Illustration via Humongous Entertainment

From 'Putt Putt' to 'Freddi Fish'—How Humongous Entertainment Made Edutainment Fun

Humongous didn't set out to be an edutainment company. That's why their games were so fun.

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May 9 2019, 1:41pm

Illustration via Humongous Entertainment

I could tell it was going to be a good day when my parents took out my Nickelodeon keyboard. With green mechanical-themed handles and blue, pink, and lavender keys, it had been a gift from my grandparents, and it was my first portal into the world of computer gaming. I’d plug it in and set it on my parents' desk, which was piled with stacks of small clear CD cases and tiny instructional booklets that never got read. These CD-ROMs were edutainment games, and I was allowed to play them voraciously, since my parents believed they were actually teaching me something.

Like thousands of other 90s children, I loved these games with their janky, clip-art aesthetic and profligate use of Comic Sans. The best ones were fun enough to coax children into doing crosswords, recognizing patterns, learning long division, and, uh, typing fast enough to keep pace with a race car in your rear view mirror. Listing these games is a one way street to nostalgia-town: Cluefinders, JumpStart, Oregon Trail, Reader Rabbit, Zoombinis.

But when we look back at these artifacts of our childhood, we usually forget what I’ll lovingly call "the grind," which—unlike recreational games that involve endless foraging, crafting, and killing—asked young players to repeatedly solve math, logic, or word problems in activity gated environments. As much as I loved, and continue to love, these classics, there was never a question in my mind as to intent. Most of them were obviously education over entertainment.

Childhood photo of writer sitting at desk playing computer games
Sitting at my desk, playing 'Green Eggs and Ham' animated storybook. Photo provided by author.

Humongous Entertainment created a major wrinkle in that formula. The company, founded in 1992 by Ron Gilbert and Shelley Day, offered something different—a series of kid’s games that were based around narrative, character, and world-building rather than lesson gated modules. The two had come from LucasArts—Day worked as a games producer and Gilbert worked as a programmer and game designer—and specialized in creating adventure games aimed at adults. After seeing how much kids enjoyed playing adventure games, they decided to apply the same principles to games aimed at younger players.

"We watched a six year old play Monkey Island and realized how much fun he was having," Gilbert told me over the phone. "He couldn’t read any of the dialogue but was having fun poking around, opening and closing doors, randomly solving puzzles. But there were no adventure games for kids."

While Humongous made some activity based titles aimed at very young kids, the company’s most memorable games were built around lovable characters in the "Junior Adventure" series: Putt-Putt, a purple convertible with a puppy sidekick; Pajama Sam, a boy who wasn’t afraid of the dark (created by Gilbert himself); Freddi, an inquisitive, problem-solving fish; and Spy Fox, a secret agent fox-man. "Each game set had slightly different goals and age group," Tami Borowick, game designer at Humongous from 1992-2000 and fellow programmer on Monkey Island, told me over the phone. "Putt Putt was 3-4, Pajama Sam was 4-6, Freddi was 6-8, and then came Spy Fox."

Humongous' initial goal wasn’t to make edutainment games at all, but to bring their children’s stories to life—Day invented Putt-Putt herself, as a bedtime story for her son. "It was always about telling a really good story for the kids, not teaching them arithmetic or teaching them to read," Gilbert said. "Naming ourselves Humongous Entertainment was a very conscious choice. We very actively did not want to be thought of as an edutainment company, we wanted to be thought of as a kid’s entertainment company."

Gilbert and Day translated principles of adventure games into their own titles "geared at younger kids" that weren’t "dumbed down," Gilbert explained. "They were still smart, they still required you to think." And that’s exactly what they did. Humongous' Junior Adventure games were immersive, and the characters had inventory systems that held tools that opened puzzle gated regions. Finding the right tool triggered a sophisticated cascade of other interlocking challenges.

