I know what you're thinking. "Oh no, not another game where your friend's hat gets carried away by a bubble, and you have to chase after it in your hot air balloon fueled by pure knowledge! When will game designers come up with some new ideas?" I understand. I'm sympathetic. But you still might want to try out the latest in the bloated Knowledge Balloon Hat Retrieval genre, seeing as it's by Amanita Design, the gently madcap Czech creators of Samorost. That's right, Amanita finally made another game, and it's awesome. Well, it's gently awesome. Amanita does everything gently, and being awesome is no exception.
Their newest game, Questionaut, is a commission for the BBC's Bitesize series of educational games, which attempt to combine video games with grade school quizzes. The goal of Questionaut is to track down your friend's aforementioned high-flying hat, but your vehicle can't reach that high until you answer enough questions correctly. On each of 8 levels, you must solve an environmental puzzle by clicking or pointing at hot-spots, and then answer 5 multiple-choice questions to inflate your balloon, so you can float up to the next sky island.
None of this is too difficult, although you might have some trouble if you've been out of school for a while. The questions are geared to students aged 7 to 11, and as Jeff Foxworthy is so happy to remind us, we don't always retain information from that era so well. If you get stuck, Google is right around the corner, and no one has to know that your brain is made from a leaky sieve. Except for you. You will know.
Analysis: Despite the fact that the target audience for Questionaut is grade school students, there is enough wonder and imagination here for gamers of all ages. As usual, Amanita has festooned its game with soothing mossy textures and rickety mechanical systems. Each level is a self-contained environment floating in the sky, with its own placid inhabitants, surreal logic, and gorgeously quirky music.
It's such a pleasure to explore these little worlds that it's almost a shame when the time comes for a pop quiz yet again. But thankfully the questions here (supplied by the BBC) are the opposite of trivia. They encompass Math, Chemistry, Physics, and even professional skills such as designing clear instructional diagrams. There's a lovely irony in being quizzed on the real world by inhabitants of a surreal fantasy world.
Even better, the individual islands often share a theme with the questions for that level. You might solve an ecological puzzle before facing a battery of biology questions, for example, or a physics-based puzzle before a physics test.
Even with eight totally separate environments, Questionaut feels like a cohesive whole. It's like stepping into a story book and becoming one of its characters. And thanks to Questionaut's memorable imagery, it feels like a living universe that continues to exist even after you've shut down your browser. Just delightful.