Second site: Children's games in watercolour

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The Independent Culture
IF ANYTHING can make middle-class parents feel comfortable about children's multimedia, it's the German publisher Tivola. Whereas the tradition of fine artwork in children's books has flourished since Sir John Tenniel drew the pictures for Lewis Carroll's "Alice" stories, children's CD-roms generally look like the junk-food graphics you get on children's television. Tivola, by contrast, works in watercolours, and you can see that the artists love their work.

The Berlin publisher's British wing, Tivola UK (0181 233 2860/ 2863), has just released three new titles. One is the latest adventure featuring Max, the creation of Tivola's art director, Barbara Landbeck. Max is an enigmatic creature, with possible ancestry in the human, bear, dog and pig lineages. In Max and the Haunted Castle (pounds 19.99) - which, like all Tivola titles, runs on both Windows and Mac systems - his mission is to save a spectre called Willy, who is unable to walk through walls because he has been deprived of his staple foodstuff. Like a silkworm that will eat only mulberry leaves, Willy is fading away for the want of yellow socks with holes in them. In each new game, the socks are concealed in different places. Guided by the player, Max ambles around, surprising ghosts in the shower and watching them learn to rattle chains and walk through walls.

At the upper end of the age range, educational value can be added by using the French or German language options. One quirk of this trans-European publishing exercise is that, whereas the age range for the British market is three to seven, that for Germany is four to 10. Sarah Radford, MD of Tivola UK, explains that the German education system is less concerned with getting computers into schools. Even though the percentage of German households with computers is higher, the UK Government's efforts have apparently made British children more familiar with the world of the mouse mouse, and less likely to be impressed with haunted castles as they rise through Key Stages.

For children who want to work on their wetware (brain), Oscar the Balloonist Dives into the Lake (pounds 19.99, English and German, ages four to eight) is a charming guide to pond life. Each quarter of Oscar's balloon depicts trees in spring, summer, autumn and winter and allows him to fly to each season. Oscar combines art, science and comedy, with whimsical characters such as Robert Ribbit the frog and sound expositions of natural history. Such features are staples of educational multimedia, but what makes Oscar special is the artwork. The delight is in the details. When Oscar enters Pumpernickel's den, for example, the menu bar takes on the shape of a pike, and Pumpernickel's wicker desk looks like a fishing-tackle basket.

Tivola's third release also pays great attention to graphic detail, though the lights are brighter and the edges harder. TKKG: Deadly Chocolate (pounds 19.99, in English and German, age eight upwards) is a detective puzzle involving food contamination, blackmail, and a hit group called the Wild Girls. The initials TKKG are those of the four young chums who make up a sleuthing team, but their style is a long way from that of the Famous Five. Players take the roles of the different characters to ask witnesses questions and pick up clues. It certainly teaches patience and the value of methodical detective work.

There's more where these came from, including an edition of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, but Tivola is unlikely to release them here. Our conservative publishing retail trade filters out almost everything but sure-fire big brands. British children may have the skills and the technology, but they're denied the artwork.

Visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@pop3.poptel.org.uk

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