Time for….a Wii report!
For a game to work for little kids, it has to have (1) little or no reading. (2) Little or no set-up, tutorials, or long cut-scene conversations. No boring dialogue (especially if it has to be read), just throw them into the action. They learn by doing, so make the game itself teach you what you need to know. And start from few assumptions, everything is new to a little kid. And (3) little or preferably NO time component, that is, no hurry. Little kids need to take their time.
There are many games that could work for little kids if they just gave an ‘untimed’ option. Games could be improved for little kids by dropping the dialogue that doesn’t add anything anyway, or by having the game read the important stuff out loud. I wish game designers knew these things, or implemented them more often.
Many games for the Nintendo DS suffer greatly from the endlessly read, unnecessary dialogue. Many casual games for the PC, and many ipod games depend on timing for their challenge. Many games for the PS2 have lots of set up, tutorials and cut-scenes that don’t add enough. Not to mention that the majority of the PS2 games are aimed at an older audience by content, Grand Theft Auto, et al.
So far, however, the Wii is getting these things right, more often than not, for the little kid set. (By ‘little kids,’ I used to mean younger, but now I mean Sophie, 6, and Luc, 5. The three things I mention are even more important to 4s and 3s.)
Okay, so, we fired up our Wii for the first time last Friday. Set up was remarkably easy except that the tangle of cords behind our tv has reached nightmarian proportions, and to get the Wii plugged in, we had to unplug the DVD player. I need another splitter to add to our collection.
Within a few minutes, we started with the sports games that come with the thing, and let me tell you, it is endlessly surprising to have a physical motion I make out in this world, show up in the virtual world of the game. Throw a ball out here, and the ball ends up on the screen, knocking something down. I know this is old news to everyone else, but we tend to wait on our game acquisitions, until the price is not so…pricey. I love this blurring of the lines between reality and the game.
At one point, I was throwing a ‘frisbee’ to a cyber-dog and enjoying it enough that I felt guilty about ignoring my real dog who was lying patiently by the sofa. Note to self: teach Henry to catch a frisbee. I especially enjoyed fencing with Paul, no, actually I enjoyed virtually bashing his Mii character over and over and knocking him into the sea while giggling maniacally. It was, um, therapeutic. And he’s such a good guy, he let me win over and over. That’s love.
Next, Lego games.
These sound really stupid to me. Why would you want dumb-looking blocky lego graphics when it could all be gorgeous? Well, I still don’t know the answer to this. But I must admit, Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga is a terrific game. Although to really be a saga, I say you need more Vikings. And what do Legos have to do with Star Wars? NOTHING. Except that little kids love both. And that’s enough.
Very tiny amount of reading in the beginning to get it going, no timed component, super-short cut-scenes, game starts right in the action. Perfect.
So anyway. You run around as any character from any of the six movies, including robots, wookies, and Princess Leia in a Lego Brass Bikini, which for some reason, I find endlessly hilarious.
From this….to this.
Or you can make your own character from interchangable parts because, they’re all legos. You get short little cut scenes straight from the movies, only acted in lego people, and then you’re right into some acutely familiar scene, using the Force, your light saber (when I was seven and saw the first, er, I mean fourth, Star Wars movie, I thought Light Sabers were Life Savers. I still say it makes perfect sense.), your blaster, whatever. And you can build stuff with legos, like hover cars, or drive a pod racer…basically anything you can think of from the movies, it’s in there. This is very cool, a little like having every Star Wars action figure there ever was and playing them around, along with realistic laser blasts and explosions. Excellent.
I especially like waving my light saber, that is, the Wii Remote, and cutting the little lego heads off aliens. It’s very therapeutic. I sense a theme.
Anyway, it didn’t take long for the kids to start making up their own stories within the story, playing their little people the way they might play their army dudes or barbies, enacting their own Star Wars related stories. I think this is very cool, although it drove Paul, a type-A gamer if there ever was one, insane.
