Riddle of the Sphinx

I can remember when I was a kid that we'd sometimes do a recreational activity in the evening, as a family. Maybe it was a board game like Snakes and Ladders (Shutes and Ladders to all the Americans reading this) or Monopoly. Maybe a game of cards or Chinese Checkers. Something that all the family could enjoy.

Our current such activity with Duncan is to play the computer adventure game Riddle of the Sphinx". We got it at the last Los Altos library "book" sale for $3. It was published about 2000-2001. We have an old Windows 98 machine (Pentium II) that we keep around for games like this (and for a old HP laser printer that has a parallel interface and doesn't seem to have appropriate Windows XP drivers).

We loaded the game up last week, and we've been spending an hour each night playing it together. There are spoilers ahead, so if that's a problem stop now.

Here's a helpful hint. If you have small children, spending a lot of time exploring every single option and potential clue bores 'em rigid. Just get to the exciting things. We are using a walk-through so that we just have to do the essential bits, and the bits that provide interesting feedback. For this game, this is doubly important as there is an inordinate amount of redundant items that you could potentially waste a lot of time on. Lots of things are very unintuitive too. It's also had mixed reviews [1] [2] [3]

So Dad is the pixel pusher. Mum is the walk-through monitor (on another screen on another PC alongside where we are playing the game). Duncan is just there, grokking the fullness and giving us lots of suggestions on what to do next. Now I don't know whether it's because by the end of the day I'm just tired or it's his young eyes or what, but he's seeing things that both my wife and I are missing, which is great. He's also excited by the whole puzzle solving aspect of the game. A skill which will no doubt be useful elsewhere in life.

One thing I get a chuckle out of is when he shows astonishment at something which seems so natural to me. "How'd you do that!" he exclaims. A couple of examples. Near the beginning of the game, we are in the tent of Gil the archaeologist. There is an audio cassette there. I picked it up, opened up the cassette player, put the tape in, closed the lid and pressed the play button. (All with a few mouse clicks). All the sort of actions you'd do with the real objects. There was a similar situation with striking a match from a book of matches and lighting a candle. Now that Duncan realises that the computer world mimics the real world he's not so surprised and is starting to pick up on what sort of things you can do with each object. This is great to watch. HCI designers really should work with kids when they are designing software. If kids "get it" and can easily use it, there is hope for the rest of us.

Having said that, the game is still a little frustrating at times. The pointy hand cursor for turning 90 degrees and 180 degrees are remarkably similar so it's very easy to get disoriented. I'm also glad we've got the walk-through. For example,

"Looking down you will see it is too far to jump but wait a while and the crocodiles form a bridge for you."

Oh yeah. I'd have certainly got that one on my own. There is another time where we have to break open a nice looking pot to get a key. As Duncan put it, "so we have to smash lost art to do this?" I agree. It wasn't obvious. It didn't seem to be what an archaeologist would do.

We are currently about half way through the game. The game technology is a little dated now. There's nothing that's made me go wow! like the first time I played Myst when it had just come out. But for a seven year old, there are lots of things that keep him enthralled. We'll probably try some other similar games after this one. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

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