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 articles can be found here.
Today, we’re looking at Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds, the 1994 point-and-click adventure released by Humongous Entertainment. It’s the title that launched the studio’s career, introduced a brand-new art style for the company, and challenged gendered notions of protagonists at the time of its release. This article’s header image is from MobyGames; all other resources are cited throughout. Let’s dive in.
In 1993, Humongous Entertainment was still far from becoming one of the most recognizable and successful edutainment companies of the 1990s. The studio had only five titles to its name, most of which featured the company’s flagship mascot Putt-Putt, and similar pixellated graphics as the titles created by Humongous founders Shelley Day and Ron Gilbert during their previous work at LucasArts.
The team was already working on their next game, an undersea adventure starring a brand-new character, which was to feature a similar art style — until everything changed. In mid-1993, Gilbert attended a conference, where he saw a title that would change the direction of not only their current project, but Humongous’s entire output. As Gilbert recounted at his 2013 PAX Australia keynote address presentation:
About halfway through the production of Freddi Fish, I went to this conference, and I saw a talk given by someone from another game company, and he was making games for kids. … The guy giving the talk showed some of the art, and how it was all hand-drawn on paper, and then it was scanned in like traditional film animation. And it was stunning, and it had a completely different feel to it. … I had never seen a game do this before, not for kids or adults. … In one instant, everything we were doing seemed old and dated.
That game was Tuneland, a 1993 music-themed educational title by Dallas-based developer 7th Level, starring Howie Mandel as an animated bear named Lil’ Howie. Tuneland had an impressive creative team; the game was developed by Pink Floyd and Supertramp collaborator Scott Page and included contributions from David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Jon Anderson of Yes, and Jeff Baxter of the Doobie Brothers. The title would later garner a rave review from Computer Gaming World magazine and was lauded by PC Magazine, the Film Advisory Board, and Entertainment Weekly.
It became clear to Gilbert that a radically different aesthetic approach was needed for Humongous’s new project:
I gathered up all the artists, and I told them what I had seen, and I asked them if they thought we could do the same thing. None of them had any classic training in animation, but they jumped on it. It’s like we did a few tests, and they looked absolutely amazing. At this point, we scrapped all of the art in the game and completely started over. We kept the design and the story and the script, but every piece of art was scrapped, from animation to backgrounds, and we completely started over. We wrote all-new tools for dealing with the art, and completely revamped our engine.
The Humongous artists were joined by animator, character designer and storyboard artist Louis Scarborough Jr., who lent his expertise working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, and The Smurfs; Kelp Seeds remains his sole video game credit.
The change in art style was accompanied by another crucial step, not only for Humongous Entertainment but perhaps for the gaming industry as a whole: it was decided that Freddi, who had been a male character early in development, should be a female protagonist instead. This choice was made by Kelp Seeds co-designer Tami Borowick, who “wanted to upend” the “very persistent feeling in the game industry that girls would play boy characters but boys would not play girl characters.”
In the process, Borowick challenged preconceived notions about female video game characters. At this point in video game history, female leads or major characters who weren’t ‘weak and feeble’ were relatively scarce:
When Borowick asked the script writer to “change every he to she and every him to her,” the writer added in new dialogue, making Freddi say things like, “oh, that’s too hard to do” when she was confronted with a difficult puzzle. Borowick pushed back, redacting the added dialogue that undercut her character. “That was normal for the time,” Borowick said. “If you’re going to change somebody to a girl, she suddenly becomes weak and feeble.”
The headstrong, resourceful and compassionate Freddi is far from “weak and feeble”. Kelp Seeds is very much her own adventure, anchored by an immediately memorable vocal performance by Annette Toutonghi, who would go on to voice Freddi in all her subsequent adventures and later voice Penelope in the Sly Cooper franchise.
Freddi’s quippy best friend Luther, voiced by Mike McAuliffe, serves as her sidekick, offering comic relief and occasional assistance with puzzles. (McAuliffe worked at, and would later co-own, Humongous’s usual recording studio Bad Animals. Music fans might recognize Bad Animals, founded by Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart in 1991, as the recording space for landmark albums by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and R.E.M.) The rest of the cast is full of quirky characters in brightly colourful tones that stand out against the game’s gorgeously-drawn backgrounds.
Kelp Seeds combines the traditional puzzle-solving formula of classic adventure games with the structure of a treasure hunt. Grandma Grouper’s treasure chest, filled with kelp seeds that provide sustenance for the entire ocean, has gone missing, and the clues to its location are inside glass bottles, scattered throughout the ocean. During their quest, Freddi and Luther are pursued by Boss and Spongehead, two sharks employed by the villainous Squidfather, who wants the kelp seeds for himself.
In a first for Humongous, the locations Freddi and Luther visit are randomized each playthrough; certain items and characters are exclusive to specific gameplay paths. The studio had lightly experimented with this mechanic in previous titles, but Kelp Seeds marked the first proper implementation of what would become a hallmark of their adventure games.
Of course, no Humongous adventure game would be complete without its music, and Kelp Seeds boasts one of the studio’s all-time greatest soundtracks, composed by veteran game composer George Sanger. Sanger’s credits stretch back to Atari games in the mid-1980s and include the music for iconic adventure titles such as Loom and The 7th Guest; while his first soundtrack for Humongous accompanied 1993’s Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon, his work on Kelp Seeds is arguably his first truly iconic music composed for the studio.
Sanger’s music for Kelp Seeds features several suites, including the nine-minute track “Detectives,” whose sections appear randomly throughout most of the game. Video game archivist Tim Knox praises this as “a brilliant way to create an experience as seamless and comfortably dark and groovy as the sea itself.” Sanger’s multifaceted score evokes “film noir and the scary mystery of the deep ocean, along with sun-dappled tide pools and drifty surf rock,” as well as an instantly recognizable mamba-inspired opening theme.
Given its substantial leaps forward in quality and sophistication for Humongous Entertainment, it should come as no surprise that Kelp Seeds was both commercially successful and critically well-received.
The game was released for Macintosh and Windows in late October 1994, with its profile significantly raised when Microsoft head Bill Gates showcased Kelp Seeds during his keynote address unveiling Windows 95 at ComDex in Las Vegas a month later, during which he listed the title as one of Windows 95’s ‘Signpost Applications’ and stated that Kelp Seeds “takes the animation and graphics capabilities of the PC to a new level.”
As Gilbert later noted, “the first three games we did sold well, but when Freddi Fish came out, it was a huge hit, and it really was our breakout game. It got great reviews, and the art and animation was really singled out. It was the game that put Humongous Entertainment on the map.”
Bolstered by the success of Kelp Seeds, Humongous quickly became one of the most beloved and acclaimed creators of educational games in the mid-1990s, raising the bar for the edutainment industry and establishing itself as a producer of quality titles that transcended the mere label of ‘children’s software’. Their games will appear often in this column, as will titles heavily influenced by their innovative designs.
Join us next time as we look at one of the hidden gems of early Nineties edutainment, Davidson & Associates’ 1994 weird Math Blaster spinoff Math Blaster Mystery: The Great Brain Robbery. See you then!