School 26 Hands-On Preview

School 26, one of the most interesting and unique games we played at GDC 2011, just got a new trailer (available below) and an April 21 release date. If you know a teenager who could work on their interpersonal skills, this is the game to get. Chatting at the lockers has never been more fun.

We’ve seen a lot of quality games at GDC this week, including shooters, racers, and puzzle games. But none of them quite has the same creative spark as School 26, an upcoming iPhone and iPad game geared towards teenage and pre-teen girls. But really, School 26 is for anyone who wants to become a better communicator. In this game, empathy is your main tool, resulting in an incredibly unique storytelling experience.

In School 26, you play as Kate, a teenager who has been to 25 different high schools because her hippy-dippy faith healer parents keep getting run out of town. Kate’s parents tell her that if she makes lasting friendships at school, they’ll settle down permanently. Your goal is to befriend seven different kids by helping them work through their personal (and interpersonal) problems.

Unlike Surviving High School, School 26 is a game developed by women, and the characters’ problems are settled by listening and reacting. You start by taking a quest at your locker, through a crystal ball (Kate’s parents’ mysticism has apparently rubbed off on her). In the quest we played, a flirty girl named Isabella was upset that she’s developed a bad reputation for taking her best friend’s boyfriend to a dance.

When Kate sees Isabella in the girls’ bathroom, Isabella is visibly upset. You then have nine different expressions for Kate to wear, including joy, sadness, rage, and mirth. Your goal is to empathize with the other characters, so we switched Kate’s expression to match Isabella’s, which urged her to continue telling us her story. You don’t want to laugh when someone’s upset, so this game encourages you to pay attention to other characters’ expression and guess at an appropriate response.

When Kate shared Isabella’s mood, a story came spilling out: Her best friend’s boyfriends put the moves on her, and they fooled around, but it was awkward and she now has to deal with the fallout from her best friend. The game’s developer told us that School 26 won’t shy away from issues like teen sex, but that it tries to approach them in realistic and respectful ways.

Eventually, we got Isabella through her blues. The scene ends with you playing a ‘tarot card’ minigame, where you have to get a high score by swapping out cards for new ones from the deck. Successfully completing this minigame cheered up Isabella, and when we got back to our locker, we had established the start of a friendship. There was even a virtual text message from Isabella, thanking us for being there when she needed someone to talk to.

We have to applaud the developer Silicon Sisters for attempting to make a videogame that really captures interpersonal relationships, so that not everything in a game has to be settled at the barrel of a gun. Even the name of the company, Silicon Sisters, is meant to reclaim silicon for women as a term for computers and technology, instead of just being associated with breast implants.

School 26 is designed for teen and pre-teen girls, but in a videogame industry filled with explosions and geysers of blood, it’s got a very powerful concept that could potentially appeal to anyone. We can’t wait to play more of it. School 26 will be available on the App Store in early spring.