Dot writes: I was never a computer games person. I don’t like shooting or explosions and I’m not into testing my reflexes. The one game that I got into in my teen years (years in which my family’s technological pride and joy was an electronic typewriter) was a text-only maths game that was available in one of the classrooms at school. It involved exploring a house and garden, using only the descriptions to build up a mental map, and periodically solving puzzles. From time to time one was attacked by goblins who could be defeated by working out the square root of the numbers on their hats. I went and played it every lunchtime for about a month.
Recently, however, my life has been infiltrated by computer games, thanks to the influence of my sons. It started with Machinarium. This is a long and quite complicated point-and-click game that involves guiding a robot through a city. Hugh and to some extent also Frank acquired a passion for it and kept nagging Ken to play it, since it was much too difficult for a small boy to play alone. They call it the Robot Game.
After playing the whole way through the Robot Game, Ken downloaded another game from the same people, Amanita Design. This was Samorost 2, now known in our household as the Gnomy Game or the Game with the Gnome with the Dog. Quite early on in trying to play it Hugh roped me in to help, and this was when I got sucked in. To my surprise, I loved it. It’s not a game about zapping things. It is about exploring and working out how to make things happen. I loved the slightly surreal landscapes, the odd and yet logical things that happened in them, and all the little details and imaginative touches. The general air of it was somehow very pleasing.
So I now took the initiative myself and found that you could play the predecessor to Samorost 2, reassuringly known as Samorost, online. Because we played Samorost 2 before Samorost, Hugh calls Samorost the “Game with the Gnome Without the Dog”. Samorost is a bit simpler than Samorost 2: I managed (as one inexperienced in these things) to do the whole the whole thing without cheating and consulting one of the online guides to playing it – except, that is, for the very last scene, and even then the walkthrough I found was wrong and I had to work it out myself anyway. I know it’s not a big intellectual achievement to defeat a game like this, but I was pleased. Moreover, now he’s learned what to do, Hugh can play almost the whole of Samorost himself without help. Not that he lets us off the hook, of course.
Over the last week-and-a-bit Hugh and I have been united in our enthusiasm for another Amanita Design game: Botanicula. It’s my first full-length computer game, the Samorosts being shorts. It has multiple levels that tell the story of five insect/vegetable friends saving their tree from sinister parasites. Again, the detail is wonderful: there are any number of little creatures to discover, many of which are just there for the joy of it and not because you need them to get through the level. There are scenes such as the one in which you have to hatch eggs (they hatch with a wonderfully satisfying pop) and the one in which you grow mystic bonsai trees to reveal a vista of mountains impossibly appearing inside a room. As the levels go on it gets more confusing and more scary, and in the final level there was quite a lot of zapping and I was reminded of how little I enjoy adrenalin. But really, we had hours of fun. Since finishing we’ve even played some of the earlier parts of the game again. It’s enough to make me like insects, which is saying something.
These games definitely carry a risk of staring too long at a screen. But they are so full of problem solving, so encouraging of curiosity and so generally lacking in meaningless violence that they have gone a long way to overcome my prejudice against the form. I’ve also been extremely impressed with how well Hugh remembers the games when we play them again. He gets incredibly frustrated with some of the fiddly mouse-movements and he isn’t so hot at the initial puzzle-solving, but show him a scene he’s seen before and he remembers what to do next and where everything is a lot better than I do.
He likes space invaders too, of course.