No Pineapple Left Behind [official site] is nominally about magical teachers managing a farcical school, but in reality it’s a grim indictment of an education system which prioritises funding and grades over personal development. This means that gags about casting spells to transform unruly pupils into obedient but homogeneous pineapples are about as far as the humour goes, at least in the very early alpha version I’ve been playing. In other words, if you’re here solely because of fruit-based gags, you either need to adjust your expectations or walk away now.
It’s not a funny game once you’re past the initial sight of pineapples bobbing dutifully around a classroom, and nor, I think, is it meant to be. Its concerns are schools’s stretched resources and the theoretical consequences of this upon their kids. Sure, a cheap teacher helps keep the doors open for longer, but they’re unlike to give their pupils a high quality education, so grades will remain middling. On the other side of the coin, a kid who’s preoccupied by a crush and tons of friends isn’t going to have his or her mind on their work. Unless the quality of teaching is exceptional, they’ll bring average grades down, and the school gets less money.
A solution of sorts is to cast ‘spells’ which change the students’ goals, whether it’s to give up on a getting an A in a class they’re hopeless at or to remove their positive or negative feelings towards others. Then they’re more compliant, then they score better. They might even turn into pineapples, and then you’ll never have to worry about them acting up again. Presuming you’re a stone-hearted bureaucrat, anyway.
Like the late Littleloud’s ingenious (and disbarred from the App Store) Sweatshop, No Pineapple Left Behind plays on our natural inclination to follow directives and make numbers go up, leaving human concern about the consequences a distant second to meeting goals. You don’t, at least in this two-level build, need to care, but depending on how much you commune with your misanthropic side, you’ll probably begin to. When you cast a spell to stop someone crushing on another student who isn’t interested, what are you doing, really? Are you magicking away those profound human feelings, and is that right? And maybe you’re not magicking them away, not really. Maybe you’re just ordering that kid to ignore her feelings and get on with her exercises. Is teaching about improving pupils’ lives, or teachers’? How do you feel about yourself?
The structure for this is a simple, and in its current, two-level alpha build, slightly rickety, management game. There’s no construction or anything like that, but instead resources are focused around teachers. The day is divided into (at least in this build) two or three classes, in each of which you’re choosing a lesson type: sitting the kids in front of an educational video will spare your teachers’ limited energy, but places a ceiling on grades. More interactive lessons may cause teacher burn-out, and have a higher chance of failure. Is this risk worth it? Meanwhile, students demonstrating behaviour that is antithetical to attentive study can be individually targeted with ‘lasers’ that can remove these attributes, but again at the cost of teacher energy.
It’s also at the cost of a pupil’s humanity: wipe too much of this away and you’ve got another mute, unprotesting pineapple on your hands. Maybe it wasn’t such a good thing to magic away all his friendships after all. And maybe if you hadn’t knackered out your teachers by having them relentlessly laser away students’ feelings, all your lessons wouldn’t be failing and the cashpot wouldn’t be empty.
The right answer isn’t obvious, and nor, I suspect, is it meant to be: this is about the invidious dilemma the staff of under-resourced schools can find themselves in. We’ll see how the later levels play it out. I’m not sure whether there’ll ultimately be real decision-making about how to run a great school, or if it’ll boil down to a Hobson’s choice in order to demonstrate that any bureaucratic ideal of smoothing the edges off everyone is doomed. (Fingers crossed for a Ballardian finale, in which the pineapples violently revolt against their calm, perfect lives).
Though clearly extremely thoughtful about its chosen subject matter, in practice, No Pineapple Left Behind’s alpha sadly becomes repetitious all-too-soon, requiring ongoing micro-management of per-pupil statistics and a fiddly juggling act of practicality vs humanity. You watch teachers’ energy bars, you repeatedly zap away students’ unhelpful attributes (or do you?) with a whole lot of clicking, then you wait to see what grades and what cash you get at the end of the day. Cycling through every student to check what their woes and grades were is time-consuming, and I lost my will to nurture everyone just halfway through level 2. I shudder a little looking at screenshots of planned later levels, with five classes rather than two or three per day.
Again, this is no doubt part and parcel of the themes it’s dealing with, and a lesson it wants us to heed, but I hope nonetheless that later builds manage to keep conveying the message by playfulness rather than falling into grind. The same can be said of every pupil looking the same other than an obvious gender distinction. It’s almost certainly commentary on the anonymity the educational system can imposes on classes, but from a sheer practicality point of view it’s difficult to keep tabs on a ‘problem’ student when you’ve got to manually browse names rather than hop to a familiar face.
It’s a teeny tiny project and all that entails, not to mention that this alpha can be had for free if you so choose, but I suspect it might be biting off a little more than it can chew by ostensibly involving management of an entire school. Papers, Please, whose societal commentary via job simulation structure could be fairly compared to No Pineapple Left Behind, kept its focus extremely narrow, person-by-person rather than everything at once, and then span stories, plus pitch-black humour, out of that. I wonder if this is caught in a tricky halfway house between the human touch and the viewpoint of an institution. Again, that’s the message, but I’m worried that, paradoxically, the meaning gets lost if we’re just to grind through the same actions time and again.
We’ll see though: early days, a very basic alpha, with plenty of time and room yet for the nature of the challenges to evolve, or the currently clunky UI to offer easier ways of keeping tabs on and controlling the various elements. I like what No Pineapple Left Behind Is aiming for and I like that, despite the magical and fruity trappings, it’s very much a serious game about educating young people, not to mention that rarest of management games: one which seeks to meaningfully emulate the dilemmas of its chosen theme. At the same time, I feel as though it needs a lot more humour if it’s to pull off its high concept, if it can find a way to do so without undermining its own message.
You can pay what you want – including $0 – for No Pineapple Left Behind’s alpha right now if you’re curious or want to support it; the full version will be sold separately at a later date.