Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How it is that Games Teach you Things

As I mentioned before, I spent about a month off the video-game-playing grid after Xmas, first through travel and later through the perspiration-centric malady I described in my last post. But since I had my nintendo DS and my laptop along for the ride I did sneak in some gaming here and there.

What games I did play served to impress the centrality of learning to video games on me. Games aren't terribly good at delivering narratively structured content, compared to other forms of media, but they have some unique competencies when it comes to schooling players in the dynamics of a system. Many of us bring a set of accumulated generic abilities to particular games (we know how it is we're supposed to jump in two-dimensional space, or how it is we're to shoot in three dimensions), but almost every game we play has some new set of rules it seeks to communicate-- controls, mechanics, enemy behaviors and the like. Often it's something as simple as “doors that look like this can be opened by using this item,” or “this enemy can't be beat with your usual attacks, you'll have to do something different,” but most games faces the task of making their underlying logics apparent to the player.

Every game needs strategies to communicate the lineaments of its underlying ruleset, and this goes double for games whose basic controls and mechanics are innovative, or deviate from the player's generic expectations.

This was the case with World of Goo, one of the two games I played over the break. World of Goo is a physics-based-puzzle game produced by the pop-and-pop game developer 2-D Boy. The ungainliness of the “physics-based-puzzle” moniker should point up the novelty of the game; we lack a ready vocabulary to describe what kind of game it is in the first place. (Roughly, it's a game where you make bridges) And so you think that it would be difficult to communicate the rules of the game to the player-- but the really remarkable thing about World of Goo is the game's tremendous ease of play given the novelty of its mechanics.

I chalk this ease of access up to meticulous craft. It's all in the way the game introduces its basic concepts. From the very beginning it eases you into the idea of goo-based construction. It doesn't ever throw a bunch of new rules at the player at once; the new mechanics and gameplay ideas you need to solve the puzzles are layered in gradually from level to level. If there's some new trick you need to master in order to surmount the next few levels (say, setting a portion of the bridge ablaze, or suspending it from baloons, or whatever), you'll be required to do something simple with it before you'll be asked to do something hard. The puzzles always run a few steps in front of your core competencies, and this is how it should be: you feel neither frustrated nor coddled.

This careful layering of game-mechanics reminded me of Portal, the game Goo most resembles in both its design and sensibility. If you've ever listened to the developer commentary to Portal (which you should, as its the cheapest course in game design you'll ever come by) you'll be struck by the deliberate way that the designers introduced the potentially bewildering portal-mechanic. The player has to learn to use static portals before they are asked to move them, and they have to learn to manipulate one side of the portals before they are asked to manipulate both ends. The game forces you to master a battery of basic concepts about the portal-physics before it guides them towards the complex later stages.

And this is just how it works in World of Goo, as well: the gradually-more-complex puzzles call for the player to synthesize and re-deploy the rules and concepts you've amassed in simpler contexts. It leads to these satisfying moments where you feel that solving the game is a genuine piece of human ingenuity.

My other diversion over the break was Shiren the Wanderer, which is actually a DS port of a 1995 SNES game. (I owe my knowledge of this game to Zach Reese's zealous evangelism.) “Diversion” is probably to mild a word; my girlfriend quipped that Shiren qualified as my common-law husband by the end of the vacation. Let's just say that the playtime I sunk into that infernal amusement approached Fallout 3 levels.

What's remarkable about Shiren is how much unlearning it foists the player inured to the conventions of traditional-RPGs. All the trappings of the game bespeak RPG standbys: there's an inventory full of swords and spell scrolls, recovery herbs, and the like. There's experience points and levels and so on. But Shiren the Wanderer swiftly undercuts this expectation; all the elements of the RPG language are there, but the basic syntax of the game is radically different.

It all turns on the game's attitude towards progression. In the classic Role-Playing Game, core appeal of the genre is the progressive empowerment of your player-characters over the course of the game. Whatever the setting, you expect to continually gain levels acquire better weapons.

When you die in Shiren, there is no progress-saving resurrection item on offer. Every time you fall, you irretrievably lose all of your levels and items. You start again from level one in the starting town. There are persistent elements of the game, which progress and improve between playthroughs, but your character isn't one of them.

