NextMEDIA has announced its list of 2011 Digi Awards Nominees. While our viral hit Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure was overlooked, Corus Entertainment placed in the Best Cross-Platform: Kids category with Babar and the Adventures of Badou. Untold Entertainment worked with Corus to develop a preschooler-friendly patterning game for the show’s website.
Congratulations to Corus. Our trunks are crossed for a win!
The game design document, graphics of Lotta’s house and face, and her voiceover, were provided by TVO. Untold Entertainment produced the remaining assets and created the game based on TVO’s specifications.
If you’re curious about the conventions of preschool game development, A Lotta Dessert showcases a few tricks:
This is a preliterate audience. The only text in the game is the title, and absolutely everything is voiced over.
There is no “play” button on the title screen. After a brief countdown, the game automatically begins.
Mice are lousy input devices for preschoolers, who often struggle to use them, so the game doesn’t require any drag n’ drop actions. Everything boils down to a single click with generously-sized hotspots. (See Mouse Control for a game we developed to help small children practice using a mouse)
Visual patterning is reinforced through sound.
The “answer” is entered twice, to confirm comprehension (otherwise, the player could just be clicking around and “winning” coincidentally).
Little-to-no chainsaw violence.
Untold Entertainment is an industry leader in preschool game development. Contact us to talk about your upcoming project.
i recently watched the Sesame Street flick The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland with my tiny little girls. i managed expectations by paying a requisite visit to MrSkin.com to learn that there are no nude scenes in the movie (although several characters spend the entire running time not wearing any pants).
(tickle him where, exactly?)
With Jim Henson long passed, the Sesame Street and Muppet brands have really felt the loss. Some people feel Elmo epitomizes a Henson-less Sesame Street (in fact, Elmo was sanctioned by Jim, and even shared some skits with a Henson-performed Kermit). i’m not a big fan of modern-day Sesame Street’s more child-like Zoe, Rosita, Abby Cadabby, and Baby Bear (versus the old school street’s grown-up Herry, Kermit, Bert & Ernie, Sully & Biff and Grover), but the inclusion of more female Muppets is probably a change for the better – even if most of the new characters annoy the piss out of me.
Monsters beat princesses any day.
What i found unforgivable, though, was the flagrant rule-breaking the crew engaged in, where one hard-and-fast law of the Sesame Street Universe was trodden and sullied for fans everywhere (even as Sully himself was nowhere to be found). Outraged, I conjured up four other examples in which the “laws” of certain children’s entertainment brands have been broken, and the caretakers of those franchises have yet to be brought to justice.
1. Showing the Interior of Oscar’s Can
The crime committed by the Sesame Street writers in Elmo in Grouchland was filming the interior of Oscar the Grouch’s garbage can. Longtime fans (or anyone even casually acquainted with Sesame Street) can tell you that the magic of Oscar’s Tardis-like garbage can home, which houses (among other things) his pet elephant, was a silly unsolvable mystery and untouchable canon in Sesame Street lore.
Why untouchable? Because if you show the inside of Oscar’s can, the elephant jokes of decades of Sesame Street seasons no longer work. Watch Elmo in Grouchland, and then go back and watch a gag where Oscar tinkers with his grouch jalopy somewhere inside his garbage can. You’ll say to yourself “oh yeah – that’s entirely possible. i’ve seen the inside of his can, and it’s quite spacious.”
It was a wretched, wretched idea to break this law, and worse – it was entirely unnecessary to the film’s fiction. As per usual, Elmo could have described the inside of the can in an echoey voice-over, and tell the viewer how he discovered a portal to Grouchland inside. But “show, don’t tell”, right? There’s apparently no room for imagination in a post-Henson Sesame Street.
Just … dammit.