At one point he whispered to me, “I’m dying to know what those fucking sparkly blue things on the ground do, but the kids seem totally unconcerned about them. What the hell?”
“Try to relax. They’re playing their own way.”
So he says, in a fake curious voice, “Gee, I wonder what those blue sparkly things are? Maybe you could use your Z button to use The Force on them? Maybe?”
This divolved into general stalking and growling, muttering things like, “Get the goddamn canisters!”
I decided he needed to get away from it all and proposed a walk, which involved some negotiations with the kids. “You promise to communicate and not fight?” says I.
And Paul calls out, “And use the Z button more often?”
He’s so cute.
I haven’t played Lego Harry Potter, Lego Batman, or Lego Indiana Jones yet, but I’m guessing it’s the same set up, different world. Based on the success of this one, I imagine we’ll get more Lego games as we go.
Okay, for a break from saving the galaxy from the Dark Side of the Force, we tried Endless Ocean.
The pictures on the box looked great and I loved the idea of scuba diving without hassle and expense of…scuba diving. But, while the game is very pretty, the kids got bored pretty quickly. You’re supposed to swim around and look at underwater things, and I was digging it—it was very reminiscent of my Hawaii snorkling experiences, but they started fidgeting. “Mom, this is boring,” said Sophie. “No, see, you’re swimming and it’s beautiful, look lets go feed that fish! This is relaxing.” “Mom, I don’t want to relax. I want to blow things up.” “Okay, okay.” Too many cut-scenes, too much dialogue about characters we don’t care about, untimed, which is good, but then your missions come in the form of written emails that must be read. Thumbs down. No therapeutic scuba-diving for me.
So we exchanged scuba-diving for Boom Blox, through the very generous return policy of GameStop (return any used game within 7 days for full credit to get any other used game, how cool is that?). Basically, you throw balls at piles of towers and knock them down. Endless variations like exploding blocks! Vanishing blocks! Chain reaction blocks! Etc.! Surprisingly enjoyable. Paul got into this one. The kids mostly wanted to throw balls at the virtual bystanders. I love how they are so willing to play outside the stated game parameters.
Some reading at the beginning of each screen to find out what the challenge is, so a reader needs to be in the room for quick reading-support. Untimed. No cut-scenes. A short tutorial, but we powered through it. Lots of giggling.
Next, we have A Boy and his Blob, a cute, friendly platformer that Luc liked a lot.
You solve puzzles by turning the blob into various things. Pretty, 2-D graphics. Endless lives and frequent check points, so no pressure. You’re encouraged to experiment. A friendly relationship between the boy and the blog. A sweet game. This one is relaxing to Luc. Sophie liked this one a lot, too, and they did a fair amount of trading off when one got stuck. No reading, no tutorial, no cut-scenes, no time limits. A quiet winner.
And finally, of our first round of games, we have Super Mario Galaxy.
We put this one in for the first time last night. This is a sort of 3-D platformer where the ‘platforms’ are little tiny planets you run around on. I played a little but, at first, the constant turning upside down made me nauseous. Paul got into it though, and it has a fun two player aspect where he and Luc were working together to beat the baddies and gather the stars. That was sweet. “You can do it Daddy!” says Luc. Colorful, inventive, endlessly new. It looks a bit boring from the outside, somehow, like I can’t understand the urgency, but when I’m actually playing it, the game is extremely compelling, and I got used to the upside down thing so it was less of an issue. I had to extract myself with a plunger. Sophie liked this one but couldn’t get much of a turn once Paul got into it. She decided to paint a gorgeous painting of Henry instead. A tiny bit of reading at the beginning of a screen, so some reading support needed. No tutorials, cut-scenes are short, graphics are eye-popping, no timed component.
To sum up, little kids and the Wii: huge win. Brain challenging puzzles, fun, physical motion, art, stories. There’s no downside so far. Except those wiinjuries when you whack your game partner with a flying wii-remote-light-saber-slash. Watch out for those.