One of the best ways to bring gaming into your library is through passive programming. If you don’t have the staff to run a dedicated game day or a regular meeting for local players, it takes little or no effort (and, with some shopping around, even less money) to install games on your public access computers. Of course, as with all entertainment media, it’s important to appeal to as many demographic groups as possible, so be sure to offer games to young and old alike.
The best kids’ games will appeal to a wide range of age groups and can serve as a bridge between the generations by letting parents play alongside their kids.
Simple and complex
One of the finest such titles is Botanicula by Jaromir Plachy and Amanita Design, with music by the band DVA. It is a point-and-click adventure game that is played entirely by mouse-clicking on characters, objects, and prompts displayed on-screen. However, that does not mean that it’s a simple game. Botanicula may not have the twitch action of a first-person shooter or the tactical combat of a role-playing game; rather, it is composed of numerous puzzles that players must solve in order to progress. The puzzles involve, for example, pattern recognition, recall, deductive reasoning, and even a few faster-paced cognitive challenges that mix hand-eye coordination and timing. This might be a one-button game, but it’s no walk in the park.
Still it is not brutal in its difficulty or unforgiving in its penalties. If players fail to solve a puzzle, they just need to try again. A game can be saved at any time; its casual pace allows participants simply to stop playing if they get tired. There’s no obligation to make the next checkpoint or beat the next obstacle to acquire new gear for a character. Gamers can approach challenges in whatever order they please, as opposed to more linear games—e.g., most action, shooter, and puzzle games—in which challenges must be completed as they are encountered. If players get stuck on a puzzle, they can try another one.
The puzzles do require some adult thinking skills, so this game is an excellent activity for parents to play with their kids. The parent can offer hints and tips along the way while still leaving the solution step up to the children, thereby boosting their confidence and encouraging them to continue on to the next challenge. As the general playing technique is rudimentary, there are no complex controls to learn that will frustrate children. This holds true as well for seniors who are interested in playing with the younger set.
A new kind of wonder
The real charm of Botanicula isn’t the play but the majestic and whimsical fantasy world in which it’s set. There is no spoken dialog other than the unique sounds made by the four main characters, and no walls of text to get through. The story is only hinted at—there’s an evil presence that the main characters are trying to stop—and there’s little exploration of the plot beyond a brief opening cinematic sequence.
However, Botanicula excels at capturing the imagination and stimulating gamers’ sense of wonder and discovery.
Meeting new creatures earns players an entry in their in-game journal, which can be reviewed at anytime. While there is no direct reward for doing this, it encourages exploration and interaction with the environment. Solving most of the puzzles requires collecting certain items that are usually acquired by solving other, smaller puzzles as part of the in-game environment.
Players can interact with the majority of the items; many objects merely reward users with a charming or humorous animation. There are always unexpected discoveries and a new reason to take in the environment. Botanicula also makes excellent use of music and animation to reward the gamer, making each solution feel like a victory. Rather than fostering a sense of dread at each new challenge or tension at the progress, the game moves at a steady pace throughout and extends an overall optimistic tone.
Botanicula is, at its core, a celebration of creativity and discovery. It asks gamers to think but rewards them. It asks players to use their imaginations and gives them plenty of opportunities to do so. Its basic concept blossoms into something far bigger than what it at first appears, and that is the very definition of a masterly work. The game’s appeal to the younger set makes it a more natural fit for libraries, especially those looking for gaming options for their pint-sized patrons.
Until next time, just keep telling yourself “Just one more level.”