Take Freddi Fish 3: The Case of the Stolen Conch Shell—early in the game, you meet a monkey stranded at sea thanks to a leak in their boat and a ripped sail. A foraged cork plugs the hole, while befriending a seamstress allows you to take the sail to get patched. Once the monkey returns the shore, they’re able to help retrieve a hard to reach item needed to complete another task. "Freddi always had some sort of science in it, like using a lever to help you open something that is heavy or a balance where you need to put a certain number of purple sea urchins on a scale," Borowick told me.

Freddi Fish screenshot
Screenshot via ' Freddi Fish 3: The Case of the Stolen Conch Shell'

This focus on storytelling paired with an internal ethos of passion and individual latitude gave Humongous its best hits. For years they operated more like an indie studio than a larger corporation, despite being acquired by GT Interactive in 1996 in order to stay afloat. GT left them mostly to their own devices, and employees were able to inject their own style and vision into games. Borowick herself decided to make Freddi Fish a girl—she wanted to upend the "very persistent feeling in the game industry that girls would play boy characters but boys would not play girl characters."

It took a bit of corralling. When Borowick asked the script writer to "change every he to she and every him to her," the writer added in new dialogue, making Freddi say things like, "oh, that’s too hard to do" when she was confronted with a difficult puzzle. Borowick pushed back, redacting the added dialogue that undercut her character. "That was normal for the time," Borowick said. "If you’re going to change somebody to a girl, she suddenly becomes weak and feeble." She also wrote a line into Freddi Fish 2 where Freddi explicitly clarifies "I am a girl." (The clarification was necessary because boy characters were typically voiced by women, and lots of kids didn’t know Freddi was a girl.)

Playtesting revealed just what kind of impact this had for a generation of young girls. "The little girls pepped up—they suddenly got really excited, happy, and smiley," Borowick told me. "It took the boys a beat, they had to get their wits back, but it wasn’t like they took their hand off the mouse and said 'nevermind.' For these boys is wasn’t a big deal. For the girls it was."

Spy Fox, the foxy James Bond franchise created by programmer and game designer Brad Carlton, also had its own individual style, expressed in density of puns and pop culture references. In Dry Cereal, Spy Fox must stop an evil goat from imprisoning all cows. The villain's name is Billy the Kid and the game takes place on the "Greek Isle of Acidophilus"—acidophilus is a bacterium found in probiotic. In Some Assembly Required you pilfer a chef’s outfit from a "Wolfgang Duck" statuette, and use it as a disguise to chat up the game’s villain’s personal chef—"I once swallowed a whole container of yeast," Spy Fox starts. "Well that’s one way to get a rise out of a chef," your target responds.

This level of sophistication allowed games to appeal to parents—which was important, seeing as parents were gatekeepers to children’s play. And to keep the youngest kids engaged, environments were peppered with non-narrative "click-points" which would trigger a funny animation. "Kids don’t necessarily need the same end goal that adults do—we’re very word and goal driven," Borowick said. "To kids, a reward can be a cute animation."

Spy Fox screenshot
Screenshot via 'Spy Fox: Some Assembly Required'

All of it just worked. By 1998, Humongous had the top two best selling games in the educational category, against larger competitors like Disney, The Learning Company, and Broderbund. By 2000 the company had sold 16 million copies of their games, and Humongous was the third largest interactive edutainment company. Humongous had also created the classic, beloved Backyard Sports franchise and a handful of Blue’s Clues games in partnership with Nickelodeon.

Of course, it was just when Humongous' seemed to be enjoying its greatest success that its business model was becoming perilous. The arrival of the Windows 95 era, with its dedicated graphics cards, allowed Humongous to transition to high-res scans of hand-drawn animation, which significantly increased costs but let Humongous keep pace with technology across the games industry. The trouble was, their audience wasn't keeping pace. It was already hard enough to get parents to let their kids play on the computer—in Borowick's words, "Why would I sit my child in front of my very expensive computer?"

Other edutainment titles had made the leap directly to middle schools, but Humongous had to contend with the educational system's inflexible approach to learning outcomes. When the company approached administrators, they weren’t able to give a linear answer to the question “How would you score this?” Borowick said. The game's adventure designs that made them so ahead of their time were the exact features that made educators stumble over how to pack them into the straight-laced, testing motivated educational system.

