Play It Again, Sam

It has been a long wait – almost seven years – since I wrote about the wonderful world of Samorost, and the creative opportunities it provides for an inventive teacher (see Sam, The Spaceship and Me), so you can imagine how excited I am to get my hands on Samorost 3, just released by Amanita Design, and described thus:-

‘Samorost 3 follows a curious space gnome who uses the powers of a magic flute to travel across the cosmos in search of its mysterious origins. Visit nine unique and alien worlds teeming with colourful challenges, creatures and surprises to discover, brought to life with beautiful artwork, sound and music.’

What’s not to like? If that doesn’t tempt you, have a look at the preview.

See also Machinarium, from the same company.

For teaching ideas across all curriculum areas, see previous post by following the link.

I Want to Tell You a Digital Narrative

Writing in this week’s TESS, Peter Wright, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, offers a six-point plan to ‘rescue’ Scottish education from the doldrums in which he claims it to be currently stuck. Some of his ideas I happen to agree with, such as his recommended class size maximum, but on the subject of improving literacy he has this to say: “It must be defined as the ability to read and write. The current fad, which defines it as the ability to access texts in all their forms, must be shelved.” On this I couldn’t agree less.

That statement is wrong on so many counts. For one thing, ‘the ability to read and write’ is in itself meaningless, as it immediately begs the question, ‘the ability to read and write WHAT?’  The ability to read, and the ability to access texts in all their forms, are not mutually exclusive. The use of the word ‘fad’ is simply a sign of a desperate man in search of an argument.

I have written before about the blurring of the lines between reading, writing, listening, watching and talking, and about the development of digital narratives which appear to be breaking down the divisions between books, films and computer games. Inanimate Alice is a particularly exciting example of a multimedia, interactive narrative which combines digital photographs, video, printed text, drawing, painting and sound. The narrative is progressive and increasingly complex, not to mention absorbing and engaging. For a range of other good examples of digital narratives in development, and a wonderful range of materials and suggestions for creating digital narratives I would suggest you visit Martin Jorgensen’s definitive website The Digital Narrative – Finding Your Story with New Media and its close relatives The Lightning Bug, where young writers are provided with a host of ideas to inspire and support them in their efforts, and Building Community in Your Classroom, for teachers who are keen to introduce new technologies into their classroom but don’t quite know where to start.

I have also been excited recently by computer games such as Samorost and Machinarium, which have a narrative structure, but little or no printed text. They are described as ‘games’ but have a definite narrative or story – even although they have very little or no printed text – which only becomes complete or obvious after the player has solved all the puzzles and the plot has been resolved. These games are visually quite stunning and provide the perfect stimulus for discussion and for the creation of text, including the writing of stories. Beyond these however, it is difficult at the moment to find computer games which have a strong narrative element, rather than simply providing a context for interactive learning and social integration, commendable as both of these aims undoubtedly are. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the narrative which counts, and at the moment it seems to me there are very few games which are able to provide this. The problem for games developers is perfectly summed up in this very funny presentation from Daniel Floyd of Animation Mentor.

 

Sam, The Spaceship and Me

For the past few days I have been playing games, or one game to be precise, to explore some of the possibilities for using it in the context of improving literacy in the classroom. Samorost is a free online adventure/puzzle game created by Jakub Dvorsky while he was a student at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague; it is produced by his freelance Flash and web design agency Amanita Design. I first heard of the game from Andrew Brown at Learning and Teaching Scotland, who are doing some really interesting development work on Games-Based Learning.  I am also indebted to Dave Terron at Elgin Academy who has used the game in his English classes to very good effect, and to Kim Pericles, a primary teacher in Sydney, Australia who has used the game with her students for some time now – you can see some of their creative writing by clicking here.Samo_1

The object of the game is to direct the main character, a small white gnome-like humanoid (let’s call him Sam), through a series of visually stunning landscapes, by clicking the mouse on various objects in the correct sequence, and to help him avert a collision between his home planet and another planet/spaceship which is hurtling towards it. In the sequel, Samorost 2,  the gnome goes on a longer quest to save his kidnapped dog and return home safely.

Both games are played out against a uniquely atmospheric soundtrack, which is another of the game’s attractions, and against a backdrop of surreal worlds which combine natural beauty, spooky underground caves and a kind of post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland. Another positive is you can have endless attempts to solve the many puzzles which are put in front of you, and no matter what you do you can’t be killed. The problem-solving element of the game is difficult, at least for me, which probably means it is suitable for 12 or 13-year olds, and I could imagine it being used in a variety of contexts within the curriculum to develop listening and talking, writing, collaborative working and problem solving skills. Here are just a few ideas for discussion and other activities which immediately come to mind:-

Samo_2English/Literacy

Group Discussion-Who is this character? What is happening here? What is going to happen? What should we do next? What would happen if….? What would happen in real life if…..?

Writing – freeze the frame at almost any point in the game and ask students to describe what they see. Ask them to create and describe their own “world” to include as an extra level in the game. Tell the story from the point of view of another “character”. Write detailed instructions for someone else to play the game. Write instructions to play a game they are familiar with, including board games and street games. Write another adventure for Sam and/or his dog.

Art and Design

Discuss the design of the game in terms of colour, form, detail, tones, texture and pattern. Describe what it is that makes the game visually appealling. Design and draw a new character/landscape/object/ planet  for the game. Design a new game. Make a board game version of Samorost. Make a short animation of one of the levels of the game.Samo_5

Music

Play the soundtrack without the visuals and ask students to describe what they think is happening (music tracks are available from iTunes). Identify instruments used on the soundtrack. Explore music relating to outer space/the planets/other worlds and to suggest alternative soundtracks (Space Oddity? Lost in Space? The Planets? Star Wars Theme? War of the Worlds?). Compose and play an alternative soundtrack.

Science/Planet Earth

How many animal and plant species can you identify? Find out as much as you can about them and find out how they depend on each other for survival. How many different ways are there of creating energy in the game? Examine any of the means of transport that the gnome uses in the game and explain how it works. There are numerous opportunities at various points in the game to examine and discuss the concepts of ecology,evaporation, distillation, gravity, flow, substance, compound, circulation, motion, suction, current, voltage and quite a few others.

Technologies

Sam_3There are a number of “machines” in the game, most of them in the Heath Robinson style of design. However, they provide excellent opportunities to discuss such things as valves, pulleys, thermostats, pressure and combustion. You could ask students to build a simple version of the ski lift or the metal ball which lowers Sam into the underworld in Samorost 2 or to design and build a new rocket for Sam.

Social Studies

How much do we know about Sam’s planet? How does it differ from the other planets he travels to? Are there any clues as to what era we might be in? What kind of society does this seem to be? What can we tell about the creatures who kidnap the dog?   Is there life on other planets? Debate the merits and demerits of space travel in the 21st century.

These are just a few ideas but if you have any more, or indeed if you are already using the game I would be delighted to hear from you.