'll learn more about the animal than they would have if they'd just looked at all the hints.
Although Jansen has looked to Pokemon for ideas about how to develop AnimalAlbum, he's also looked to Pokemon for ideas about what not to do. One of the flaws of the Pokemon games is that the NPCs are shallow, completely obsessed with Pokemon, and seemingly unconnected to most of the other NPCs. That's not true of AnimalAlbum, in which the player will be encouraged to identify the connections between different NPCs via a system of finding shards of glass hearts and putting them together. Conversation with the NPCs will also reveal more about the words using a keyword system inspired by the SNES Shadowrun RPG. Talking to more NPCs will unlock more keywords that can be used to have new conversations, eventually revealing secrets if the player is dilligent enough.
Overall, Jansen is shooting for an interesting environment to explore which contains information about animals for players to discover. "Good level design is key," he says. "If [the levels] aren't fun to explore then it would become more of an interactive encyclopedia. Which is... all right I guess, but probably won't be as entertaining.
"So the animals in the game are just there to run into. Characters in the world talk about them as well, so the player is bound to hear something that will at least surprise them and hopefully trigger more interest. But it's not mandatory. The knowledge will come as a byproduct of playing the game. I'm definitely not telling kids to sit down and learn these facts about animals before I reward them. If they don't like the world, then I've failed. If they do, they'll automatically pick up on animals, some more than others. But there are plenty of things and traits about animals that might surprise a player. And that's half the job done."
There's a browser demo available on Jansen's web site and he's currently running a Kickstarter project to raise funds with which to improve AnimalAlbum, but the game will be finished whether or not the Kickstarter succeeds. It's currently slated for a Windows release in the first quarter of 2015. Jansen would like to port it to other systems, but whether or not that will be possible is partially dependent on the fate of the Kickstarter project.