That’s Edutainment: Putt-Putt Joins the Parade

Welcome back to That’s Edutainment, which looks at educational video games of the past and considers whether they hold up today, focusing on their development and on the relationship between education and entertainment. Previous entries can be found here.

Today marks the first article in this column about an edutainment game from the 1990s, and, fittingly enough, it’s about one of the earliest titles from that era: Putt-Putt Joins the Parade, released by Humongous Entertainment in 1992. Joins the Parade is not only one of the most beloved edutainment games released in the Nineties – it’s one of the most groundbreaking as well, born of both years of experience and a desire to change the face of educational software. All visual sources, including the header, are from MobyGames unless otherwise cited.


Introduction

The story of Putt-Putt Joins the Parade is also the story of Humongous Entertainment, founded in late October of 1992 by producer Shelley Day and designer/programmer Ron Gilbert. Both had recently left their jobs at LucasArts (previously known as Lucasfilm Games), the studio created by Star Wars director George Lucas in 1982 as a branch of his main company, Lucasfilm. Over the next few years, LucasArts quickly amassed critical and commercial acclaim for its varied roster of innovative titles, the first of which was the 1984 sports game Ballblazer, and eventually moved towards influential point-and-click adventures, including Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island (more on that in a bit).

Shelley Day (year unknown). Credit: MobyGames

LucasArts was neither Day nor Gilbert’s first experience in the video game industry. After graduating with a degree in television and radio broadcasting from the University of San Francisco, Day begun her career at Electronic Arts in 1984 as a producer — the only woman in a group of sixty producers. She also worked at the San Jose-based developer/publisher Accolade (which would later become Infogrames and acquire Humongous Entertainment) and Taito, a toy and video game company perhaps best known for publishing Space Invaders.

Ron Gilbert in 1991. Credit: MobyGames

Gilbert’s career began a year earlier in 1983 when he co-created the Commodore 64 program Graphics BASIC, which he made with Tom McFarlane, a fellow student at Eastern Oregon State College in La Grande, Oregon. The two sold the program to HESware, a home software developer/publisher in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Gilbert was hired by the company not long after. HESware folded half a year later; not long after, Gilbert joined LucasArts.

The LucasArts logo first used in 1991. Credit: MobyGames

While at LucasArts, Gilbert co-designed and programmed several of its earliest point-and-click adventure titles, including the aforementioned Maniac Mansion, published in 1985, and Secret of Monkey Island, released in 1990. Gilbert also co-created SCUMM, or ‘Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion’, a game engine/programming language intended to replace the parser-based commands of older adventure games, allow for the development of more complex titles, and make the design process for point-and-click adventures simpler. The engine was created by Gilbert; Brad Taylor, who would later join the Humongous Entertainment team; and Aric Wilmunder, who would stay at LucasArts to contribute to many of its subsequent titles.

A screen from Maniac Mansion with SCUMM’s verb-object commands. Credit: Wikimedia

Day and Gilbert’s genesis for what would become Humongous Entertainment was inspired by The Secret of Monkey Island, but not in a way one might expect. As Gilbert recalls:

The whole idea for making the adventure games for kids at Humongous Entertainment came from my watching Shelley Day’s son play Monkey Island. … He couldn’t really read yet, so he had no idea what was happening – this was before voice, so there was just a bunch of text flashing on the screen… He just loved walking around the world, clicking the “open” verb and watching the doors open. He was probably making up this entire story in his head for what was going on, and it got me thinking, “What if I built adventure games specifically for him?”

These adventure games would also feature less complex puzzles than LucasArts titles — “not dumbed-down, but just simplified so kids could deal with them.”

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A screen from Secret of Monkey Island. Note all the doors. Credit: MobyGames

The plan was originally merely to make adventure games for children; the educational aspect of Humongous Entertainment’s titles came afterwards. Gilbert was dissatisfied with the quality of educational games then available on the market — specifically, Broderbund’s Living Books series of interactive read-along adventures, first published in 1992: “I remember looking at them and seeing how bad they were. They were trying to be a game, but they were not more than a book and you could click on things.”

A screen from the first Living Book, Just Grandma and Me. Credit: Living Books Wiki

The name for Day and Gilbert’s new company was suggested by their LucasArts coworker Tim Schafer, who co-designed The Secret of Monkey Island with Gilbert and would later create such influential point-and-click titles as Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. Gilbert later recalled, “it was a very conscious decision to name the company Humongous Entertainment rather than Humongous Games, because we wanted to remember to be an entertainment company first, even though we only ever made games.”

Humongous Entertainment’s first logo, introduced in 1992. Credit: Logopedia

With a tiny staff of six and $100,000 in their pockets from a private investor, Day and Gilbert were ready to found their own studio. Day became the President and CEO, and Gilbert its Artistic Director. All they needed was a memorable character for their first release — and, as luck would have it, Day already had one in mind.


How Putt-Putt Joined the Parade

Around the same time as Day and Gilbert founded Humongous Entertainment, Day had been telling her five-year-old son bedtime stories about a talking car named Putt-Putt. (The earliest of these stories involved Putt-Putt rescuing a cat from a tree.) The cheerful purple automobile soon became the protagonist of his own title, Putt-Putt Joins the Parade.

