When children do extraordinary things, we as a society tend to do one of two things: We either distance ourselves from them, thinking that too much distraction will keep them from becoming even greater, or we over-express their childlike qualities in an attempt to “humanize” them for a larger audience. I choose, personally, to lament that a child is doing more with their life at such a young age than I am as an adult, and then I tell everyone about it. I was given the opportunity to speak to one of these extraordinary children, and he happens to be a game developer.
Isaac Roland lives with his parents and 3 siblings here in the United States. He’s 8 years old, and has the special gift of Asperger’s (a condition noted for high intelligence and focus in some of the more technical areas). He learned how to program in only three months in the afternoons when he returned home from school; he also made his first game during this time. His father, Donnie Roland, is currently filling out the paperwork to have him recognized as the youngest game developer in the world with Guinness, and considering how many people are developing games these days, that’s a fairly big deal.
Isaac’s game, Jungle Crystal, is amazingly straightforward and not very flashy, but still enjoyable according to everyone I’ve asked to play it for their opinion. While you can play it online, it’s also available on the iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon mobile shops, as well as Chrome and Firefox (which uses the original website link), making it one of the most widely-available free mobile/browser games I’ve seen in quite some time. When I told these people the creator’s age, the reaction has been a unanimous, “Wow,” with the occasional, “…I don’t even remember what I was doing when I was eight,” and a single, “Well, I’d better step up my game” (it wasn’t me, though I obviously agree).
While initially very simple-looking, Jungle Crystal has secrets and puzzles through platforming that make it merely fun at first, with increasing difficulty. There are only 10 levels as of now, with more to come. The premise of the game is that you play as a protagonist (named Jack) who must navigate platforms while dodging enemies in order to retrieve one of 10 crystals (so far) hidden in the jungle. Platforms appear after triggering special “keys;” some move, while others disappear entirely. The timing of some of the enemy appearances is infuriatingly perfect, in terms of making you re-evaluate your next move. There are physical obstacles that are on par with some of the more “advanced” 2-D platformers on the market (Spelunky, I’m looking your way), in a package that looks, frankly, like…well, like a kid made it. That’s what makes this game so awesome: An 8-year-old was able to capture what makes a good platformer, and put that concept across in a simple package that translates across various gaming platforms.
Eighth Wonder Labs, the development company hosting Isaac’s game, is actually a family app business (you want to click that, trust me), and you can find other apps at the top of their webpage. As I mentioned, I recently spoke with Isaac about the making of this game. Donnie notes that Isaac’s foray into game development is his current means of expression, and that he’s been very excited about having a completed, playable game resulting from his own hard work, and delights in hearing how difficult people find the later levels (personally, I find level 8 to be very frustrating).
Isaac decided to learn how to program games because he loves playing them (particularly Minecraft), and as he puts it, he “wanted to have [his] own video games.” The game’s name comes from the background color being green like a jungle, and the goal being collecting crystals. His dad, Donnie, had a resource pack for characters that happened to look like ghosts, and Isaac, being one to work with what he has, decided that a ghost protagonist was perfectly fine. Donnie also spent time with Isaac teaching him how to code, but Isaac himself took the reigns when it came time to begin creation of Jungle Crystal. When speaking to Isaac, his pride is very apparent, despite him lacking the talkative nature that’s typical of children his age.
Now for the important question: Is Jungle Crystal worth downloading onto your mobile device, or spending time playing it in your browser? Put very simply, yes, even if only for curiosity. The controls consist of using the arrow keys to move (left, right) and jump (up), and that’s it. They’re responsive in that they will do exactly what you tell them to, and enthusiastically. If you hold down the jump button, you jump farther and higher; holding it down briefly results in a hop. While falling, you can control the direction of your fall by holding down the arrow keys, though in most levels this mechanic isn’t useful for much except weaving across the screen as you fall to your death.
Graphically, as I’ve mentioned, this game isn’t complicated. The way it works, however, is consistent in all levels. There are platforms you can jump up through, and platforms that are rigid all the way around. Keys will always unlock a new platform for you to stand on, and those platforms don’t disappear. Death occurs when you touch an enemy or fall, and the death graphic (Jack spins around and then falls) made me laugh out loud when I first saw it. Jungle Crystal is not a demanding game in terms of processing power, and the timer in the corner presents a personal challenge to improve each time you play it.
There is no game sound as of yet (I just continued listening to my personal music), and this may bother some people who rely on sound to guide them a bit as to whether actions are going through (see: jumping noises; hitting un-passable walls), but hopefully that will be something that is added in the future. I wasn’t bothered by it, but I can definitely see how it could be a desirable feature.
Overall, with no other considerations, Jungle Crystal is one of those simple games that you may see in a jam, were it to have been designed by your usual brand of game developer. It’s a good effort, especially if it had been made in 48 hours. Considering the source, however, Jungle Crystal is a phenomenal first effort by someone who may have otherwise been dismissed out-of-hand due to his disability, had he tried to reach out to others online for help. Isaac is a shining example not only of what children with Asperger’s are capable of, but also of what people can do when given opportunity and encouragement by those around them. If there’s a phrase I would associate with Isaac, it would be “Don’t dream it – be it.” In fact, he’s already programming his next game: a turret-based tower defense.
Isaac is looking for feedback! If you play his game, be sure to click the comment box in the lower left in the browser version, or use the ratings system in the app store of your choice. Donnie has also posted in our forums, so feel free to comment there, as well. Please keep it clean – Isaac is, after all, only 8 years old.
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