Gameranx Interviews: The Young Socratics (Odyssey)

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.

The infamous words of Galileo Galilei are as true today as they were when he first spoke them in 1615 – especially in an academic sense. Education is like a gateway for the mind. A portal which leads to the intellectual arena of schools, classrooms, libraries and universities, our own homes, and eventually, one which intersects with the ‘real’ world. And yet, before we make the transition to this reality, there seems to be a curious disconnect between the way many subjects are taught in academic institutions and their original context. The Young Socratics, the development team behind Odyssey, feel this to be a pivotal issue in the education system, and used it as motivational fuel to create a game that authentically recreates the history of science – atom by atom.

Gameranx: Tell us a bit about yourselves, and how you got started working on Odyssey.

The Young Socratics: We were doing our PhD’s, and we took classes in philosophy and history, history of evolution along side a regular class on biology theory. We found it’s useful to learn about scientific ideas as they were learned by society of the past. Historical context is important, and in any new scientific idea, everything is interconnected. Science is interconnected with history and philosophy; Scientific theories studied in a disembodied way don’t help you connect to the world. We found that a lot of learning material could be presented this way to middle school and high school students. In fact, students understood the motivation behind the theories when we explained to them the personal aspect. At the same time, we thought why not package this content in the form of a game? Games are always the most engaging for students.

“Students understood the motivation behind theories when we explained the personal aspect”

We thought we would be increasing the engagement multiple fold. Surprisingly, many adults also started to become interested even though the product was targeted towards middle school and high school students. We think adults can extract a lot from the game because they have some experience of science education, but even adults won’t know this kind of material. And on Steam, we found a lot of adults where there for the game.

Gameranx: What were the inspirations behind Odyssey?

The Young Socratics: Recalling back to childhood experiences, we read a British author named Enid Blyton. And so we wanted to craft a game story which was deep, not something which is just patched onto the game. Instead of telling the player what the scientific theory is, we have a player in the game learning it, so the content is blended with the story. This family has gone to the remote islands in the Caribbean, with the prospect of finding treasure. But there are conflicts, and bad guys too. We tried to balance both sides – game and theory – and lots of effort has gone into it.

Gameranx: When did development begin?

The Young Socratics: Around May or June 2015 we had a basic idea, which has since evolved into more structured game. At first we had one journal, but then split it into journal fragments and wove it into a puzzle experience for the player. We were toying with the idea of having physical materials that come with the game, but we couldn’t go through with that because that would have required a lot of funding. It scares investors off. We were also worried whether would players have a smooth experience going off screen and on screen.

Gameranx: Could you tell us about the game in more detail?

The Young Socratics: It’s Myst inspired. The impression it (Myst) made on us always remained, and we combined with Enid Blyton’s adventure novels. With Myst, I would have liked to understand the backstory a lot more. In Odyssey, it’s more like some of the clues are scattered here and there; The story is learned by the player reading the journal, and this is how players learn science as well. Myst is more linear in terms of how you progress, but the puzzles in Odyssey do have some kind of sequence. We have tried to keep the initial parts easier than the later parts.
Altogether it has science content, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Copernicus, and although we couldn’t put Galileo’s life story in the game, we focused on his arguments, and put them in the mind of a 13 year old girl; You have objects where you can recreate experiments that help you differentiate between a heliocentic and geocentric universe. And she gets a lot more out of it by realising what she did is the same thing as what some philosopher did many years ago. That’s something we want the players to feel.

Gameranx: What was your experience with Kickstarting the game?

The Young Socratics: Kickstarter was a great learning experience. Lots of investors advised us to do a kickstarter last year, and we realised unless you have an existing following you really need to make some traffic first. See what traffic you can get first, and then set your funding accordingly. Sometimes it wasn’t easy, we had to do a lot of work in advance to make sure that when we started fundraising we could surpass the goals. And hopefully, that momentum would be kept up by the people coming in. It was only the last two days where we felt there was traffic coming from kickstarter itself. Before that, we had to drive it from some Faceboook groups and other forums. From Facebook advertising, we discovered a section of people who like science and science games, and Odyssey is a unique kind of science game. To be honest, we had no idea what would happen, but we were pleasantly surprised.

We had already received endorsements from some academics, like linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky, and a Stanford professor who works in Science education. People really feel that the rigour and depth in the game content is in the spirit of 21st century science education standards. It’s taken us a lot of effort to organise the content and structure it in the way we have. We were actually teaching before we went into making Odyssey, and we used to correspond with all the different people to make sure we were picking the right content. At the same time, we also had to look to the gaming community to make sure they liked it too.

Gameranx: Have you tested the concept of Odyssey inside an actual classroom? If so, what has the reception been like?

The Young Socratics: We did, and we saw a great response to it in some private schools. Kids were playing the game with some content instruction in the classroom, and in terms of having it inside a curriculum, it would require significant funding. But we think it’s possible. It’s an important approach.

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Gameranx thanks The Young Socratics for their time and expertise in making this interview possible. The early access version of Odyssey will launch on February 23th via Steam (PC).