2. Poochifying Paddington Bear
The original Paddington Bear adaptation was an unbelievably charming and unique blend of stop-motion animation and classical 2D, where the very Pooh-like title character would interact with paper cut-outs of the show’s less interesting supporting cast. Here’s an episode, in case you don’t remember or have never seen it:
Recently, Cookie Jar Entertainment produced an unnecessary and awful Paddington Bear upgrade. They stripped out the narration, the stop-motion, the wit, the charm, and the Britishness. We’re left with a vanilla Paddington show that looks and feels like any other daytime filler material built to keep the little brats entertained. Watch, if you dare:
Rastafarianize him by 10%!
Ugh. After that, sticky Paddington and i both need a shower.
(For the record, the intervening Hanna Barbera take on Paddington was also crap.)
3. Naming the Man with the Yellow Hat
The Curious George series of children’s books chugged along for sixty bloody years being content to call the monkey’s friend “the man with the yellow hat”. When the film version came out in 2006, the geniuses in charge named him “Ted Shackleford”.
Why? God only knows.
Anonymity is verboten in this post-911 environment. Let’s see some i.d.
4. Voicing the Peanuts Teacher
The adults in Peanuts teevee specials are voiced by a muted trombone. Is this a law? Yes. Yes it is. And is it a crime to deviate from this? Yes. It most certainly is.
Stop! In the name of the wah wah wah woh wah wah wah!
And why? Because we never see grown-ups in Peanuts, and teachers sound like muted trombones. That’s the way it is. The kids are important – the adults are not. This creative decision, paired with the decision to hire real kids to voice the Peanuts characters, cleverly conveyed that a child’s domain is often worlds apart from an adult’s, to the point where they even speak a different language. This helps to make the Peanuts characters’ adult-like antics, like Lucy’s psychiatry booth and Sally’s obsession with Linus, even funnier.
And … oh – what’s this? Here comes She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown to dump all over that.
5. Making the Cat in the Hat a Safe, Friendly Science Tutor
Dr. Seuss’s bastion of kid poetry, The Cat in the Hat, was recently adapted to television. The book is about two young children who are who are conspicuously abandoned by their mother, and who find themselves bored out of their skulls on a rainy day. They are visited by the titular cat who barges in and promises them a good time. He then proceeds to trash the house, alarming their neurotic pet fish who constantly warns them that their mother is going to lose her shit when she sees the place. With every destructive suggestion the Cat puts forth, he assures them that “your mother will surely not mind if you do.”
He certainly LOOKS like a respectable fellow …
And just when the kids think things couldn’t get any worse, the Cat unleashes his two frat buddies, Thing 1 and Thing 2, who demolish everything in sight. The Cat is not a nice, friendly character. For 3/4 of the book, he’s a villain, and the story builds towards this impending doom as we draw nearer and nearer to mom’s return. The Cat in the Hat is essentially a horror story for preschoolers.
Lock the doors, honey.
Sounds like a fun concept for a teevee show, right? So what’s the premise for The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That?
First of all, the boy is brown. Whatever. i’ll let it slide. i always thought that “Sally and I” were brother and sister. If you’re going to muck with race, why not make them both brown? Because it would alienate white kids? Then why didn’t they make the fish Asian? i dunno. i don’t care too much about it.
The Cat is an equal opportunity shit disturber.
What i do care about is that the Cat in the Hat, anarchist, tormentor of fish and destroyer of private property, is now a friendly character who teaches the kids about science. Naturally. The show is so-titled because the Cat is ever-so-knowledgeable about aquatic life, the water cycle, the seasons, and any number of other natural phenomenon.
You know what Seuss’s Cat knew a lot about? Flying kites inside the house.
Here’s what you need to know about science, kids: GRAVITY.
The most awful part of this show is that the kids’ mom is always home when the Cat shows up, and when the Cat suggests they “go go go go … on an adventure” to learn about colour theory or some bullshit, he says (as in the book), “your mother will surely not mind if you do!” And you know what the kids do? They ask their mom for permission. i can’t think of anything more antithetical to the spirit of the book than taking the teeth out of it and making it that safe. It’s a true testament to modern-day paranoid parenting.
