Today’s guest emblogginator is the aubergine-educated Phill “The Poisoned Sponge” Cameron, who fills us on on the obscure annex of edutainment that defined his childhood: The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis.
In the book of my life, an entire chapter would be given to aubergines wearing sunglasses.
I was their Moses, the ferryman of their salvation, bringing them from the hellish confines of their old home, riddled with evil ‘Bloats’, helping them cross great trials and tribulations to finally reach their mecca, the promised land, resplendent with schools, hospitals, a town hall, and beautiful, straight roads. A modern Rome, just waiting for them to populate. And I was the one to bring all thousand of their sorry, idiotic, blissfully ignorant arses all the way there.
This was The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, the game that took up two years of my childish life, the only game I owned until Age of Empires years later. Gracing the box cover was the tag line ‘Building Advanced Maths Thinking Skills’, indicating that some misguided belief from my parents that games could be used to catapult me into a respectable, well paying job was still present. I’m sure that instead of being responsible for my B in GSCE Maths, it was the cause of missed homework and hogging the computer from my equally deluded brother.
The game knew how to grab attention, too. It tapped in to the hiding ‘let’s play dressup’ side of young boys by letting you pick how your Zoombinis look, and then throwing you, a puzzle in, against choosing the toppings of Pizza. Pizza, the holy food of the 10 year old. The greasy, meaty, cheesy deliciousness that was the only thing asked for when my mother asked for supper suggestions. Here I was, able to pick the toppings, anything I’d like.
It was cruel, though. The pizza wasn’t for me. It was for anthropomorphic trees, the ‘Pizza Trolls’. And, should they not be happy with the delicious banquet I picked for them, they’d send one of my delicate Zoombinis flying with a backhanded slap. It was insult over injury over insult. I grew to loathe them further when they were allowed ice cream too. It was almost too much to bear.
They were just one hurdle of many. None grated quite so much, even if they frustrated, annoyed, and bored me in equal measure. The Didimension Hotel in particular, was one of the ones I avoided if I could. Arbitrary restrictions placed upon who could go where, based on how they looked, with a far too unforgiving lock out mechanism, I’d be lucky to get four or five out of my sixteen past. Looking back, I’m amazed my young mind could get around some of it; I must’ve guessed my way past a good majority.
I’m surprised it wasn’t a genesis into adventure games. The Lucasarts masterpieces were undoubtedly available, and my father was hardly ignorant of what was going on in games. Instead, it’s merely served to colour my approach to strategy, or action, or any relatable game. A rudimentary system of rock, paper, scissors was established, figuring that if something didn’t work against one thing, it’d work against another. Of course, this has led to me blindly sending many virtual men to their virtual deaths, falsly believing in their omnipotent power against some obscure enemy.
No, instead of springboarding me into a life of analytical thought, Zoombinis interested and enraptured me so because of the simplistic and iconic nature of their plight. Here they were, uprooted from their home by outside forces beyond their peaceful and inward facing powers, forced to embark upon a great journey, desperate to get somewhere that no one would hurt them anymore. It’s almost Homeric.
My English teacher at School told me there were four aspects to every story. To begin with, you have status quo, which is soon disturbed, leading to a journey, and a resolution. Four components that can be twisted and turned to apply to almost any story, but here, with Zoombinis, they don’t need to be altered in any way. They happen exactly as said, with the Zoombinis having their status quo disrupted, being forced to go on an epic journey, to finally come to the resolution and safety of Zoombiniton. It may well have just been the writers being lazy, but when your ten, you don’t have the skills to see that. Hell, you’re still reading Harry Potter.
Wrapping the legs of the game with sinuous muscle, lending it longevity and strength over the long term, is the way it changes to keep itself fresh, and prevent the puzzles from becoming stagnantly easy. You’ve developed systems of dealing with each one, and it creates ways to disrupt those systems. The Pizza Trolls now demand desert for their brattish meal, and you must pick the right ice cream toppings to pass. And you have to pass, or that constant reminder, the number counter in the top of the screen that lets you know just how many are left in turmoil and exile, will remain static forever.
So you whittle it down, 16 at a time, watching as the map grows angry and violent, each route changing from an easy green through the colour spectrum to angry, difficult oranges, and murderous, impossible reds. I don’t know if I ever did fully deplete that number, a part of me half remembering finding the final section, after the last checkpoint in disguise campfire was reached, near impossible, beating one puzzle only to have the next boot me all the way back. But I also remember the City Hall, supposedly only achieved when the last of the peaceful Zoombinis made it to the new home.
Zoombinis gave birth to both the completest and the obsessive within me. It was the simplest number crunch I could imagine; make this one smaller while making that one bigger. I was rigging the scales, slowly pulling weights from one side to another until a whole side came crashing down to earth. Knowing that each digit was a person, another I’d saved or left behind, made each move important, to save me doing it all again with the same Zoombinis, if nothing else.
I can’t get the idea of aubergines in sunglasses out of my head. Here I was at ten, finding myself utterly engrossed in this game, but when looking back at it a decade later, I find it all absurd. Singing sunflower in sunglasses absurd. I’m not sure whether it was endearing or tasteless, or just a shallow trick my parents pulled to get me to enjoy maths. The problem is, regardless, it worked. I did enjoy doing algebra, years later, like the sick freak they wanted me to be. I still enjoy working through the facts and coming to a conclusion. I do still look back at Zoombinis with a mix of nostalgia and pity at my younger self. Going back to it now, I’m sure I’d hate it, but for two years, it was an escape from homework while pretending to still be doing homework. My parents couldn’t argue because it was educational, and I couldn’t argue because it was fun.
I always knew the game was called The Logical Journey.., but I never really realised, at least while playing, that it was supposed to be educational. There weren’t any numbers, and all the problem solving was open to a level of guesswork and trial and error. Everything I had to learn was right there, ready to be clicked and manipulated, but it fostered a way of thinking that was useful to my academic work. It was education as deception, and, like with all things, it was better to deceive and entertain rather than be honest and dull. Perhaps it’s the way forward, and parents just need to trick their children into learning. With consoles or computers in nearly every house, I’m sure we can get a few more kids playing Bookworm Adventures, or Typing of the Dead. Y’know, for the children.