Putt-Putt Saves the Children: Some thoughts on designing children’s games

This is a repost of a blog I wrote in June 2014.

While the recent resurgence of Humongous Entertainment’s back catalog on Steam got on my radar some months ago, my excitement quickly waned when I realized that my childhood favorite, Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon, was not yet available for purchase. Last night, however, when Leigh Alexander pointed out that Spy Fox (another Humongous series) was available on iOS, I immediately lunged for my iPad and tapped “putt” into the App Store’s search bar and hoped for the best.

After a few misses thanks to my lazy search habits (no shortage of minigolf games on iOS btw), I found the hits: Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo, Putt-Putt Travels Through Time, Putt-Putt Joins the Circus, and Putt-Putt’s Fun House.

But wait, where’s Goes to the Moon?!

Despite the absence of my one true love, I kept an open mind and gave Saves the Zoo a shot. There was a free version after all, so it wasn’t like I’d be out any cash if it didn’t live up to Goes to the Moon’s legacy.

Saves the Zoo doesn’t exactly start with a BANG like Goes to the Moon does (literally, it begins with Putt-Putt driving to a fireworks factory) and the plot isn’t quite as riveting (searching for baby animals vs GETTING STRANDED ON THE MOON AND HAVING TO FIND A WAY BACK), but the charm of all the goofy voice acting and classic adventure game art still managed to pull me in. At some point between the “Topiary Creatures” musical number and the end of the demo, I submitted to the fact that I would end up paying the $3 in-app purchase for the full version.

An hour later, as I watched the credits roll, I reflected on my experience and wondered how this game for kids (oh god) 3–8 managed to captivate me long enough to see it through when few (non-children’s) games I’ve played recently have managed to do the same. Here are some of my thoughts:

In the world of Putt-Putt, everything is interactive

From the obvious (signs, characters, obvious inventory items) to the minutia (rocks, trees, puddles), you can touch basically anything and it will react with a cartoon-y animation (often with assorted critters involved, at least in the case of Saves the Zoo). I went to (Car)town tapping everything in sight and continued to be surprised when I would tap something totally insignificant, daring the game to react.

The core gameplay emphasizes exploration and memorization skills

Rather than invent some off-the-wall puzzle solutions that point-and-click adventures are notorious for, the game uses a simple “lock-and-key” approach. Once you’ve explored each section of the zoo and picked up all the required items, the puzzles are pretty trivial (for an adult, anyway), but the fact that you’re guaranteed to only see halves of solutions before obtaining the other halves meant that each solution was allowed breathing room for an “aha!” moment.

“Oh no, an avalanche! Guess I’ll come back later…”

“A shovel? Oh! I know where I could use this!”

This approach is just clever enough to make the player feel clever, rather than force them to try and figure out what the developer’s train of thought was for each puzzle.

Mini-games keep it fresh

While I quickly became exhausted with the two available in Saves the Zoo, some of my most standout memories from Goes to the Moon are from the mini-games sprinkled about. While the core gameplay never gets so frustrating that you need a break, it’s still nice to rest your brain and do something a little more action-oriented (like playing ice hockey with a polar bear).

Playing Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo when I did was kind of a random thing and, after I finished, I was worried that I had wasted an hour of (potential) productivity on it. After thinking about it a bit more, though, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. After releasing Shipshape on Monday, Putt-Putt helped me travel back in time to a place where I could lose hours on simpler games and not feel bad about it. Even though the total start-to-finish playtime probably isn’t much more than an hour for any game in the series, I found myself rapt by the little things and spent several hours (across many playthroughs) smelling the (singing) roses. These are the types of feelings that should inform Shipshape’s design.

As I get older, I may not be able to appreciate things in the same way I did as a child. No longer do I have the illusion of unlimited time, lack of responsibility, and boundless sense of wonder (that makes even the most unassuming puddle worth clicking) that I did as a child. It’s a little sad for me to come to terms with, but it doesn’t mean I can’t strive to create magical experiences like Putt-Putt for future generations that still have all those things.

PS: The iOS ports seem like a really great way to play the games (especially for your child), as the touch interface is super intuitive and makes poking around the scenery even more fun. It’s also worth noting that the “paywall” you hit in the free versions asks the player to solve some math problems in order to even have the option to purchase the full game IAP, which is pretty cool. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s nice to know that they at least thought to put in some sort of safeguard against unwanted spending.

PPS: Goes to the Moon is NOT on iOS, which is unacceptable, because I still think it was a more substantial game (even though it was actually an earlier release than Saves the Zoo). I may very well buy it on Steam now that it’s finally available and maybe stream it on Twitch at some point in the near future (so you can all judge me when I tear up during Rover’s story). UPDATE 8/31/15: Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon is finally available on iOS! Buy it now!

PPPS: In the course of writing this, I found out that you can play a demo of Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon in your web browser. I highly recommend trying it out.

PPPPS: LAST THING I SWEAR: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Putt-Putt Saves the Stew, which was directly inspired by Saves the Zoo. It’s a fan game created entirely by a five year old (well, his dad coded it, but he did everything else) and it’s adorably bizarre.

Originally published at eaneuhaus.com.

game dev. writer. musician. trans. she/her. extremely online. extremely tired.

game dev. writer. musician. trans. she/her. extremely online. extremely tired.