Thing 1 and Thing 2 make an appearance in every episode, usually to help the kids when they’re in a jam. Because, as we know from the book, that’s what Thing 1 and Thing 2 love to do: help little children get a grasp on science.
Oh – thank goodness Thing 1 and Thing 2 are here to explain SONAR.
No. You know what? NO. Thing 1 and Thing 2 are not preschool science teachers. They’re here to FUCK SHIT UP, and that’s ALL that they’re about. If you want your kids to watch a kids’ show that teaches science, the pickings aren’t exactly slim. You’ve got Curious George (makes sense – he’s curious, and he’s a monkey, and we use monkeys in scientific experiments), Peep and the Big Wide World, Sid the Science Kid, Dinosaur Train, Wild Kratts, and Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies. Thanks to a big STEM push by the US government (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), we have preschool science shows in spades.
If you’re going to teach anything using the Cat in the Hat, you might try ethics and morality as a more brand-appropriate topic. Or teach kids what to do when people – particularly grown-ups – put them in situations that make them uncomfortable. i’m not suggesting every episode be about molestation, but rather assertiveness, communication, and self-awareness. Here’s how Seuss ended his book:
Then our mother came in
And said said to us two,
“Did you have any fun?
Tell me. What did you do?”
And Sally and I
did not know What to say.
Should we tell her the things
that went on there that day?
Should we tell her about it?
Now, what SHOULD we do?
what would YOU do If you mother asked YOU?
i’d tell her about animal migration and the light spectrum!
The US government doesn’t have a vested interest in preschool shows that teach morality or self-awareness. Being tops in science helps the country subjugate the rest of the world and remain a superpower. But being a morally sound or independently thinking nation doesn’t pay.
Crapping on the Shoulders of Giants
Henson, Schulz, Bond, Geisel and the Reys. We can posthumously mess with their creations and make everyone completely forget what was charming, subtle, and valuable about their work to begin with. This is what we get when men and women in ties have say over the creations of men and women with pencils.
If you’ve been following the ponycorns saga, you know that i made a game with my 5-year-old daughter Cassandra at a weekend game jam, and it went viral. This isn’t the story of its unexpected success … i’ll save that story for another time. It’s still unfolding. This is the story of how my highest hope for Cassie (for the time being, anyway) came true.
Have you ever imagined how a scene in your life would play out, and when you reached that moment, everything went exactly as you envisioned it, as if you and everyone around you were following a script?
Actually when i pictured it, it was more of an octopus ..
When i originally had the idea to work on a TOJam game with my daughter, i knew the ultimate pay-off would be the day she walked into her kindergarten class with our Blackberry Playbook, and showed the game off to the other kids. Short of “Daddy and i built a jetpack”, it’s probably one of the coolest show n’ tell sessions ever.
In the days after TOJam and all the fun Cassie and i had there, she would excitedly tell her classmates about the experience. True to form, her fellow five-year-olds actually started mocking her, saying “TOJam isn’t REAL. You’re making it up!” They even doubted the existence of “The Boss”, TOJam co-founder Jim McGinley, who took on a Santa Claus-like mystique following the jam.
He does have a magical twinkle, doesn’t he? (photo by Paul Hillier)
Eat THIS, Five-Year-Olds
All this doubt floating around at school, and Cassie’s Snuffleupagesque insistence that it really did happen, paved the way for a truly magical show n’ tell session today in her kindergarten class. There we were, just as i’d pictured it, showing the Playbook version to a formerly disbelieving group of kids as they sat, spellbound, on the storytime carpet.
Cassie’s finest hour.
Wit a grown-up telling the class all about it, there was no way the little TOJam-deniers could object. We told them all about how you get to stay up way past your bedtime there – even overnight – and that lots of people brought pillows and slept on the floor. We told them about the kitchen full of candy, where you could grab as much as you wanted and still go back for more. Cassie regaled them with the tale of how she ate two and a half bagels, and they made her fart, so i told her to stand in the designated “farting corner” to keep our work area bearable. (This is a story she gleefully repeated this evening when we were interviewed by BulletProof Radio.)
