Feature: VGBlogger’s Back to School Guide to Fun Educational Indie Games

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Nowadays children and young adults are going back to school earlier and earlier with each passing year it seems, but traditionally Labor Day has represented the unofficial end of summer, and the beginning of the new school semester. With Labor Day now past and summer nearing its end, students across the country are begrudgingly heading back to the classroom for another eight months of early mornings, exams, studying, homework and all the other dreaded things that come with acquiring an education.

But learning doesn’t have to be a chore — it can be fun! Video games all too often get a bad rap for being unproductive, overly violent pastimes, but in addition to telling rich, cinematic stories and offering much needed escapism and relaxation, they can also be used as effective educational tools. When I was in elementary and middle school, pioneering educational games like Math Blaster, Oregon Trail and The Incredible Machine were part of the curriculum for certain classes. Technology and game design has come a long way since those early days, and now indie studios are able to service a far more advanced edutainment genre through digital download portals like Steam. Just like the six educational games we’re about to discuss!

Influent (by Three Flip Studios):

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Studying a new language plays an integral part of any student’s education, and a game like Influent can make the process a whole lot more engaging than transferring the information to the brain from a textbook. Played from either first- or third-person, the game drops the user into a virtual 3D recreation of the interior of a home, complete with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, closet and living room. Walking around the environment and clicking on different everyday objects — bed, pillow, TV, toilet, posters, desk, PC, tools, food, socks, slippers, guitar, sticky notes and over 400 other items — brings up a text translation and spoken pronunciation of the target noun, while the associated word is added to a vocabulary list. Every 10 words discovered unlocks a Time Attack mode for that set, which essentially serves the same purpose as a pop quiz, as words in the foreign language are randomly posed for the player to then find in the environment, with hints toggled on or off. Words are then mastered by correctly guessing them in three consecutive Time Attack quizzes. A currency of gold stars is awarded for each mastered word, and with gold stars adjective and verb modifiers can be unlocked for certain words. So for example a razor is attached to the verb for “to shave,” thus expanding the vocabulary. An option eventually becomes available to fly around the environment from inside a toy jet plane, which is a fun reward for mastering new words.

As a standalone application, Influent is not full-featured enough to teach someone how to fluently speak other languages, as it does not show how to construct sentences or anything like that. But as an affordable vocabulary supplement to classroom study of a foreign language, it is a great way to visually associate words with real-world objects and make the information easier to memorize. Language packs are currently available at $9.99 apiece for Bulgarian, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish, with more still to come. Once one language is purchased, additional language packs can be purchased as add-on DLC for $4.99 each.

Learn more at playinfluent.com.



Ludwig (by Ovos):

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Wrapped up in the story of an alien robot crash-landed on Earth while on a journey to discover renewable energy sources for his dwindling homeland, Ludwig is equal parts adventure game and physics lesson, teaching players about chemical reactions like combustion, natural phenomena like buoyancy, and how different forms of energy are created from elements like fire, water, wind and the sun. The game plays like a standard adventure. While exploring a fully three-dimensional world, objects are collected and used to solve simple environmental puzzles, craft gadgets, upgrade Ludwig’s built-in array of research tools, and replenish Ludwig’s battery which drains as he performs scans and other energy-dependent actions. As areas are scanned for natural phenomena, multiple choice quizzes pose relevant questions based on the task at hand, and once correctly answered the information is logged into a knowledgebase charting all of the material in an easy to follow concept map diagram designed by actual physics teachers, complemented by external web links to Wikipedia. After enough progress has been made, each themed world area provides a Lab minigame to test the player’s understanding of a particular topic, just like an actual school lab assignment. For example, the lab in the first world involves burning combustible objects like paper, wood, rubber and coal, recording their burning temperatures, scanning the air particles to learn which element compounds were created from the chemical reaction, and collecting other data such as mass (before and after burning), heat value and energy.

Playing the game does involve quite a bit of backtracking and item fetch questing, but overall there is a seamless integration between learning and exploration-based adventure gameplay that makes for a fun and rewarding educational experience. I would say that the game is ideal for tweens and early teens, but with guidance (the somewhat complex controls and menu system may require a small learning curve at first) children of all ages will likely have a good time roaming around a beautiful world as a cute robot, even if they don’t fully comprehend everything being taught. Parents may even find themselves drawn into the world, or if nothing else get a good chuckle out of some of the references the developers added to properties like Star Wars and Half-Life.

Discover more about the world of Ludwig at www.playludwig.com.



Reach for the Sun (by Filament Games):

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For the interactive study of plant life, look no further than Reach for the Sun, an absolutely gorgeous casual simulation about the growth of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Primarily focused on teaching the process of photosynthesis, the game involves strategically managing water, nutrient and starch resources to grow a plant from springtime through the fall and produce as many blossoming, seed-bearing flowers as possible before the growing season ends. Seeds are then used to unlock additional (and more challenging) plants as well as upgrades for the garden which provide passive benefits. At the beginning stage of development, a small sprout can be seen with small nodes surrounding it. Clicking one of these nodes brings up a radial menu for selecting the various parts of a plant to grow, including roots, stems, leaves and flowers, each of which requires a certain amount of resources to make, but also expands the overall resource capacity the larger the plant gets.

Similar to click-catching sunshine orbs in Plants vs. Zombies, resources are harvested by waiting for a plant’s roots and leaves to glow, and then clicking on them. The quicker this is done the better, of course, because the quantity of acquired resources is determined by the brightness of the glow, which gradually fades until clicked. Unless played in turn-based strategy mode, time constantly passes at a rapid clip, so there is the additional time crunch to maintain resource intake and keep the plant continuously reaching higher and higher for the sun. Additional click-based mechanics come into play as creepy-crawlies attempt to eat the plant’s leaves and roots, cold snaps threaten a plant’s health, and bees need to be lured to pollenate flowers. Indeed, Reach for the Sun is a click-heavy game. While the game has a one-dimensional hook, there is a Zen garden quality to it that is very soothing and makes absorbing the information less mentally taxing. As a visually striking guide on plant anatomy and a fun casual game on its own merits, Reach for the Sun is a good choice for students with an interest in nature and earth science.