What we think of as edutainment these days has more or less been cannibalized by app stores.

Under price pressure from major publishers, and with their market shrinking, employees came up with innovative ways of containing costs. "We’d done a lot of Freddi Fish games and the first couple we had completely animated her and Luther swimming in and swimming out," Carlton said. "I designed layouts that I could pair to existing animations. We also stopped doing super elaborate cut scenes, because kids found the escape key and all that work we did was just not seen."

In 1999, Humongous was purchased by Infogrames, which proceeded to unceremoniously layoff employees and curtail their production of Junior Adventure games in favor of the Backyard titles. "They decimated what made the company really special," Gilbert said. A few additional Junior Adventure titles were created, but the Gameboy Advance was starting to dominate the kid's gaming market, and Backyard Soccer was the only Humongous title to make the jump, while Junior Adventures—like other edutainment titles—didn't make it.

As technology continued to evolve, Humongous' games became lost artifacts, playable only in their original formats on early 2000s computing devices. They didn't reach new generations of players, who in the early years of the internet flocked to free online games (think Flash games on sites like Miniclip) and lightweight MMOs aimed at kids, like Club Penguin. Then came smartphones.

"Most kids play on tablets of some form or a phone, kids are just so inundated with so many devices now. It’s hard to get your stuff out there," Carlton explained. He currently works at Leapfrog, the well-known purveyor of children's games. What we think of as edutainment these days has more or less been cannibalized by app stores. If kids want to play games, they can turn to mobile apps.

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More than ten years after they more or less disappeared, the Junior Adventure games got a remaster. In July 2013, Tommo Inc. acquired Humongous Entertainment during the Atari Inc. bankruptcy proceedings, and partnered with Night Dive Studio—a gaming studio founded in 2012, dedicated to remastering classic games for modern consoles, most famously System Shock 2—and began rereleasing classic Humongous titles that had been considered "lost" to the archives of time.

On January 2014 Humongous' website was relaunched and in April 2014, these games came out in waves, each wave dedicated to releasing one game from each classic character—Putt Putt, Pajama Sam, Freddi Fish, and Spy Fox—in chronological order. These are now playable across nearly every modern platform you can imagine: iTunes, Google Play, Amazon App Store, and Steam. (Their catalogue unfortunately doesn’t include the Backyard Sports games, which were acquired by The Evergreen Group.) Tommo Inc. and Night Dive Studio now work together to revamp classic games under the label Retroism.

So I played them. Twenty years after my intense childhood obsession with these titles, I picked them up in the April Humongous Entertainment Humble Bundle, consuming them en masse like an entire Costco roast chicken. They stand the test of time. The gadgets still delight me, the worlds still feel rich and full of comedy, and seeing familiar characters is like putting on a favorite worn sweater.

More than that, I recall just how accomplished I felt after beating these games for the first time. In 1997 I wasn't able to cheat by looking up solutions online. And so it is nostalgia—like our obsessions with 90s and early 2000s paraphernalia these games call forth a time when technology was less sophisticated, generating a visual language that we now consider to be "early internet." They’re a time capsule to adjacent memories, like Tamagotchi and Neopets and Runescape, reminding us of what it feels like to be children.

But Humongous' games have also reminded me that a well told story has no expiration date. I return because I love the worlds and their inhabitants, yearn to travel their cartoon landscapes with my favorite characters and their bizarre phrases—"I’m in there like swimwear"—which I continue to use despite their esoteric origins.

"I believe that the Humongous characters were evergreen," Borowick said. "It’s much like Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse, it’s an every child sort of experience. And we tried to make the characters lovable without being sickeningly sweet—they were nice and kind and aspirational for kids, but that didn’t mean they were perfect."

So the spiritual successors of edutainment games may not be anything that resembles these games in the first place. But that hardly matters. In a world where our favorites are getting remastered, these games are still ours—ours to play on our own or to share with our own kids, a generation later. And with stories and characters like these, we don’t need replacements. No replacement could ever compare.

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