the title screen

Often an instructor will bring us media (like a collection of photographs) and ask if we could help create some sort of interactive exercise¬† (like a microscope simulation, to explore their photographs). We’re happy to do what you ask, but when time and interest permit – we like to push a little further. Sometimes we will ask if it’s all right to make a game.

This past term in Botany 350, we created an anime-themed adventure game, Plant Detective, which let students collect clues and present their findings to a humorous¬† caricature of their instructor. You can play it here, and I’ll discuss how we made it after the break.

starting the game

I usually meet with an instructor to discuss creating a game for one of two reasons: Either they want to address a specific topic they’ve noticed is consistently challenging students each term, or they’d like help translating a physical in-class activity into a web page. In this case the teacher just hoped for a simple tool to explore photographs, but during our first discussions it became clear that reviewing photos could be subsumed within a larger project which would tie into the goals for the entire coarse.

In this case, the course was primarily concerned with exploring dozens of different examples of crop failures. Was a patch on your lawn dying because you didn’t water it? Or because you used Roundup nearby? Or because there’s an airborne disease traveling around your region? When the instructor mentioned that the goal of the class was to “make each student a good detective, who could interpret evidence and quickly dig down” to the root problem, I was reminded of a video game I’d recently enjoyed.

dialogue scene

I play a ton of video games, study game design, and strive to stay abreast of fringe gameplay experiments. This course’s goals reminded of a niche game for the Nintendo DS called “Phoenix Right: Ace Attourney.” In this game you are a young aspiring defense lawyer in Japan, and each level is set against a case you must win in order to advance. Each case starts with a crime (animation), then you travel to crime scenes to gather evidence or talk with local characters. Finally you must defend a client in court. The key game mechanic is how you refute testimonies by clicking on evidence in your inventory. It is easy to gather dozens of items, but it is hard to decide which piece best addresses part of someone’s false statement. Plus the game offers very funny and memorable characters and story, with some subtle criticisms of the court system.

So I described this game, and suggested we offer a smaller version that allowed random outcomes for a single scenario. It helped that I had already made a game which was just about collecting and matching objects (for ASL111).

Under the Microscope

The game story emerged as: The instructor receives a call from a local soy bean farmer, and sends out a small group of students to investigate. The player controls their efforts to gather evidence from the field, and to give a presentation in class (which resembles the stress of a courtroom cross examination). The notable twist is that some of the evidence you gather can be sent off for processing, and after a small wait you can study it further under a microscope to generate even more evidence.

The game did three things well:

  • Diverse perspective: You really control the whole group of students, and aren’t asked to identify yourself as Phylum Plight (a thin man in a suit), Allie Bamma (a hyper girl wearing many strange necklaces, and positive outlook), or Don burro (a grumpy chubby man, offering negative jokes from behind his hair).
  • Open problem solving: Instead of just giving the player 3 pre-written sentences to choose from, it’s nice to challenge a them to respond to a sentence (“What evidence proves soil nutrients were NOT the problem?”) by selecting an item from their inventory (the soil sample item’s description mentions that nutrient levels are normal). We can also support partially correct answers, and urge them to be more specific in their choices.
  • Replayability: the game currently offers two scenarios, but can support an endless number (by simply adding new pictures and changing evidence descriptions). We track the student’s progress with a web browser cookie, and show a green x or a red check mark on the start screen to reflect their win/loss results for scenarios they’ve tried (these also serve as quick links back into that scenario).
End game screen (win state)

If you’d like to use a variation on this game in your class, or would like to discuss a new game project, please just contact me or leave a comment on this blog entry.

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