During my years designing Telltale games, I was continually impressed by the sheer doggedness of our fanbase. In our forums, players spoke of pulling all-nighters to puzzle-out particularly devilish challenges. So when entrepreneur Jonathan Dariyanani came to me with the idea of founding an edTech company, my mind naturally went to adventure games. Was there a way to harness the qualities that made these experiences so sticky, but apply them to learning?
Story was key. Telltale’s fans invested so much of themselves in our games because they identified with the characters and cared about their outcomes. We also built our games to encourage trial-and-error: making mistakes, and getting entertaining outcomes, was part of the fun. These principles would also guide the design process at Cognotion.
We decided to aim for a secondary-school market. We chose to steer clear of the STEM subjects, where the competition was fiercest, and concentrate instead on foreign language learning. Our first product would be a “learn Spanish” product called Too Many Tildes.
For practical reasons, we conceived it as an interactive video series. We did some research and chose Interlude Treehouse (now renamed Eko) as our platform.
The story would follow Jack, a young all-American Don Quixote, blessed with more heart than sense. When he falls for a beautiful Latina, he will do anything to prove his love for her–even learn Spanish. From this slender premise we spun a story that involved an art-school bully, a pair of globe-trotting sloths, a Mexican fighting rooster, an evil Colombian coffee baroness and El Diablo himself. As our hero careened from one misadventure to the next, he would periodically pause and implore the audience for help.
By making our protagonist a bit of a fool, we were casting our player in the role of tutor, under the theory that we learn best by teaching others. Of course, more mischievous players might make intentionally bad choices, just to watch Jack suffer the consequences. In any case, students were interacting with the Spanish language in a fun and immersive way.
I built the 24-episode series around a typical first-year vocabulary, working closely with teachers. My scripting tool was Final Draft, a leading screenplay software. Then I mapped out the branching logic in an Excel spreadsheet, breaking the script down into clips and tagging each with an identifier.
We shot the opening episodes of the series in New York City. Later episodes, which follow the main character on his “impossible quest,” took us to Colombia: we filmed in Cartegena, Medellin and the beautiful colonial town of Villa de Leyva. I directed the action with a great deal of assistance from talented American and Colombian cinematographers and crews. A small team of editors processed the footage in Final Cut, and we employed Treehouse’s flowchart-style interface to assemble them into episodes and layer in the UI for the “choice moments.” I also worked with subject matter experts to create an accompanying teachers’ guide and activity book.The entire production took about a year from conception to completion. It was a marathon effort, but thanks to our incredible producer Jo Schneier and a team of dedicated creative professionals the results exceeded my expectations. We piloted the program in several school districts, and student and teacher reactions were off-the-charts. Too Many Tildes subsequently won the Association of American Publishers Revere Award for Best Foreign Language Supplement.