“This is never going to work!” or “Do you have any idea what you’re comparing yourself with?” It’s but a couple of the initial reactions when our proud member Linguineo pitched their serious game Language Hero as “The Legend of Zelda of language games.” A bold claim for sure, but also one that’s testament to the limitless ambition that drives founder Steffen Luypaert and his team.
A couple of years, some serious VAF-funding, and a complete playthrough of Breath of the Wild later, he understands where those comments were coming from. “Early feedback warned us of the difficulty of combining an open world with educational goals. They told us to drop those parts.” Still, convinced that serious and educational games need to be fun, the team went ahead and tested a prototype where players could move around freely to smash the correct words with their sword. “Those playtests quickly showed that approach wasn’t going to work. Children were running all over the place, actively avoiding the words. Having fun is one thing, but at the end of the day we still want you to learn something here.”
But even with Zelda out of the window, Language Hero remains an educational game like no other. Driven by advanced chatbot technology, the player progresses the story by engaging in conversation with various characters. In the main storyline you play a little owl that’s lost his family during a thunderstorm. Before you can set out to find them, you’ll need to take care of your injured wing. Simply using your voice to play this character feels a bit magical and draws you into the story. But don’t take our word for it, just go and play the free beta version (link in Dutch).
Next to the conversation scenes, there’s the aforementioned action sequences, which are now on rails. The team will also add point-and-click interfaces where you get to explore a little and learn more about the world. The current beta can be used to learn French and English, but Dutch and Spanish will be added when the game launches sometime next year. “We’ve essentially soft launched through the beta, but will gradually scale that up. There’s no way we want to launch our game before all the friction has been eliminated.”, according to Luypaert.
Striking the balance between fun and educational remains the biggest challenge for this project and the beta feedback provides valuable data to navigate that tightrope. “We noticed a lot of players stopped playing when they reached the scene with the slugs. Turns out this conversation was primarily written by pedagogues instead of our narrative designer, who pushed back heavily against the initial set-up of the scene.” If it wasn’t clear already: Language Hero isn’t a gamified language app, it’s a full-blown game.
While the main story is good at teaching basic conversation skills, there’s very little chance you’ll ever need to track down your own family after losing them in a thunderstorm. Nor will a host of friendly animals help you out. However, the technology can also be used to create special applications. “We’re currently testing a special module aimed at office management students, that’s focused less on story and more on practical situations and specific terminology.” There’s also a taste of that in the main story where we can learn about a strange, contagious disease that makes people very ill. That’s why it’s important to keep your distance and regularly wash your hands. Mmm, what COVID that be?
People say this rather quickly, but there’s really nothing like Language Hero out there at the moment. “That scares us a little. Why isn’t there anything like this?” Why is it so hard to find a defining serious game? People always point to Minecraft, but that’s essentially an entertainment game.” Here’s hoping that Language Hero is able to carve a path for itself and keep building on what’s already a very promising foundation. With or without Master Sword.