Local games tyro seeks help from kids to go ape

By Sean Nicholls

The Weekend Australian, 4-5 October 1997

Tom Barbalet created his first computer game at age 10, a Dungeons and Dragons-style game that was an instant hit among his peers.

"It dawn on me that I was able to create things which were totally removed from how old I was," Barbalet recalls.

Now 20, and in his third year of a physics and philosophy degree at the Australian National University at Canberra, Barbalet still relishes that idea.

With the aid of a $13,000 Australian Film Commission grant, Barbalet is adding the finishing touches to Escape from Nervana, which he describes as "a natural virtual reality game" on CD-ROM.

The game's synopsis is deceptively simple: eight apes, one of which you play from a first person perspective, are stranded on an island located somewhere in South East Asia. The idea is to link up with your fellow apes and make your way off the island.

But Escape from Nervana has also been designed as an educational tool.

"It's about teamwork and survival," Barbalet says. "You have a rich biological environment. You can do mundane things like wiping out the fish population and see what effect that has over time. There's very much a sort of green factor to it."

He is also running an Escape from Nervana art competition among ACT schools to design graphical components for the CD-ROM - "I'm a hopeless drawer," he admits.

The students have to draw what they think the Noble Ape looks like in three different situations. Those graphics will be used on the CD-ROM and the Web site.

Ironically, Barbalet grew up in a family that was very "anti-computers", and he has never had any formal programming education. Inspiration for the project did come from within the family, however - from visiting his mother in Malaysia.

"I spent a lot of time in the past three years up there," he says. "In the areas where my mother lives, they're cutting down trees to make houses, and just from walking around you can see pregnant apes in the trees having to move out from the deforested regions. It gave me a sense of how precious these things are."

As for the future, Barbalet points to a long list of projects.

"Writing intelligent programs is what I am interested in doing," he says. "The real issue with computers is that they're creative tools. If you have software that is difficult to use, which so much of it is, you're not going to get a productive society."

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