A pretty common refrain about new parents is excitement over a time when they'll be able to play games with their kids. My oldest daughter is four years old, and outside of picking the different princess characters in Mario Kart on Switch and watching them immediately spin out, she's shown zero interest in games. Honestly? Fine. I spend all day thinking about games, so having the hours with my kids separate from that world has been refreshing.
It was inevitable, though. Video games are not just "a" medium, they are the medium, and unlike previous generations, there is no stigma around them. Everybody plays video games, and so it's mostly just been a question of which one would eventually hold her attention.
Every few weeks, I load Apple Arcade, download a few recent releases, and see if any grab my eye. That was me this past Saturday, sipping coffee. My oldest was playing with some toys, while the new baby was taking a long nap. I stumbled into learning Monument Valley developer ustwo games had released a new game, Alba. The colorful trailer, depicting a young child wandering around an island and snapping pictures of animals, looked neat.
Looking at cute animals? Check. Taking badly framed pictures? Check. Cleaning up trash? Check. (My daughter always declares we are "saving the planet" when we do this.) These are things my daughter would otherwise be doing, so I loaded up Alba and asked them to sit down.
In Alba, a young kid arrives for a vacation with their grandparents, who live on a tiny island. You team up with your best friend on the island to become a makeshift conservation group dedicated to cataloging the island's wildlife, cleaning up trash—simple stuff. Then, it's revealed the main thrust of Alba is sabotaging the mayor's desire to destroy the island's nature refuge for a fancy hotel. It's cute. At an in-game press conference announcing this, my daughter boo'd. Every time the jerk mayor came on the screen, she would boo again.
The problem with video games and children is—I don't know, everything? But it's mostly the controls. Controllers with analog sticks are overwhelming. Controls on a touch screen are also overwhelming. Even the stuff that should be approachable isn't because my kid is four and can't read. This is usually the crossroads with my kid—they don't understand how to move the character around, and without being able to move the character, they disengage.
Alba does have touch controls, but like a lot of mobile games, they're just fancy fake analog sticks. If you touch the bottom half of the screen, a cute compass appears, representing the analog stick. If you touch the top half of the screen, you can rotate the camera around. This worried me, because it meant I would have to control the character. Would she disengage?
The magic, fortunately, is everything else.
(You can, for the record, also play with a controller. Those play really nice with Apple devices these days.)
The interface is simple and direct. At the bottom of the screen are important icons, notably the map and camera. You press the camera and the camera pops up. You press the map and you get a map. I know this sounds rudimentary, but it means I can task my child with "please open the map and find the yellow star" and she has satisfaction in accomplishing a task. The camera has the same interface as an iPhone, which means my daughter knows the white button in the center takes a picture. I line up the shot, and she snaps the picture.
These are examples of an interface understanding how to communicate with a child.
So much of the frustration for kids at this age, games or otherwise, is having ambition beyond their means. They want to climb the tall, complicated object at the playground, but they don't know how to make their hands and feet work in the right combination alongside the invisible force of gravity. They want to count to 20 and can remember 12 and 14 but not 13. Frustration is hard to manage, in that the first ounce of frustration usually means "I would like to move onto doing something else, because wow frustration is an unpleasant feeling!!"
I should also be clear: Alba was not designed for small children who cannot read to pick it up and beat it. Holding Alba to that standard would be irresponsible. But it has enough of these elements that my child and I could play together, and each of us had pieces to grasp onto. While I sorted through the various objectives, I could make her part of the decision making.
- Me: "Do you want to look for an animal at the beach or the castle?"
- Small human: "The castle."
- Me: "OK, please open the map and point at the castle."
- Small human: "*taps screen* OK, there is the castle.”
Stuff like that. It kept her mind locked in, because there was a reason to be a careful observer, and she could do things her dad was proud of. Beyond the central mechanic of finding animals and taking photos, there are smaller tasks like cleaning up trash (tapping the trash puts it in the bin) or sorting laundry (tapping the sheets puts them away). The icons are big and easy to find, so she could spot them on her own. That became our dynamic for the time we played Alba over the weekend, in bursts of an hour or so, while the baby napped.
The story beats and dialogue are similarly simple and direct, allowing me to treat these moments like we were reading a book. Every character has a large conversation bubble over their head, so she could pick out which characters she wanted to talk to. One time, I forgot to read the dialogue because I got caught up with reading it and trying to figure out what the game was asking us to do next, and she barked at me. "Why aren't you reading it for me?"
My bad, kiddo.
Alba is probably not something that would have held my attention solo, but beyond the novelty of playing a game from start to finish with my kid for the first time, it felt like we were reading the coolest, most expensive book ever. In a year where most kid activities aren't possible, right as the winter kicks into full gear, Alba was exactly what both of us needed.
She's already asked me to find something else to play. We're thinking Sneaky Sasquatch, but much like how we've already watched Home Alone for the 10th time in the past week, there's a good chance we'll be loading up Alba again. She knows what the icon looks like.
Alba is currently available on Apple Arcade and PC, and it’s coming to Switch next year.