Eli Aldinger clicks the start button and the screen in front of the 16-year-old springs to life.
A small humanoid character skips across the display, winding his way through caves, over ponds and up ladders. He comes across another humanoid, who engages our hero in friendly banter and tries to sell him a key to a secret door.
Our hero later encounters some unfriendly creatures. As soon as he confronts them, a new screen pops up to show the two characters’ duel.
This storyline might be meaningless to many, but it’s noteworthy to a gamer — it combines elements from two very distinct genres of video game culture. Creating this innovative mash-up of platforming and role-playing elements won Eli a national award.
The Vancouver teen, who’s a junior at an online school, last month was one of eight high school students to win the National STEM Video Game Challenge. He took first prize in the Playable Game — GameMaker category. More than 3,700 students had submitted video game designs in 17 categories.
For his win, Eli will get a laptop loaded with game-design software. The contest was put on by the nonprofit Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which is affiliated with the folks who brought you “Sesame Street.”
The game Eli created is called “New World.” The basic premise is that a ship has run
aground near an island. Our small hero — a head with feet, really — combs the island for scraps of the ship so he can put the vessel back together and return home. Along the way, he encounters hostile crabs, spiders and other crawly critters, which he can decide to battle, if he feels strong enough.
His strength is displayed in a corner of the screen. It diminishes when he loses skirmishes and increases when he wins or when he buys health credits from a nurse who set up shop on the island. Other characters engage the protagonist in conversation — displayed in dialog boxes — and offer him items he may need.
The hero is on a quest to unveil the island’s secrets and fulfill his mission, which puts “New World” among role-playing games, or RPGs. The gazillion-selling “The Legend of Zelda” is a prime example of that genre.
But the hero can also move rapidly through a two-dimensional landscape, jumping across obstacles and onto ramps, all the while fighting hostile cartoon creatures. This makes “New World” a platform game — think “Mario Bros.” or “Donkey Kong.”
The national contest demanded that entrants learn something new about design in their projects and present a new experience to players of their game. Eli achieved both with the hybrid game he taught himself to build.
Eli is an only child, very independent and really good at teaching himself, said his mother, Sherry Aldinger. That’s the main reason she took him out of public school after the first grade and home-schooled Eli until high school. Then she and her son looked around for an online program suited to the goals he discovered early in life.
When Eli was 12, he took a course in computer animation at a summer school program. It turned the avid gamer into a developer. The young boy discovered GameMaker, a software that allows beginning users to create video games from a library of preset characters and actions.
Before too long, Eli had outgrown the drag-and-drop way of making games and moved on to writing code for his games in GameMaker’s proprietary programming language.
He designed every stitch of “New World” from scratch. Every leaf of grass and every critter.
Eli taught himself much of this, although his choice of high school helped, too. After passing his eighth-grade state tests a year early, Eli went from being home-schooled by his mother to being a student at the Washington Academy of Arts and Technology, an online school run by the East Valley School District in Spokane.
It was the school that offered him the most electives in design and programming, his mother said.
Eli has to meet all of the state standards in math, reading and writing, and take all of the courses required for graduation under state law. But his transcript also shows credits in 3D-animation, digital photography and game design.
About 725 students are enrolled in the online academy, according to information from its principal’s office. About half of the students are from the greater Spokane area, one-fourth are from the Tri-Cities and the rest take their classes from computers west of the Cascades.
It’s a system that suits the self-motivated teen. He not only is disciplined enough to guide himself through school — he teaches others.
Student and teacher
Eli has taught a computer-animation class at his former home-school cooperative. He lectured 20 students ranging from elementary to high school age. And he’s gone far beyond teaching local aspiring game developers.
“When I started learning the (GameMaker) program, I decided to share my knowledge,” Eli said.
He had difficulties finding good tutorials online for the software, so once he mastered the program, he wanted to make it easier for others.
Two years ago, Eli set up a YouTube channel with GameMaker tutorials. It now features 48 educational clips authored by him. The clips have been watched 106,000 times.
Eli has a website too, which he increasingly uses as a platform to help other, often younger, game developers.
He’d like to start his own game development company some day. College will come first, after he graduates from high school next year. He’ll probably study the artistic side of game design.
Eli’s favorite game of all time is “Banjo Tooie,” a rather old-fashioned choice for someone his age. The game came out 12 years ago, made for the now-obsolete Nintendo 64 console.
“I would say there were better games back then,” Eli said. “There was less technology and developers had to be more creative.”