Accessibility for Younger Audiences
December 16, 2016
I have a six year old nephew who’s quite taken with the computer games I’ve made. This has proven to be a double edged sword. On the one edge, it’s a fantastic feeling having created something that he hugely enjoys and plays over and over again. On the other edge, he frequently asks when my next game is going to be ready, especially right after he’s finished a new game I’ve made for the first time. Since it can be months between new games this is something of a problem. As a result, I decided to take a look through the games I own to see if any would be appropriate for him. Along the way, I found unexpected inspiration for my own game development.
Given that my nephew enjoys playing my Sleuthhouds adventure games the most, it made sense to me to look at my collection of adventure games for anything that would work. The first adventure game I ever played was the original Colossal Cave Adventure text adventure game. However, my nephew’s not old enough to read yet, so text adventures (or interactive fiction if you prefer) were out. In fact, any adventure game that requires the ability to read in order to play is automatically out. Say goodbye to most of the classic LucasArts adventure games which used “verb” based interfaces.|king’s quest I pic of graham crushed by rock
I also didn’t want to give him any of the classic adventures that helped term the adage “save early, save often.” These are adventure games where it’s possible to die and lose all of your progress for something as simple as pushing a rock from the wrong side (yep, I’m looking at you King’s Quest I). This also includes adventure games where it’s possible to get into “walking dead” situations. These are games that allow you to miss some critically important item early on and prevent you from going back for it later. They don’t necessarily kill you, they just leave you stuck. Not only do they leave you stuck, they leave you stuck wondering if you’re missing something in the immediate environment in the game or if you missed something that you truly can’t go back and get. To me, this is the height of bad design. It also means that almost all of the classic Sierra games are knocked out of the running.
Following the golden age of adventures, exemplified by LucasArts and Sierra games, came a lean period that we’ve fortunately climbed out of in the past few years. Unfortunately, the bulk of these games still don’t work for a young audience for one reason or another. They either still involve reading, or manual dexterity challenges that little fingers aren’t quite up to, or too difficult puzzles, or too adult themes and characters, or just shoddy design that makes them less than playable.
I had just about despaired of finding a suitable game when I came across one specifically for younger adventurers: Pajama Sam: No Need to Hide When it’s Dark Outside. This one wasn’t in my collection prior to starting my search. It was only when I’d exhausted the games I had on hand that I started looking around for what else might be out there. I did some reading up on the game but couldn’t tell if it would truly be suitable or not. So I picked it up to try out for myself.
I won’t go into a detailed review of the game itself, but I will quickly run down the pros and cons of the game for a young audience.
- The game is fully voiced with quirky and interesting voices throughout. There’s no need to read any printed on-screen dialog.
- The interface is all visual, so again no reading necessary. You move a mouse cursor around on screen and click on hotspots to interact with them. At its most complex you can pick up items that are placed in an inventory you can display by moving the mouse to the bottom of the screen. From there you click on an item and on the hotspot you want to use that item on.
- All the characters and critical hotspots in the game are illustrated in a bright, cartoon style. This makes it easy to quickly pick out what is and isn’t important in any given room. No annoying pixel hunting here.
- Rooms have lots of secondary hotspots that can be clicked on to play incidental animations. These have nothing to do with advancing the game itself, they’re just amusing extras that can either be viewed or else safely ignored.
- The game is relatively short. I was able to finish it on a first playthrough in just over an hour and a half. This might be a little long for young children to do in a single sitting, but the game has a number of goals along the way and completing any given goal leaves you at a convenient place to stop playing at and come back to later by saving and restoring your game.
- Your overall goals are always clearly stated. You always know what you’re working towards.
- There are no “deaths” or dead end situations in the game.
- Although your overall goals are always clearly stated, sometimes getting to those goals is a little murky. There’s one puzzle where the solution is clearly to employ a magnet (charactesr in he game basically tell you this), but there’s no indication where you should go to find said magnet. You just have to explore the environment until you come acreoss it.
- Related to the magnet, there’s one room in the game that’s overly cluttered with a bunch of fake doors. This room has a non-apparent hallway leading off to one side that takes you to where the magnet is hidden. As the hallway doesn’t have a door and as there are so many doors in this room, it’s easy to overlook the hallway (this was the one place in the game where I actually had to resort to a walkthrough to figure out where to go).
- About a third of the way into the game the number of areas you can visit opens up quite a bit. This might make it harder for younger children to keep their bearings and to keep focused on what they’re trying to solve.
- The game has a random element in it. Whenever you start a new game you might get different puzzles than before. That in itself isn’t bad and does give the game some variance on replays; however, the areas where the non-included puzzles are still appear in the game. This sometimes gives the impression that something can be done in a given location when for that play through there is, in fact, nothing to be done there.
Despite the few cons, I do feel overall that the game is suitable for a six year old. I’ll find out when I test it on my nephew.
While playing Pajama Sam, I did encounter one area that at first gave me a little pause but that quite shortly really inspired me for my own games. At one point Sam, the blue-skinned playable boy of the game, finds himself in a game show of sorts. Here he’s given a series of four questions that he must answer. This is set up rather like a dialog tree in adventure games for older audiences. For each question several answers are displayed on screen to choose from. In text.
One of the things I was trying to avoid in my search was the necessity to read to be able to play the game. To be fair, my own Sleuthhounds games have dialog trees where you have to read. These stymy my nephew and he does need someone to read the dialog options to him whenever he reaches these points. I thought a similar thing would hold true with Pajama Sam, but then I found the designers had considered even dialog trees as a stopping point.
In Pajama Sam when dialog options are presented resting the mouse pointer over an option for a couple of seconds will have Sam read that option out loud. It’s as simple as that. Put the mouse over a text option and it gets read. For me it was one of those things that once I saw it I thought, “Well, of course. Why would you do dialog trees any differently in any game?”
The interesting thing is that I’d encountered something somewhat similar while playing another game that I already owned: Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. In this game, when dialog options are presented they’re immediately voiced by Captain Kirk himself, Mister William Shatner. The odd thing is, when I encountered this in Star Trek it didn’t register for me in the way that it did for Pajama Sam. I suspect that’s because in Star Trek you get large speeches of text for the dialog options while in Pajama Sam it’s just one or two words.
In looking for a game for my nephew, I came across this wonderful bit of inspiration for my own games. For sure when the next Sleuthhounds game happens I’ll be incorporating this feature to read out the dialog choices when the mouse hovers over them. And the same for any other text that might be necessary to read in my games. In fact, I’m so enthusiastic about this idea that I’ve been toying with the thought of going back to my existing Sleuthhounds games and incorporating it into them as well. Will that happen? Time will tell.