Last week I wrote about games that tried to turn text into a playable experience. One of the games I didn't get a chance to talk about was Today I Die by Daniel Benmergui, which doesn't quite fit in the same category. It would be more accurate to describe it as a "playable poem". There have been a few other playable poems that have been recognized in the Casual Games scene recently, such as I Wish I Were the Moon (also by Daniel Benmergui) and The Majesty of Colors by Gregory Weir (Author of Silent Conversation).
Super Energy Apocalypse: RECYCLED by Brain Juice Games is a Real Time Strategy game (RTS) that explores the pros and cons of different energy-economies by taking real-life data and simulating it in a science-fiction world that turns long-term consequences into immediate consequences.
Ive recently been exploring the idea of using the game genre known as the "Escape Game" for educational games. The best examples of games test your puzzle-solving skills, and include hints that you have to explore to find. I thought I would talk to fellow Flash game developer Merlin Gore about escape games, since he has developed so many of them.
Merlin started as a flash developer a few years ago when his friend introduced him to the world of Escape Games. He is still making games to date, but is now also a staff member at FlashGameLicense.com. He’s studying Computer Science in the UK and is going on to do a Masters next year. He aspires to be a game developer later in life and work for some big names like EA or Blizzard.
ElectroCity is a fun little sim game from New Zealand designed to "spark an interest and lay an unbiased foundation for later learning" about the topics of energy policy and environmental impact. It plays like a very simplified version of SimCity, instead oh having to plan out every detail, you just chose how to use a few large squares of land, either for mining, building power plants, or using the land to create jobs, increase tourism, or decrease environmental impact. You have to balance population growth, happiness, and energy use with environmental impact, and the city budget. You get graded in each category at the end with a simple A+ through F scale.
I've written a little bit before about games as art, but my previous examples have all been games that comment on some aspect of life or literature. This is not to imply that all art needs to make commentary, or that games written for the primary purpose of entertainment or education are not art. There are some people who say that games are never art, though personally I agree with the other side of the argument.
It is easier, however, to argue that games that do have something important to say are art. As a game designer I find it particularly interesting when games are used to comment on the nature of games.
I'm going to talk about three of these games, but you should probably play them first if you don't want my biased dissection of the games' messages to interfere with your personal experience of them. So play them first, and I'll put my commentary after the break.
Do you need a fun way of teaching kids the basics of the physics and engineering principles behind bridge-building? You may not have to commission your own game, because a lot of that is covered by a fun new casual game called Cargo Bridge. Cargo Bridge is similar to Lemmings , in that you take the roll of powerful caretaker who must keep a group of creatures with no sense of self-preservation alive. In this case, you've got a handful of workers who need to collect precariously laid crates, elephants, and safes, and bring them back to their base. The way you allow your workers to succeed is by using your bridge-building skills. The game uses a physics engine to simulate the physics of bridges. You have a certain budget that you can use to buy walkways and supports, and you have to place them so that they support each other. You might be very surprised when you start out to see your bridge design isn't up to code. When an unstable bridge is created, it might fall apart under its own weight as soon as you start a level, or it might be a little more stable, and not collapse until your workers are trying to use it to move heavy crates.
Gray is a game that was designed to generate discussion, and it's been pretty successful at that. The game appears to be a commentary on polarized arguments, though the creators, Intuition Games, are being somewhat coy about any particular intended meaning beyond generating discussion. If you want to experience the game without any spoilers, you should try it out before reading any further.
Zero Sum is another math-based game that ends up being pretty fun. It's a standard Match-3 style game like Bejeweled. The difference is that instead of swapping two tiles, the first tile you click gets added to the second tile, and the empty space is replaced with the tile waiting at the front of a queue of tiles on the right side of the screen. The tiles only contain the ones place of a sum, so in this game 9+1 = 0, 5+6 = 1, etc. The "zero sum" mechanic comes in when you add up numbers to equal 10, because a 0 tile is a wild card that can match with any two other tiles.
Clark Aldrich once said that about educational games that:
"Game elements are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down." (“Learning by Doing”, p. 85)
This is the attitude that learning is boring, and that we need to add the game elements to an educational game in order to make it bearable. I fundamentally disagree with this approach to educational game design. One of the central themes of Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design, is that fun comes from learning new skills. Games get boring once we master the skills needed to play them, and they get frustrating when we aren't able to gain enough competency. That's why it's important to make sure your games difficulty curve is optimized to constantly be just challenging enough.
Electric Box is a very smart puzzle game that I had the opportunity to playtest before it was finished. In fact, the creator added Level Editor because I suggested it!
The game presents you with a partially completed circuit, an on/off switch, and a target. You also have an array of whimsical objects at your disposal that you can use to complete the circuit. For instance, in the first level you have a light-bulb and a solar panel that you can use to transfer the electricity from one. Other gadgets include lasers, mirrors, steam kettles, and water wheels! Some levels even require you to use objects to rearrange other objects, meaning you have to think ahead, or succeed by experimentation.