The original box art for Joins the Parade. Credit: MobyGames

Joins the Parade was first released for MS-DOS in late 1992 (sources differ regarding whether the title was released in November or December that year). The game truly was a labour of love, with Day and Gilbert working as designers on the project in addition to their corporate roles.

The duo were joined by a group consisting of both LucasArts alumni and up-and-coming talent. Programmers Brad Taylor (as previously mentioned, a co-developer of SCUMM), Bret Barrett, and Tami Borowick had all worked with Gilbert on the 1991 Secret of Monkey Island sequel LeChuck’s Revenge. Newer faces included writer-designers Annie Fox and Laurie Rose Bauman, who had worked together on the 1991 adventure game Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, one of the earliest titles of its kind to use full-motion video. (Fox was also a co-author of the influential 1982 programming textbook Armchair Basic.) Animator Brad Carlton and audio engineer Tom McGurk would soon become some of Humongous’s most recognizable contributors.

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Joins the Parade‘s title screen.
Credit: MobyGames

Perhaps because of this mix of industry expertise and fresh new perspectives, Joins the Parade is at once a deeply assured and breezily revolutionary debut title, combining reverence for established traditions and a desire to push the limits of what was expected from educational software.

In Joins the Parade, Putt-Putt needs three things to participate in Cartown’s annual parade: a balloon, a pet, and getting his car washed, an overall three-task structure familiar to anyone who had played an adventure game in the past decade. To accomplish these tasks, he needs to interact with the town’s lively inhabitants, engage in some basic quests, and explore the city outskirts to find Pep, the adorable brown dog who joins Putt-Putt on all of his subsequent adventures.

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Smokey the Fire Engine, who gives Putt-Putt advice, would become a mainstay of the series. Credit: MobyGames

Like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, Joins the Parade was built on the SCUMM engine, which Gilbert brought with him to his new studio, under certain conditions: “The deal that I arranged with [LucasArts] is that I could continue to use and work on the SCUMM engine, but any changes I made would flow back to Lucasfilm. I would continue to work with Aric developing the SCUMM system for both companies, and in exchange I got a license to continue using the engine.” Unlike its predecessors, however, Joins the Parade took the SCUMM engine in an entirely new direction not seen before in adventure gaming.

The typical verb system at the bottom of the screen was replaced by a more immersive feature: Putt-Putt’s dashboard, a fully-interactive inventory that also included a car radio and steering wheel. All of these features are used to solve puzzles, whether it’s playing music for a marching band of mice or honking the horn to alert a nearby tow truck when Putt-Putt gets a flat tire.

In the game’s first puzzle, Putt-Putt must honk his horn to move a cow off the road. Credit: Play DOS Games

While the premise was simple, the actual gameplay built upon the interactive environments and puzzles Gilbert had created for LucasArts titles – and while they were redesigned to be accessible to children, Humongous was very specific in what they did and didn’t want their games to be. As Gilbert notes:

I didn’t just want to build games for kids, lots of people were building games for kids. I wanted to make adventure games for kids, because they’re very story- and character-centric. There’s a lot of puzzle solving going on, but they’re not overtly educational. We didn’t want to teach kids to read or to do math. We wanted to just teach them to solve puzzles and use their brains. And we didn’t just want to build games for kids, but we also wanted to build games that parents would enjoy playing. 

Joins the Parade quickly distinguished itself from other edutainment games on the market, not only through its adventure game-inspired mechanics but through its fully-voiced cast of characters led by child actor Jason Ellefson in the role of Putt-Putt. If kids weren’t interested in solving puzzles, ‘click points’ on each screen provided entertaining and often complex animations. The overall atmosphere is cheery but never ingratiating, friendly but never condescending, exemplified by composer Tom McMail’s instantly memorable score.

Joins the Parade is surprisingly non-linear for a children’s game (let alone an educational title) at the time of its release – the player can complete their objectives in nearly any order and is never shepherded from one location to another. Most notably, several aspects of gameplay were randomized at the start of each playthrough; this incentive for replayability would become a hallmark of Humongous Entertainment adventure titles.


Conclusion

As previously noted, the goal of Humongous Entertainment starting out wasn’t to make games for children grounded in curriculum-based learning, but focus on other educational qualities. While Gilbert and Day might have set out to create a game based more on entertainment, Joins the Parade is nonetheless quite educational, teaching players critical thinking, basic memorization, and even money management. (The 1995 re-release box art further proclaims that the game teaches children “the value of doing a good deed.”)

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By earning more money than needed, the player can repaint Putt-Putt in a variety of colours. Credit: MobyGames

Nothing was quite like Joins the Parade when it debuted – and, as we’ll see in future articles on Humongous Entertainment games, subsequent titles released by the studio similarly defied stereotypes previously associated with educational software, and set the tone for edutainment in the 1990s.

Join us next time as we take a look at the surprisingly complex story behind one of the Nineties’ most idiosyncratic educational titles: 1992’s Mario Teaches Typing. See you then!