How an Online Adventure Game is Inspiring Confidence in Science Skills

Science has an image problem and Science Museum Group are on a mission to change it. Ben Templeton and Josh Blair discuss branching narrative, invading aliens and an ambitious project aiming to change how young people see science.

According to the National Audit Office (1), the UK is suffering from a shortfall of 40,000 professionals qualified in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Some £990 million was committed to STEM-related interventions over the last decade and research continues to show that not enough young people think science is ‘for them’.

The idea of measuring attitudes and feelings towards science, known as ‘science capital’, is something Science Museum Group (SMG) has been investigating for some time. The research, in partnership with University College London and King’s College London, is intended to inform ways of building positive ongoing relationships with science, particularly around the age young people start to consider their place in the world. In Summer 2018, the Group launched their first digital experience inspired by science capital. The online game, targeting seven to 13-year-olds, is the culmination of 18 months of collaboration across multiple departments, museum sites and external agencies, involving more than 20 prototypes and 200 children.

Total Darkness (2) is a text-based adventure game that invites players to solve a mysterious blackout in their hometown. At the start of the game, everything stops working. No TV, no lights and no WiFi. With nothing but a torch and some curious characters for help, players explore their town without power, uncovering a series of wacky theories in a hunt for the real cause before their battery runs out. Along the way, they face various challenges – from lost pets to melting ice cream – requiring all their skills of curiosity, creativity and communication.

Science Museum Group has a long history of successful games, with physics puzzle Launchball proving particularly popular, but this project was unlike anything they had tackled before. Beth Hawkins, who led the museum’s work around science capital, says, “putting the research into practice is about changing the way we think. Science capital gives us a good practice framework to help us reflect on our work and create an open, welcoming environment that shows how everyone is included in science.”

Instead of focussing on specific scientific concepts like gravity or antibiotics, the aim was to invite players on a journey of self-discovery, provoking reflection on the role of science in their lives and the skills they take for granted. With research clearly showing that the idea of science can be off-putting, the concept had to be built around relatable people and places, appealing to a broad audience who might not normally play science games.

The vision, in other words, was to make a game about science that doesn’t feel like a game about science – but ultimately shows players they’ve been doing science all along.

A three-month research and development phase, led by digital agency AllOfUs (3), mapped the current market offer, ranging from wearables and augmented reality to YouTube and Minecraft. The team then worked with young people to generate new ideas and identify recurring themes through rapid prototyping. Three themes stood out: world exploration, quirky character interaction and a structure offering clear goals. All three of these are recognisable game tropes, reinforcing the team’s decision to pursue a game-based format.

In late 2017, Thought Den (4) were commissioned to make this vision a reality. Having started making educational products and viral games in 2008, Thought Den’s big break in arts and culture was Magic Tate Ball. This mobile app for Tate, launched in 2012, was part of a growing appetite for learning games and the idea that play transcends social and cultural differences, helping make topics easier to access and easier to understand. This method of distilling complex concepts into simple experiences would be critical in helping SMG attract an audience that wouldn’t otherwise be drawn to science subjects.

The process of folding science capital research into a playable experience began with an exercise called “Mystery Boxes”. Beth Hawkins invited the team to deduce the contents of a series of locked metal tins. After much tapping, smelling, tilting and discussing, a consensus was reached.

However, Beth confessed – spoiler alert – that even she didn’t know what the boxes contained. After some frustrated ranting came the realisation that in science there are no definitive answers. Science is a journey into the unknown and skills like curiosity, trial and error, observation and teamwork are the essential fuel. Young people are brimming with these skills, applying them every day, often without knowing it and especially when they play games.

Inspiration for early prototypes included the poverty simulation game Spent (5), text adventure A Dark Room (6), set in a barren future of sparse resources, and One Chance (7), ostensibly about science but ultimately challenging players to avoid destroying the world. Each of these references feature compelling story, meaningful choice-making and moments of surprise or realisation. Another phase of prototyping resulted in two playable concepts that were tested with the target audience for general appeal and their capacity to provoke self-reflection.

The first prototype, thrown together in Powerpoint, invited players to figure out a magical box that had lain undiscovered for many years. The narrative shape of “Curious Contraption” was intended to deliver multiple outcomes depending on player choices – as in Please Don’t Touch Anything (8) – but this open-ended nature caused some confusion. In contrast, “Mystery Map” was a classic text adventure, like 16 Ways To Kill A Vampire At McDonald’s (9), built in Twine. This format, in a relatable setting with multiple routes to a single solution, was far more popular.

Prototyping went on to play an essential role in day-to-day design, seeing over 20 more created in Powerpoint, on paper and using platforms like Marvel (10) and Twine (11). Testing with the target audience helped shape the experience from start to finish. Even as late as the Beta stage, traditionally reserved for making minor improvements, a risky decision was taken to restructure the story and core mechanic. While it meant less time could be spent polishing loose ends, the benefit was a more recognisable reward loop – setting up then disproving theories – that in turn made it easier to surface the science skills at the heart of the game.

Story isn’t the obvious vehicle for science engagement and branching narrative presents a uniquely technical challenge – all the more so with a project team comprising 12 stakeholders from three museums, Thought Den’s five-strong production team and two external critical friends. While early collaborative sessions on character, setting and scenarios were satisfyingly fruitful, the project soon became a tangle of storylines and interdependencies.

At one stage of production, a team of four writers were all working to squeeze as much character and story development out of as few words as possible. A key tool in this content workflow was Inky (12), developed by the studio behind the popular mobile hit 80 Days (13). Inky allowed the team to create, manipulate and preview complex branching narratives. Over time, content reviews addressing structure, then moving to factual and stylistic changes, could be folded into the live game engine for testing.

Being a primarily text-based adventure game meant the artwork was especially important, both as a visual counterbalance to the text and to attract a diverse audience. The setting and story naturally suggest a darker, grown up tone, with brighter highlight colours employed so as not to alienate younger players. The attention to detail from art director Benedict Webb – from the crashed car on the map to signs in the supermarket window – adds a quirky humour that lifts the whole experience.

At the start of a process like this, it’s tempting to make endless lists of learning outcomes. Going from complexity to simplicity is never easy, but the simpler the message the better. Over an 18 month process, more than three years of science capital research was distilled into an experience that essentially asks players to reflect on their use of three skills, easily taken for granted but so critical across multiple industries.

In the three months since launching in Summer 2018, Total Darkness was played 37,000 times, for an average of more than 10 minutes. Publishing on third-party sites like Kongregate and MiniClip helped bring the game to an audience far beyond those that would normally walk through the Museum’s doors. An added benefit of these portals was being able gather comments and ratings from players in a way that wouldn’t normally be available without a comprehensive evaluation.

At the end of each game, players are presented with a play-style based on choices made during the game. To date, 40% of players achieve a balanced rating, another 40% major in curiosity, only 13% major in communication and the smallest percentage of all – just 1.4% – rank most highly for creativity. Of course, science can’t be expressed in only three skills, but the ultimate aim of the game is showing children they already have what it takes to excel in science.

People build emotional connections when they play, which creates all kinds of opportunities for learning and positive behaviour change. Total Darkness is just one example of how play can break down dangerous preconceptions and enable an audience to look at themselves, and science, in a different light.

Total Darkness is a free online adventure game available on smartphone, tablet and desktop.
Play now at

Ben Templeton is the creative director of Thought Den, a design studio creating playful experiences that bring people closer art, culture and science.

Josh Blair is Digital Producer, Learning at Science Museum Group. He manages the development of new digital products for schools and families to use across all five SMG sites, in the classroom or at home.


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