THE LIVING BOOKS Series by Living Books/Broderbund

Reviewed by Chuck McMath

Titles Reviewed:

In the same series but not reviewed:
          RUFF'S BONE

Required:  MPC (Windows 3.1, Dos 5.0, VGA, CD-ROM drive, mouse)

 Control:  Mouse
   Sound:  Windows compatable sound card
   Notes:  Macintosh versions reviewed.

It's funny - in the PC games business, many titles come and go in the wink of an eye. Gamers tend to go for the 'latest and greatest,' and spurn titles that are more than a month old. But in children's titles, things work differently. Why? Well, perhaps it's because when you need a title for your son or daughter, it doesn't matter if it was published last week, last month, or last year - if it's good, and entertaining, you take it home (uh, after paying for it, of course!). Maybe the market for children's entertainment is smaller, or maybe there's just fewer titles from which to choose, I dunno. In either case, there's one series that is the grandaddy of all the animated storybooks, and it's Broderbund's Living Books (LB).

All of the titles in the LB series have the same general features, and operate similarly. For young children that's a big plus, because once they become familiar with one title, it's a snap to move to the next - and move they will, because these books offer beautiful graphics, enchanting animation, and wonderful sound. Although the LBs claim to offer a 'learning experience,' I've found that they simply offer young children a fun time exploring at the computer. And that's not a bad thing, at that.

This review concentrates on three titles with which I'm familiar: JUST GRANDMA AND ME (JGAM) by Mercer Mayer, THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK (NKOTB) by Jack Prelutsky and THE TORTISE AND THE HARE (TAH) by Aesop. Each title comes on CD-ROM, and included in the package is a paperbound version of the Living Book. When you begin the program, you're typically greeted by a character from the book, who introduces the story and offers two main choices: which language to use, and whether you want to just hear the story, or 'play' in it. The language selected affects not only the voices, but also the text on the screen. And the play options aren't really options, because I've never seen my son opt to hear the story, mainly because there's so much fun to be had finding all of the animations on each page.

As you turn to a new page (via small arrows at the bottom left and right of the screen) you see a page, just as it would appear in a book. On the page is the printed text of the page. The text is read, and as the reader says each word or phrase, it's highlighted on the screen. There's an icon to the left of each text block, and clicking on that icon causes the entire page to be re-read. Clicking on the individual words causes the word to be spoken. The narration is uniformly excellent throughout the series, and it's obvious that these are professional voice actors recorded in a professional studio. Different actors play the different parts, and the foreign language versions use entirely different sets of actors.

The language choices vary from title to title. JGAM offers English, Spanish, and Japanese, but I believe most of the others only offer English or Spanish.

Once the text is read, the child is in control. Oftentimes, small animations will be running (clouds, or butterflies, etc). Clicking on almost anything causes an animation, which will be accompanied by some sound. For instance, in the Tortise and the Hare, clicking on the Hare's newspaper in his front yard causes the Hare to run out of his house, grab the paper, quickly read it, yell "Oh no!", crumple the paper, throw it down, and zip back into the house. Clicking on the crumpled paper causes the Tortise to call "Hey, Hare, didn't you forget something?" which causes the Hare to zip back out of his house, grab the crumpled paper, and throw it away.

I'd estimate that most pages have between 10 and 15 of these 'hot spots' on them; all of them are quite fun to search out (for child and for parent as well!).

That's it - the rest of the time you spend doing the same thing over and over on each page. But it's quite fun, and you will frequently find things you missed.

The series has evolved over the years. JGAM was the first title, and while it's an excellent one, I've noticed some improvements in the later titles. For instance, TAH has 'background animations' which JGAM doesn't. In JGAM the animations are cyclic - that is, when you click on a bird he'll fly out, circle around the tree, and end up back where he started (so that when you click on the spot, he can do it again). In TAH, the animations frequently change (take the example of the newspaper above. After clicking on it once, it ends up crumpled. Clicking on it a second time gets it removed from the scene entirely). In addition, TAH has a little more variety in its pages, and adds a noisy dragonfly who's hidden on each page. One of your goals then becomes to find where the dragonfly is hiding. And unlike most animations in the series, when the dragonfly is found, he trumpets a little tune and zips off the screen (presumably to hide on the next one!).

Broderbund has tried to vary the formula a little within the Living Books genre, with mixed results. NKOTB is a book of poems, which could work fine, but doesn't work as well as the others. The reason? The drawings are mostly pencil-like, meaning there's a lack of color. And because there's not much in the way of background, there don't appear to be as many hidden animations as the other books.

Different books purport to appeal to different audiences. JGAM is aimed at the very young (any parent of a young child probably has at least one Mercer Meyer book in the house!), while ARTHUR'S TEACHER TROUBLE I'm told should appeal to the 8 year old crowd (I believe Arthur is in 2nd grade). NKOTB might appeal to that 'older' crowd also. RUFF'S BONE is, I believe, the first original story published by Broderbund, and is one of the newest titles, so perhaps they're starting off in a new direction. Most titles have a 'preview' of the latest titles on them, which is a good way to use the extra space on the CD.

I've never experienced a glitch with the programs, which is something I can say about almost no game I've ever played!

At this point you're probably saying "what's the downside?" Well, there isn't really one. I think these are great products. If there would be any downside, it might be the long-term play value of the Living Books. After your child spends about two weeks of intensive exploring, there's not much to find. But I've found my son still goes back to JGAM, albeit not too often. But it's not clear that this is a problem with Living Books, rather with burnout caused by intense play!

I introduced my son to JGAM when he turned 3. Within about a week he was able to use the mouse to click (mostly) where he wanted to. Now at age 5 he's an old pro, and spends a lot of his time playing in the Lode Runner game generator. But he still likes his Living Books. And so do I.

This review copyright (c) 1994 by Chuck McMath for Game Bytes. All rights reserved.