Down the Virtual Rabbit Hole

Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

What game worlds should you be exploring with your kids in 2015?

When I was growing up, my favourite game to watch my father play was Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey. It was a delightfully twisted exploration of an alien world that looked like a sewage system inside a Soviet prison facility. Having watched this weird and wonderful world unfold as a child, modern action franchises appear cliché by comparison.

Game developers are now striving to recapture the old-school elements of exploration and discovery that have been lacking in recent years. Such games have the potential to capture the imaginations of both children and their parents. Studies increasingly show that video games help parents bond with their children when the experience is shared; not to mention that leaps in technology and art direction are making these experiences more immersive than ever.

Below are just a few ideas for upcoming games to play with your children this year, each with an emphasis on adventure that the whole family can enjoy.

No Man’s Sky – (PS4, PC)

If your child has ever proclaimed the good old “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up”, then you definitely want to keep a look-out for No Man’s Sky on the PS4, UK-based developer Hello Games’ attempt at bringing the fantasy of space exploration to life. You and your child can build a spaceship and fly it across an entire galaxy, with complete freedom to land on any one of literally billions of planets and explore on foot together, tracking all kinds of alien life in the process.

The opportunities for spontaneous moments of shared awe and genuine wonder are palpable, not to mention the thinly-veiled science lessons your child could get. Laws of planetary physics and biology are all expressed in the dynamic universe as your children witness these phenomena in action. You could be watching a sunset from a dense jungle vista, then hop in a spaceship and show your child the same planet actually rotating around the sun from afar.

Legend of Zelda – (Wii U)

Legend of Zelda has long evoked pangs of reverent nostalgia in grownups and kids alike. The charm of this series has always been in exploring the Kingdom of Hyrule, a land of magical forests, sprawling deserts and a bunch of colourful critters with which to interact.

Curiosity is routinely rewarded in the Zelda franchise. Besides saving princesses and stomping out villainous fiends, the series is beloved by fans for its deep interwoven lore that unites every iteration into a much greater whole, resulting in a world that feels alive and ready for both new and old visitors. This new instalment will up the ante for exploration with a wide open game world begging to have its secrets uncovered.

Splatoon – (Wii U) 

Got a promising young artist in the house? Another Wii U exclusive called Splatoon plays like Art Therapy meets Call of Duty, with viscous spurts of paint fired instead of bullets. You and your child can team up or face off in a frenzy of paint-fuelled mayhem, the chief objective being to dominate the map with your own-coloured gloop.

Towns, factories and all manner of settings act as canvases, the end result being a work of spontaneous artwork that your child has a key role in creating. The adversarial structure encourages good-hearted competition without all the violent excesses of modern action games. This could be great fun for when the dreary British weather curtails those summertime water fights.

Star Wars Battlefront – (PC, Xbox One, PS4)

Lightsabers. R2-D2. Obi-Wan. Star Wars once captured the hearts of a generation and to say the fantasy has stood the test of time is an understatement. For some, it’s the idea of walking the Jedi’s path. For the little villain in all of us, going over to the dark side holds a mystical temptation. In this sense, Battlefront appears to be a form of wish fulfilment.

Swedish Developer DICE know how to make shooting games, but Battlefront is so much more. Each map is a meticulously realised version of its original film counterpart, with a dimension of scale and verticality that brings these exotic warzones to life. The team’s dedication to the source material is inspiring whether you’re a fan boy or a first-timer. With Episode VII coming to theatres soon, 2015 is the perfect time to re-invest in the Star Wars canon with your child along for the ride. They might even get the reference when you yell “Don’t get cocky, kid” over the sound of deep space laser fire. Maybe.

Immersion = Learning

Of course, these are but a few examples of the brave new virtual worlds for 2015 that will have parents and children exploring together. Researchers from Arizona State University claim that “video games are meant to be shared and can teach young people about science, literacy and problem solving. Gaming with their children offers parents countless ways to insert their own ‘teaching moment’.”

Rather than relegating the educational value of video games to government-funded ‘edutainment’ sources, it’s liberating to view any game that invents an immersive world and encourages active participation as a platform for parent and child to enjoy together. In this state of joint immersion, “teaching moments” can arise naturally.

Whilst imaginary planets and digital globs of paint are no substitute for physical activity and outdoor play, they have benefits all their own and with 2015 set to be a digital renaissance of sorts, now is the perfect time to pick up the controllers and let out your inner child.