“What did you learn in school today?” “Ponycorns friggin’ RULE!”
The kids watched, transfixed, as Cassie showed them how to collect the first two ponycorns. We left it on a cliffhanger, but i wrote a little note that will go into each student’s Wednesday envelope that tells their parents how they can access the game to play the rest of it with their children. i also wrote that if the parents were interested in making games with their children, they could check out the fabulous Scratch.
Games for Change
To wrap it up, we did a “question” period. The questions were “Um, Cassie, i like the green ponycorn,” and “i like the colour purple that you used in your rainbows.” Then Cassie showed the children the plush ponycorns that her mom made for her, and we gave each of the students a little ponycorn button.
i really, truly hope that this will spark a desire in the kids and their parents to get more involved in technology, an area which is tragically stagnant in elementary-level education due to the age of the teachers and a lack of funding. This is the same school where i’m working with the principal to offer Scratch instruction to the grade three class, which may yet become a lunchtime program that all of the students can enjoy.
The ponycorn revolution is turning out to be more than just the story of a little girl making a game … i’d like it to be the story of kids, everywhere, using technology to create – not just to consume.
i think i only missed one Toronto game community event last year. It was called GamerCamp, and it was on a Saturday. i skipped it because Saturdays are family days, and i wanted to spend some quality time with my wife and kids.
i’ll never make that mistake again.
GamerCamp : worth forsaking your family for
People came back positively RAVING about GamerCamp. i knew this year that i just HAD to be involved.
Thus Spake Ryanthurstra
i am thrilled that Jamie and Mark, the awesomazing organizers behind the event, invited me to speak (after a teensy bit of grovelling). (… from me, not them.) They wanted someone with experience in educational game development, and Untold Entertainment’s got it. In addition to the educational preschool games we’ve built for SinkingShipEntertainment, we’re currently working on a project funded by a high-ranking ministerial body of educational governance. i admit it sounds a little dull, so i wanted to spice it up a bit.
Here’s the advice the event organizers gave on titling my talk:
You can call your talk whatever you want and by no means self-censor. Try and make your title a declarative statement or provocative question.
(For example, Dragonette has a song called “Get Your Titties Off My Things” and if they wanted to speak at Gamercamp and call it that, I’d high-five them.)
So without very much deliberation, and because i absolutely love high-fives, i decided to call my talk “Get Your Titties Off My Things : Adventures in Educational Gaming.”
Titties and Education Don’t Mix
Apparently, no one’s hot for teacher.
In updating the site, the organizers had a last-minute change of heart and decided to censor the talk title. Since it didn’t make much sense any more (not that it made any sense to begin with), i decided to re-title the talk “SCUMM-Sucking : Adventures in Educational Gaming“.
What do you do when you LOVE building LucasArts and Sierra-style graphic adventure games, but you have to take boring educational service work to pay the bills?
>Use MONEY on GAME.
>Give PRESENTATION to GAMERCAMP.
Time to nip in for a pint of Grog™.
The educational project is an experiment in teaching deadly-dull guidance counselor material by speaking the students’ language – the language of video games!
i’ll also be talking about how i leveraged the educational project to add features to UGAGS (the Untold Entertainment Graphic Adventure Game System), which is my attempt at building a Flash version of the LucasArts SCUMM engine. (They used SCUMM to make Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island and others.) The client benefits from our increasingly feature-rich engine, we get a better product that we can use to make awesome games in the future, and everybody wins!
Including you! Come out to GamerCamp in Toronto November 13-14 to hear the tremendous line-up of speakers, eat some cupcakes, jam out to a crazy nerd party, and battle your hangover to hear about UGAGS the afternoon following the big bash.