We hear a lot of justifiable complaints about how gaming’s substantial female audience tends to be overlooked. That’s not to suggest girls don’t like first-person shooters, action games, RPGs and the rest of ’em, but it’s rare to find a title that’s tailored for girls that doesn’t have something to do with princesses, fashion, horses, Dora the Explorer, or all four.
It’s therefore exciting to get a crack at School 26, the debut project from the ladies who head Silicon Sisters Interactive in Vancouver. There’s no such thing as a checklist of features that need to be present in a “girls’ game,” but School 26 scores major points for engaging its target audience without talking down to it.
School 26 was formulated with a young female audience in mind, so it’s a bit heavier on story than it is on combat. Kate (you can change her name) is a teen who has difficulty making friends because her parents are spiritual healers who are struck often by wanderlust. Kate, who has been shuffled to no fewer than 25 schools in her short life, just wants to settle down. She aims to make “School 26” her last stop. Kate’s parents agree that if their daughter can make some bosom buddies, she can stay.
Where are you head-ed?
Kate begins the term, and right off the bat she falls into some Degrassi-level high school drama. The handful of peers who immediately make her acquaintance become entangled in a web of conflict, and the term takes a bad turn. True to life, some of the students’ problems are superficial matters like dresses and proms, but School 26’s story goes admirably deep to deal with issues like alcoholism, poverty, drug abuse and homosexuality.
Kate, having a touch of fey heritage, can calm down or inspire her peers as they go through their tough times. This is where School 26’s game mechanics kick in. Kate can respond to other students’ declarations using mood icons lined up at the bottom of the screen. If Kate empathizes with a character, they warm up to her. If one or more characters are feeling especially bad, Kate can play a Tarot-style game to improve the mood. By flipping cards to hit a certain score, Kate can lift that character’s spirits.
In turn, Kate’s peers come to trust and confide in her, and with any luck, she’ll make friends and have a reason to stick around at the end of the school year. Otherwise, she pulls a Carrie on Prom Night. Kidding. But if Kate fails to make an impression, the game does indeed end on a sad note.
The cards say you will find love when you comb your hair.
School 26’s story is very engaging, though maybe a bit serious for its adorable anime-style characters. The card-driven gameplay is fun, too. There is, however, one major flaw with the game: The story pretty much goes in one direction (not to mention that the term goes by blindingly fast; you can finish in a few hours). This is a problem because Kate is involved in all the characters’ problems and seemingly becomes close to them, but can still wind up with “no real friends.”
To win, Kate needs to empathize with characters at the right time and build their confidence in her via the card games, but this presents another problem: It doesn’t allow you the freedom to respond to the characters in the way that you want to respond. For instance, there is one character named Ryan who hits on Kate with purposefully bad pick-up lines. If that’s not something you’d be comfortable with in real life, you’re likely to react negatively in the game– but then you won’t build up much of a friendship with Ryan, thus putting you at a disadvantage.
And yet, School 26’s shortcomings aren’t too discouraging because it’s a fun game to play through at least once. The game is certainly enough to make us look forward to the future girl-focused projects that come from Silicon Sisters Interactive.