Omkar Deshpande and Vivek Kaul of The Young Socratics studio may have pulled off the impossible: With their Kickstarter-funded puzzler Odyssey, they've created the rare educational game that both imparts several classes' worth of real scientific knowledge while managing to keep it fun as a game chiefly aimed at middle schoolers. It's not quite finished, but I recently had a chance to play an early build ahead of its planned February release on Steam's Early Access, and I found myself drawn to its premise of rescuing a stranded intellectual family from pirates on a remote Caribbean island. But the adventures here favor brains over bullets, as I had to solve a series of first-person puzzles set up by a 13-year-old girl named Kai based on the history of science ranging from pre-Socratic natural philosophy to Galileo's struggle with the church.
"I can tell the sailors weren't very clever and didn't care about science, but you'll be able to figure it out," Kai says in a recorded message in the opening cutscene received through a yacht's radio. Such optimism, especially since it's aimed at some random person on a passing boat.
Odyssey's most obvious inspiration is the brain-straining Myst games, which are enjoying a revival of sorts in new titles like Obduction and The Witness. Much as in the original Myst, players explore an island, opening new walkways and zones by solving a wide variety of puzzles. The big difference is Odyssey features none of the Magritte-styled magical realism that defines those games. Much as Odyssey champions real-world science, its setting is a small set of imagined Caribbean islands, altered over the years by the historical forces of environmental protections, military encampments, pirates, and natives long vanished. Although there's a pleasing amount of backtracking, it's also more linear than the games that inspired it, but with good reason for its educational aims.
"It's like a Euclidean approach," Deshpande says, "In Euclid's Elements, his famous work on geometry, when you come to theorem five, all you can use to prove theorem five are the first four theorems and the axioms you started off with. You can't really use theorem six or theorem seven, because those are yet to be proven down the line. That's how our content also goes. At every step we rely only on what has already been established till then. And that roughly corresponds to the chronological progression of arguments in the history of science."
Deshpande and Kaul hold PhDs from Stanford and Georgia Tech respectively, and they manage pack Odyssey with ideas like that without confusing young players. Deshpande says he was inspired by the Enid Blyton adventures he loved as a child in India. There's a lot of journal reading involved for finding clues and progression, and far more than what many developers would usually consider "safe." By the time an hour had gone by, I looked down with astonishment and discovered that Kai's journal had swelled to 50 pages, with hand-drawn illustrations and neat handwriting alternating against the wide-ruled leafs of a composition notebook.
And yet somehow it works. It communicates the importance of reading while never making it a chore. Highlighted lines help point the way for the lazy or merely perplexed, but the journal's presentation of scientific history in the form of recounting Socratic conversations with Kai and her university professor father stirs a sense of wonder and discovery a staid textbook could not. It's concise, informative, and entertaining all at once, jumping with ease from talk of Carib natives to Parmenides' realization that the moon only reflects light rather than generating it.
"I don't think there's any way around reading," Deshpande told me. "The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize that it's important for students to obtain and communicate information about science, and when they talk about obtaining information, it is by reading. They mention that scientists spend more than 50 percent of their time reading the works of other scientists."
But Odyssey is never about reading for the sake of reading. Odyssey succeeds as an educational game because it forces its players to immediately use the knowledge they've learned in the journal in associated puzzles. The manual, practical applications hammer in the meaning of the lesson in a way straight text would not. To give a couple of examples, I once had to recreate Aristotle's conception of the weights of his proposed elements of earth, water, air, fire, and ether by aligning them correctly on a ringed circular door symbolizing the ancient cosmos. After reading about ancient Greek worries about being upside down at the antipodes of one's location, I had to place two pegs at the antipodes of each other on a rusty globe, thus unlocking some journal pages within. It's an effective marriage of the textual and "hands-on" approach that's almost never so easily found in schools.
"We wanted to actually make sure that the players are always using the models, and also that they're reading," Deshpande said. "There's a loop, that you read and go back to the visual component, which is the hands-on activity, and then you go back and forth and figure out how to solve that puzzle, so reading is kind of in-built."
Careful thought also went into the creation of Kai and her family. Odyssey celebrates and promotes diversity in the sciences by making Kai's parents a South Asian father and an East Asian mother. Both have the great situational advantage of being university professors, but their many conversations with Kai and the way they make her think through her own logic highlights the importance of parental involvement in the educational process—a concept Kaul and Deshpande emphasize in their own educational work outside the game.
Kai's own conception as a intelligent, and inquisitive young girl is also aimed at inspiring similar young women to enlist in the cause of scientific research. Kaul emphasises that "obviously it's for both boys and girls," but that much is already apparent from the sage methods of teaching employed by Kai's father. "She's constructing all those ideas on her own," Deshpande said. "Definitely we want girls to be able to read the journal and identify themselves with Kai so that they feel that they could have been the ones who could have come up with all these ideas if circumstances had been different in their lives."
And some schools are already embracing Odyssey. It's currently five weeks into a pilot program at the AltSchool in Palo Alto, California, where Deshpande claims it's enjoying a "good response." Eventually, Kaul said, they'd like to implement some "pre-assessment and post-assessment procedures" to make sure students are learning the material. "I think this game might be especially well appreciated by homeschoolers because that way the parent and the child can both be involved in learning," Deshpande added, "whereas in school we have to obviously make it easy for the teacher to integrate the game into the classroom within that one-hour period or whatever."
Odyssey's current form has but three chapters, but The Young Socratics plan on adding further adventures covering Isaac Newton's physics and Galileo's ideas about inertia and the mathematics of projectile motion. Heady stuff, but after my time with Odyssey, I'm convinced the team can explain these concepts in far more memorable methods than what millions of students are currently encountering in traditional classrooms. It's one of the strongest examples of games as educational tools to date.