If World of Goo belongs to the Berlitz language school of game-pedagogy, Shiren is an example of learning-through-immersion: it dumps a dictionary in your lap, dumps your ass in the town center and speeds away. There's a kind of “tutorial dungeon” in the first town, and the early run of the game is filled with villagers has a handy tip to pass along. It's not that this information isn't valuable; mastering all the wrinkles of the game passed along in the early-going often mean the difference between death and survival in the later stages. But it's only over the long course of prolific misfortune that you pick up on their importance. For example, a man in the first town tells you he stores food in jars. And on the twentieth-or-so level you start running into these traps that rot all your food unless it's in a jar. It took a round of soul-crushing starvation on that twentieth level to impress the importance of that minor tidbit.

By and large Shiren's pedagogical tool is death. You die in countless frustrating ways until you get the hang of the subtleties of the mechanics and learn of the few contributions you can make to your future success. And over time you find that you get a little bit better at the game each run-through. And it's immensely satisfying, because the first 20 times you die think that there's no way you're ever getting better at this game. Your (relative) mastery of the game's myriad wrinkles and challenges is a hard-won accomplishment secured against overwhelming odds, and because of this you feel a sense of pride at your ability to stave off death.

And so my holiday was spent with games on the opposite ends of the spectrum: World of Goo's patient instruction versus Shiren's school of hard knocks. And despite their different approaches I felt that each, in their own way, did credit to the core competence of games as a medium: inspiring the pleasure of finding things out.


Korey said...

Thanks for reminding me about the developer commentary on Portal. I had forgotten about it, and will definitely have to revisit the game with the commentary on.

I just recently finished a rental of LittleBigPlanet, and thought Media Molecule did a pretty good job of guiding the player, both in the Story levels and in the Level Creator. While the mechanics are relatively simple (basically run, jump, and grab), slightly more complex concepts are introduced slowly over the course of the different areas.

And while the Creator is extremely complex and nuanced, there is a Stephen Frye-voiced tutorial for nearly every tool at your disposal. Of course, it still takes more time than most people can muster to create even a moderately well-designed level.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, had never heard or thought of the satisfying element of games being 'the pleasure of finding things out', but that might be the best encapsulation so far.

For some like World of Goo it's finding out how to build correctly, for more story-based games it's finding out what happens next, even if it's also how to get from point A to point B without being killed. I like it.

Trying to test in my head for exceptions... Geometry Wars? Maybe there's a pattern there to find out and exploit and I've just never been very good at it.

Nels Anderson said...

Have you read Tom Armitage piece "If Gamers Ran the World?" (And here's the CBC radio interview version)

He talks about how games have taught us systems literacy and I think the training techniques demonstrated by World of Goo (less Shiren since real world failure often has severer consequences) could be applicable in non-game spaces. It would be interesting to see some scientific analysis if this kind of training is more effective/engaging than alternatives.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@Korey: good point on the LBP. The interesting point there isn't that the game itself is very simple; there's very few concepts you have to nail down. But then the creation tools are incredibly deep. I think that game did an excellent job of introducing you to the creation system by layering in the various pieces, bit by bit.

@brian: I've been kicking around that the fun of games is the discovery of rules for a while now. I do think that it has a hard time capturing why reflex-centric gameslike Geometry wars is fun; what I'd probably say is that mastering that game requires all this immense (mostly interiorized) pattern-recognition. You have to acquire this nearly-unconscious recognition of enemy behaviors and attack patterns in order for your reflexes to do you any good.

@nels: I've read that piece before, it's really good. (If I remember right I think I"m even it it!) I don't really think that games make you much smarter but I do think that there's something inherently pedagogical about game design, as I say here. Every game is in the business of teaching you its rules. Whether this facet of games might be useful in more strictly educational settings is an interesting one; I definitely know of people who feel strongly about this.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting writeup. I just started playing World of Goo... it's crazy how patient the game is with me: there is always a way to bypass potential frustration, which I'm not used to at all.

Have you read Rules of Play, or it's sister anthology? There's a lot of things in there about games-as-discovery that you may be interested in.

Scott Juster said...

World of Goo was my favorite game released last year. It is quite patient in the beginning, but I found the later levels quite hard.

I'm intrigued by Shiren. Hopefully they'll give it a virtual console release.