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Wot I Think: Odyssey - The Next Generation Science Game


Lots of people have tried to make educational games. Few have succeeded. Odyssey [official site] gets closer than most, in its efforts to teach about physics, astronomy and mechanics. It's been in early access for a while, but comes out today, accompanied by a price drop. Here's wot I think:

Odyssey, despite the rather bold choice of name, is about following in the steps of a family who recently explored the Wretched Isles - a fictional group of tiny islands in the Caribbean, once populated by Island Caribs until an invasion of pirates in the mid-17th century. Last populated by the US army in the Second World War, the Rao family has gained permission to visit the out-of-bounds rocks to do some research during the summer holidays. You, it seems, are brmming a boat somewhere nearby when you hear the distress call of the clan’s 13 year-old daughter, Kai, so stop off to see what’s what.

What follows is a first-person adventure-cum-puzzler that at first glance looks like a homemade version of The Witness. Odd boards and electric grids are rigged about around the place, and progress is gained by solving the puzzles thereon. But it soon becomes clear this is a lot less about esoteric brainteasers, and much more about exploring astronomy from first principles.

I love the ambitions behind Odyssey. It wants to educate, and not in a tiresomely deceptive way, but up front with books and diagrams and practical application through puzzles. It crafts a rather odd setting to do this, but hey, who doesn’t love exploring an abandoned island? But even so, there’s a point where it starts to feel too disingenuous. Sure, this family’s on an island during the holidays, professor parents wanting to explore some old world mysteries with their teenage daughter - your scribe - and her older brother Sid, brought along. And sure, science boff dad can’t help but want to feed his daughter’s curious mind as they go, fixing bridges, exploring pirate interference, directing her to keep a detailed journal about both the present adventures and the science she’s being taught. I’ll even accept the completely ridiculous conceit that the puzzles you’re solving to gain progress are there to prevent some unknown baddies from reaching the family, with pages ripped from Kai’s journal left nearby for - er - I guess me to read and solve.

But there comes a point where this utterly un-13-like 13 year old is dryly describing her experiments to learn why a disc and a ball are lit differently by a light source, in order to understand how ancient folks knew the moon was a sphere. And she explains that she does this using her “project supplies”, items “half stuff you get from a craft store and half salvaged from the junkyard near my house, including a bunch of these cool crank wheels that make gears and sliders go back and forth.”

“Cool crank wheels.”

That she brought along, on a boat trip, to a remote island that no one is supposed to have stood on since World War II. She just has those cool crank wheels and sliders with her, in her suitcase, like any 13 year old would.

Oh come on.

“I mounted a light on a track, to act like the sun, between the two moons so I could crank it forward and backward. I could have just held the models up to the light, but I wanted to be precise.”

Oh come on.

And it definitely isn’t helpful that the game’s opening monologue sounds uncannily like Vanessa Bayer’s SNL character Laura Parsons.

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The larger mistake, beyond the stretched credulity of the format, is the balance of playing to reading. Just three or four puzzles in I’d already read 49 pages of journal. FORTY-NINE. And once I’ve finished reading the latest lengthy batch there’s then a puzzle relating to that sun/moon light machine that takes approximately thirty seconds, revealing the next wad of pages to read. Another eight pages of dense text. And four pages of this is, I swear, an aching justification for an impossibly complicated room-size combination puzzle to lower a ladder.

Solve it, and the ladder comes down with another twelve pages of diary.

Now, there’s nothing really wrong with these diaries. They don’t read like any thirteen-year-old who has ever existed, and I fear that lack of authenticity will do much to put off its target audience of inquisitive teens, but that’s not the end of the world. And in fact, the way the entries approach the subjects of how pre-enlightenment scientists and astronomers were able to identify the spherical nature of the Earth, and the orbits of the solar system, are brilliantly approached. It comes at everything from first principle, with Kia encouraged by her father to try to work out how the peoples of these islands could have reached the knowledge she’s been given.

Kia is smart, and likes to build models to process her thinking, and this all means as the player you learn alongside her. You, a grown up, have likely heard a good few of the reasons we can discern the not-flatness of the Earth, but it addresses the many arguments that were made over the last couple of thousand years in careful and precise terms, almost as if a primer for anyone wanting to make a flat-Earther idiot get out of their Twitter mentions in a hurry. The problem is, it does all this in text on pretend paper on your screen, rather than in what you do in the brief portions of actually playing.

Yes there are puzzles where you align the sun, moon and Earth such that you can see the shadows cast, but these always come long after you’ve done the reading and been given the conclusions, and usually not to demonstrate what you’ve been told, but instead to point an arrow at a picture so you can open a door. Go down a zipwire, and then… thirty more pages of diary to read.

In those thirty pages are two highlighted paragraphs, which hint to where you should position the celestial models Kia’s been writing about - 30 seconds later you’ve got another twenty-seven pages of handwritten astrophysics to read.

I absolutely did not know that ancient astronomers considered the Sun and moon to be planets, while the Earth not. I knew very little about the rationale behind the geocentric solar system, and it’s really interesting to learn about it. I’m tempted to say, “But I’d much rather have read about it in a book…” but that’s not really true. I love buying books, but I’m not so great at reading them - the reality is, I wasn’t going to have stumbled on this information were it not for this game.

The problem is, the failed potential for this as a game. A sentiment best captured by, er, the game. In one of those 30-page chunks, as I read about Kia’s practical experiments to try to disprove Aristotle’s geocentric model, she recounts a conversation with her father about how pleased he is she’s doing all this. As he introduces Copernicus to the story, she writes,

“Dad said I was retracing that debate, and he was extremely happy about it, because real science is about investigation and discovery, not just reading the words of a textbook author.”


The irony is a little sore.

There are exceptions. When it’s teaching about the retrograde motion of Mars, and how this can be proven in both geocentric and heliocentric models, you do get to play with (outlandishly complex) machines to see this in action. That makes a difference. But it’s still so dismissive, there to be a puzzle, rather than an application.

And so it goes on and on. I admit I've not finished it. I'm 200-something pages into this diary, and it's getting into Aristotle's mistaken beliefs about the speed of falling object's, and Kia's exhaustive experiments to prove him wrong. And still all the learning is taking place in the book, the puzzles really only tangentially related.

It calls itself "The Next Generation Science Game", but the reality is this feels like something very last generation. Not just the somewhat clunky graphics (they're nice enough, but look a good few years old), but the whole approach feels like something that misunderstands how games can really be applied to education. Just look at Minecraft, for goodness sakes, to see that it's about experimentation and application, not book reading and tests. I think there will be kids who will really appreciate this, but I suspect it'll be those who would have enjoyed being given a textbook about the subject almost as much. I really cannot see it drawing in the crowds to accidentally learn physics and astronomy while they play. Mostly because there's almost no playing!

I love that it's tried, and it certainly is no disaster. But I really can't work out exactly who or what it's for.

Odyssey is out today for Windows and Mac via Steam for $15.

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