I never really got into Myst. As a teenage boy I was far more interested in healthier pursuits such as finding myself knee-deep in the demons of Doom or exchanging insults as Guybrush Threepwood. As a mature – read ancient – gamer however, I have developed greater patience for more laidback and pedestrian gaming experiences. Odyssey: The Next Generation Science Game, despite its Star Trek sounding title, is definitely one of these more sedate games.
The recent success of numerous interactive exploration games, or ‘walking sims’, and Jonathan Blow’s sublime The Witness point to a continuing interest in titles whose challenge is more cerebral than reaction-based. Is this an Odyssey that you should embark on?
The framing narrative for Odyssey is familiar enough. You find yourself stranded upon an island and must follow the narrative breadcrumbs to retrace the steps of Kai, a 13 year old girl, and her family. The pre-release material labels the island as “exotic yet dangerous”, which is somewhat misleading as there is very little sense of danger or peril in the game. This isn’t a criticism, but prospective buyers may be expecting some kind of threat that isn’t present. The lack of urgency resulting from this safe environment is actually a positive for the game. The puzzles demand a reasoned and considered approach, and wouldn’t have benefitted from any arbitrary time limits or marauding enemies.
Backed through Kickstarter, the game aims to take the player – ideally one embarking on their own scientific odyssey – through the history of scientific reasoning, from the earliest pre-Socratic philosophers to the radical theories of Galileo. As such, it feels like a fascinating scientific companion piece to Jostein Gaarder’s history of philosophy in novel form, Sophie’s World. Its developers, The Young Socratics, hope to follow Odyssey up with games that will take this history of science further forward.
Graphically, Odyssey is impressive enough. Everything looks suitably tropical and the look of the puzzles is consistent and clear. I was far from convinced that these puzzles were the result of the scientific endeavours of a 13 year old however. I appreciate the educational aspect of the game but it never entirely felt like the writing or the workings of a teenager.
The writing itself – mainly through the pages of Kai’s journal that you find as you explore the island – is generally of a high standard, and there are clear attempts to capture the voice of a 13 year old. This 13 year old, though, seems able to almost instantly overturn and disprove the theories of some of the ancient world’s greatest natural philosophers, and still find time to mess around on ziplines. Of course, technological advances mean that Kai has access to equipment and experiments that the likes of Parmenides and Aristotle could only dream of, but her progress through the history of scientific reasoning felt a little too smooth.
I didn’t have chance to play the game through with my 10 year old, but am expecting her to take somewhat longer to fully appreciate the parabolic workings of pendulums or the demonstration of the shape of Earth through staging eclipses.
My issues with the gaps between the narrative framing and the laudable educational intentions of the game and its puzzles did not prevent my enjoyment of Odyssey though. My mathematical and scientific brain is rusty to say the least and I certainly learned and re-learned many aspects of the scientific process. On this front, therefore, Odyssey has to be considered successful. I would whole-heartedly recommend it to parents of 10-15 year olds looking to spark their child’s enquiring mind, or even to older players seeking to remind themselves of theories and experiments from their school days.
It isn’t the next The Witness, but it is an innovative and educational exploration of humanity’s developing understanding of the processes that govern the real world. For that reason, it is the first game that truly deserves the label of ‘physics puzzler’, a term that generally means you’ll be knocking things over with other things. Given the target player age for the game, its puzzles are not always the most challenging; a number of them are solved through careful reading of the in-game journal rather than outright puzzling. Again, however, this serves to confirm the importance of scientific reasoning and logic in your exploration of The Wretched Islands.
Odyssey achieves what it sets out to do really well. It offers an enjoyable and well-designed engagement with the history of scientific reasoning and successfully enforces its educational aspects with appropriate puzzles. It doesn’t set out to be a game for a wide audience, but there is much here to enjoy for those with an enquiring mind. It comes with the caveat that this is unashamedly an educational game, but it certainly beats leafing through a dusty old science textbook.