Video games are for having fun. They're for escaping. They're for pretending to be somebody you're not, for machine-gunning through alien mines or hopping between cartoon chasms. They're for zombie shooting and portal opening and cube collecting.
But sometimes they're something else. Sometimes, as ten-year-old Dylan Viale has already discovered, video games are for sharing part of your life with somebody you love.
Dylan is a fifth-grader at Hidden Valley Elementary in Martinez, California. Like most fifth-graders, he loves video games. Unlike most fifth-graders, he figured out how to make one. Using the free starter version of a game design application called GameMaker, Dylan learned how to program, design, and even build rudimentary prototypes to make his own computer game.
He designed it all for his grandmother, Sherry, with whom he shares a special bond. The two spend a lot of time walking dogs, going to the movies, and barbecuing with the family. Recently, Sherry took Dylan and his brother out to a Lego event in San Francisco where they all helped build a giant Lego Yoda Santa.
But Sherry has been blind for decades. Without sight, she doesn't get a lot out of Dylan's favorite pastime: playing video games. She can't enjoy the titles he loves like Need for Speed and Plants vs. Zombies. So he decided to make a new game. Just for her.
"[Dylan] wanted to figure out a way that he could share his love for video games with her," Dylan's father, Dino Viale, told me in a phone interview. "He thought, 'How can I create something she can enjoy?'"
So he downloaded GameMaker and started grinding through its tutorials. He read about basic design concepts, learning the ideas behind terms like objects and sprites. He figured out how to create a world that people could play in.
Scrawling layouts and designs on notebooks during his free time, Dylan came up with Quacky's Quest, a game that puts you in the waddling shoes of an oddly-proportioned duck. Quacky was sort of a Viale family inside joke. Dino came up with the cartoon years ago, when he was in elementary school, and has spent decades using the goofy illustration to add his own personal touch to letters and notes. For Dylan, the duck was inheritance.
As Quacky, your goal would be to weave through a series of mazes and find a primitive MacGuffin called the Golden Egg. Dylan decided that maze-crawling would be the best way for a blind person to feel challenged without getting too overwhelmed by a fast pace or indecipherable mechanics. And he realized that without visuals, the sound design would have to be impeccable.
"Sound was the greatest tool for [Dylan's] grandmother to navigate through the game," Dino said. "He had to figure out how to associate each move through the maze with sound cues for whether you were doing something correctly or incorrectly."
The solution was to use collectible objects not unlike Pac-Man's pellets. Dylan sprinkled diamonds across each correct pathway, then set up a script so collecting each shiny jewel would play a "cha-ching" sound. If you made contact with a wall, you'd hear a deep, unpleasant noise.
To spice things up a bit, Dylan also added spiders. Go the wrong way down one passage, and you'd start hearing nasty spider noises as they crawled under your feet. Go too far and you'd set off dynamite. Boom.
Then, like all video game developers, Dylan faced his biggest challenge yet: other people. He brought the game to his grandmother for playtesting, and found that it had a serious flaw. Once she collected the diamonds, she had no more point of reference. If she got confused in the maze and started getting lost, she would have no way of knowing when she was accidentally backtracking.
"It's much different when you're looking at it," Dino said. "Silence was her enemy. She had no idea what Quacky was doing."
Baffled, Dylan took to the GameMaker message boards to ask for help. He browsed through FAQs and blogs and flipped through endless questions and answers until he finally figured out a solution. He would set up scripts to drop boulders behind Quacky as he progressed through each maze.
"If you tried to go backwards, it would make the negative sound of hitting a boulder or a wall," Dino said. "Once that happened, [Sherry] was really able to fly through the maze quite quickly."
After a month of development, Dylan finished Quacky's Quest. He put it through rigorous playtesting using family and friends as subjects. And he entered it in the Hidden Valley Elementary School science fair.
It won first place.
"This kinda opened up Dylan's eyes to the possibility [of becoming a game designer]," Dino said. "Of course, he's always said he wants to be a policeman or construction worker or garbage truck driver... I'm really emphasizing the fact that he should definitely look into it and see if he enjoys it as much as he has so far."
What was particularly interesting about Quacky's Quest, Dino notes, is that the people who scored best were people who had never played video games before. Experienced gamers couldn't finish the mazes nearly as quickly.
"They weren't as in touch with the sound," he said. "They didn't rely on the sound as much as a blind person would, or even a person who wasn't familiar with gaming."
Still, everybody wants to play it. Since the science fair, Dino says Dylan's friends and classmates have been pestering him non-stop for copies of the game. So Dino gave his son a stackful of discs and let him print Quacky's Quest to hand out to everyone at school. They can't see a thing in the game, but that's part of the charm. It's part of the experience. No matter who you are or how well you can see, you have to play Quacky's Quest the same way. Maybe that's what makes it special.