Additional information and classroom pricing is available at www.filamentgames.com/reach-for-the-sun.



Crazy Plant Shop (by Filament Games):

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Filament Games takes us from the elementary earth science classroom of Reach for the Sun to the more advanced biology 101 course of Crazy Plant Shop, where the study of plant genetics is on the lesson plan. Structured in similar fashion to a Diner Dash or countless other time management titles offered by casual game sites like Alawar, Big Fish Games and G5 Games, Crazy Plant Shop puts the player in the role of a shop owner specialized in cross-breeding designer plant life. With each passing day, customers enter the shop and order plants with very specific traits. Some plants can be purchased from a catalog at a premium price, but the only way to meet the demands without going out of business in the process is to breed two plants using a special machine. When two plants are inserted into the breeding machine, diagrams called Punnett squares show how the dominant and recessive genes of each plant will alter the traits of the offspring. The main goal of the game is to reach the end of the allotted number of days, fulfilling enough orders and banking enough of the green stuff (by that I mean money) to unlock all available plant types. Unlike traditional management games, however, there is no time crunch, so players are encouraged to take their time and carefully learn the makeup of each plant type to breed specific trait combinations. Ultimately, the game requires a balance of breeding (the machine only has a limited number of uses each day) and using profits to purchase new plants and shop upgrades.

Its quaint art style and cute make-believe plant/animal hybrids — plants don’t get any more adorable than the Catcus (a cactus in the shape of a cat) or the Bunnyon (an onion sprout that looks like a bunny rabbit) — are likely to attract a younger set, but the more advanced subject matter and somewhat complicated menu-heavy interface definitely makes this game better suited to older students. (It has been a long while since my school days, but I sure don’t remember learning stuff like dominant and recessive genes until at least high school.) Budding botanists will have a blast operating their own Crazy Plant Shop — and they may actually learn some business and money management skills while their at it!

Additional information and classroom pricing is available at www.filamentgames.com/crazy-plant-shop.



The Counting Kingdom (by Little Worlds Interactive):

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Oh, math. You’re so boring. I was always good at adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing numbers in school, but the only fun I remember getting out of crunching numbers was when the rare opportunity came about to visit the computer lab to play games like Math Blaster. But that old classic has nothing on this game. Welcome to the wonderful realm of The Counting Kingdom, a turn-based tower defense strategy game that transforms players into a young wizard’s apprentice who must defend his castle from monsters using a book stuffed full of magical number spells. Gameplay takes place on a 4×4 grid, where monsters with different numbers drawn on their bodies march one square at a time from the right side of the screen and attempt to lead a final row of battering rams to destroy four towers guarding the castle on the left. Players must use their knowledge of elementary school level arithmetic to stop them.

A random hand of three pages is dealt from the spellbook at the start of a level, each inscribed with a number. Using these spells requires selecting any sequence of adjacent monsters that add up to the total number of the page. So if monsters bearing the numbers 9, 4 and 2 and can be directly linked together, using a spell page with the number 15 on it will remove those creatures from the battlefield. As progress is made across the story mode world map (or at higher difficulty tiers in free play mode), additional mechanics are introduced based on the other mathematical operations. Magical potions allow points to be added to or subtracted from a target monster. At the start of a level a square on the playing area may also display a x2 marker which permanently doubles the number of any monster that steps on it. The Counting Kingdom is such a well thought out game that captures the imagination with its charming story and visuals (young Harry Potter fans will be especially attracted to the whole sorcerer’s apprentice theme), and is incredibly fun to play and surprisingly addictive, for children and adults alike.

Learn more about The Counting Kingdom at www.countingkingdomgame.com.



Monkey Tales (by Larian Studios):

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Does Larian Studios have diverse game design chops or what? The independent Belgian developer famous for building deep, complex and mature role-playing game worlds in the Divinity franchise, including the brilliant recently released installment Original Sin, shows an equally deft hand at creating educational games for kids in the Monkey Tales series. Monkey Tales’ gameplay consists of two phases. Much of the game takes the form of an isometric top-down puzzler in which a boy or girl avatar is guided through a stage while collecting bananas, solving basic block and switch type puzzles, and occasionally sneaking by enemies like ghosts and skeletons. The educational part of the game comes into play when finding consoles in each stage which must be activated in order to unlock the exit door to move on to the next level. Upon turning on one of these consoles, one of approximately a handful of different math-based minigames will begin. These minigames include simple flash cards, a carnival-style throwing gallery in which balls are tossed at numbered signs based on a given math problem, and a flight game which involves guiding a spaceship around incoming asteroids by quickly answering problems of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division to steer the ship left or right across a three-lane map, to name a few examples.

Altogether, the game provides a really fun combination of logic puzzle solving and fundamental mathematics in a minigame environment reminiscent of the Math Blaster days. The Monkey Tales series dates back a few years, but just last week all five games were released in a bundle on Steam for $14.99. Although there is little gameplay variation from one game to the next (only the stories and settings change), each game steps up a grade level to take players ages 7-11+ from 2nd grade math through 6th grade. Thanks to helpful tutorials and adaptive difficulty, children younger than the target range may even be able to jump in and get a head start on their arithmetic. Or they can just watch someone else play and make monkey noises.

A free demo is available at www.monkeytalesgames.com to try before buying.



About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!