My school’s top successes were structure and order. I had trouble concentrating on Times New Roman worksheets as buzzing fluorescent lights pierced the inside of my skull, so I was often told off for talking or moving ahead before work. The margins became a tapestry of smudges.
“More people have played Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish, or Pajama Sam than anything else I’ve ever done, including Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion,” game designer Ron Gilbert wrote. on Twitter in 2015 (opens in new tab). I am one of those people. But now that I’ve become more familiar with the magic of Monkey Island, it’s clear how the show’s disarmingly sweet humor and puzzles set the stage for the fun games I loved in my childhood.
However, when I loaded Putt-Putt Saves The Zoo back home, it reminded me that despite my teacher’s affinity for linear problem solving, I was driving the proverbial purple brain car.
In giving the answer, the question and how to solve it, the traditional rote memorization style of training left little to the imagination. But Humongous Entertainment’s games wanted me to search every corner, turn over every rock, and most of all go the wrong way.
Unthinkable in school years
“School is often based not on problem solving, which involves actions and goals, but on learning information, facts, and formulas that one has read about in texts or heard about in lectures,” writes professor and author James Paul Gee in book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning (opens in new tab). “It’s no surprise, then, that research has long shown that a student’s performance in school, in terms of grades and tests, is unrelated to problem-solving ability.” It is interesting to consider this research alongside the popularity of Humongous Entertainment.
Games like Spy Fox and Pajama Sam are full of opportunities to learn information, but they also place a strong emphasis on dynamic problem solving. This gave kids like me the ability to solve Gilbert’s and the audience’s puzzles while also gaining the tools to overcome many similar but different problems in the future. It is far from the most rigid method, where there is only one correct, consistent methodology. It sounds simple, but it is difficult to quantify how beneficial this approach could be in early learning.
In the 90s and early 90s, digital educational games were everywhere. Even Nintendo made it possible to teach with Luigi’s globe-trotting antics in 1993’s much-maligned Mario is Missing. But despite this ocean of competition, Humongous thrived. The debate over how much fun it should be in an educational game, but the real competition was getting kids to play it. If you ask the adults who grew up during this heyday, it’s clear that this competition was won time and time again by Gilbert and team.
Mark and click for the next generation
The LucasArts point-and-clicks that Gilbert had worked on in the past weren’t exactly for adults, but they weren’t very suitable for children due to the presence of violence, niche references, and certain themes. By turning this genre into an educational format, Humongous opened the door for kids like me to also take part in these iconic adventures, learning valuable skills along the way.
According to Gilbert, part of the inspiration for the studio was watching a five-year-old play Monkey Island. The kid couldn’t read, so he had no idea about the game’s story, but he still had so much fun and spent hours exploring the world, opening doors, activating animations, and talking to characters. “Then I thought, well, maybe I should just make adventure games for kids. And not silly storybooks, but real adventure games with real puzzles and characters.” Gilbert said in a 2017 Google keynote. (opens in new tab)
Of course, this included retaining some mechanical features from the older point-and-clicks, such as chained puzzle systems. Chain puzzles require players to complete a series of smaller tasks that all lead to a major goal. Guybrush’s flowery disguise quest in the first act of Return to Monkey Island is a great recent example. For the amusement games, Gilbert chose the same idea, just with smaller chains to solve.
In Freddie Fish 2: The Case of the Haunted Schoolhouse, players come into conversation with a ragged eel in need of a meal. The eel is an obstacle to an item players need to progress, so of course sea snacks are in order, and in an area nearby, players can find a fishing line with a ‘Worm Doodle’ attached to a hook. As an adult, it’s easy to make that connection, but because the exploration was non-linear, kids had the opportunity to experience this eureka moment without someone looming over their shoulder, tapping their watch and asking for the answer . And let’s be clear, this may sound easy, but as someone who recently struggled for almost half an hour with the mosaic puzzle in Freddi Fish 2, I can attest that Humongous Entertainment games have the ability to confuse players of all ages.
Humongous Entertainment had an amazing run of hits before the studio’s unfortunate decline in the mid-2000s. Fortunately, these classics have been made available on modern systems up to the Nintendo Switch if you’re willing to give it a shot. They even work great on Valve’s Steam Deck with little effort. But for me, the nature of how they play is the real home run. Children with developing minds were given the opportunity to take control and explore their independence in the form of immersive problem-solving adventure games created with love. No doubt this was helpful. The kids who grew up playing them, myself included, will reap those benefits forever.
Searching the web, the profound impact of Humongous Games is easy to note, with many former players keen to recount their fond memories of Putt Putt and the gang. In the /r/PatientGamers subreddit, u/TrandaBear (opens in new tab) sends out an impassioned plea to parents who may have grown up with Humongous Entertainment games to introduce their children to the catalog. “The presentation hasn’t suffered, the voice acting is amazingly solid… the sound is crisp, the instructions/tips are clear, and the playtime is long enough to keep a toddler’s attention, keeps them going, but knows when to stop ,” they said. “I got an emphatic ‘again, again!’ stamp of approval.”