Category Archives: Gaming
Educational games are hard. Like…exceedingly hard. I’m not talking about playing. I am talking about designing. Growing up in the 90’s, I was subjected to many “edu-tainment” games.
Most of these were on a scale between “boring failures” (Treasure mountain and that animation math game I failed a test for on purpose just so I could stay in for recess to answer multiplication questions to gain access to animation) and “Fun but rarely actually taught me anything” (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and Cross Country Canada).
A rare few were somewhat more successful, such as Egypt II The Heliopolis Prophecy which let the environment and the characters speak for themselves instead of pausing to give a history lesson…most of the time.
Taking the cake of all of these was the Nancy Drew series, which so far have combined learning about a different culture, science or history with fun detective hijinks. They are by no means perfect but have been a source of immense entertainment, especially given that I only discovered them in my 30’s.
I have been eagerly awaiting the next chapter in the Nancy Drew series for the last couple of years or so. Each time I scour the website there is no news to be seen. Imagine my delight when I discovered Her Interactive partnered with a company called The Young Socratics to make a game entirely about discovering the very foundations our modern science is based on.
Okay…so let’s talk The Odyssey.
You, the unnamed and I can only assume amazing protagonist, have picked up a distress call from a remote island in the Caribbean once home to pirates, WWII soldiers and…others, I am sure. The distress call is from a 13 year old girl named Kai. She is certain some not so trustworthy sailors are going to attack and needs your help. You will need to find her and her family but first you must navigate the myriad of safeguards the family has erected to protect themselves from intruders…all based off ancient sciences. ‘Natch.
The Odyssey is aptly named. Not only are you learning about the journey ancient scientists embarked on in their attempt to understand the world, you are also viewing the journey of Kai who is attempting to understand the world around her without the aid of Google to tell her why things work the way they do.
On that level, I admire Odyssey. Here is a child who has almost nothing handed to her. If she has questions about the world around her, her father insists she work it out for herself rather than simply tell her what today is considered common knowledge. Why is the earth round? Is it the centre of the universe? How do you prove that with no space ships to help you see? And so on…
But…that is about where the admiration ends.
I really wanted to like this game. I did. But 70% of Odyssey…is journal reading.
So. Much. Journal. Reading.
And this is coming from someone who normally loves reading journals in her adventure games.
The game is structured as follows: you traverse a certain amount of space. You come across a box. You open a box. You find a series of journal pages. You read them, making note of the yellow highlighted passages which will no doubt serve to help solve the next puzzle. You follow a coloured cable from the box to a station of some sort where sits a puzzle. Based on the journal entries you have found you solve the puzzle. Wash. Rinse. Repeat 50 times
There are two problems with the journal reading:
One is a practical problem. Not everyone learns the same way. Those who learn by reading the written word could easily get this information from a library book rather than spend additional funds on a game. That poses a problem when your medium is one that promotes other types of learning: listening, observing, physically experimenting. I found myself reading those in-game journals over three or four times until I finally grasped what they was trying to tell me.
Eventually it got to the point where I was simply skimming the journals until I saw the relevant highlighted sentence that would tell me how to do the next puzzle. Guilt caused me to go back afterward and read the entire entry.
And yes, I realize I am a woman in my 30’s having difficulty grasping basic scientific concepts. But that’s the thing. I don’t do my best learning by reading. I absorb a lot more by listening and demonstrating. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with learning by reading.
But this is a game. It’s an interactive medium. Players of a game learn through physically experimenting with the environment. They observe. They listen. They play. Reading vital information in a game should be minimal and used wisely, especially in this day and age. Odyssey depends on it.
The other problem is a much larger one: you are not on an adventure. You are reading about the adventures and experiences of another character. Even though you are learning alongside a character through her journals, it is still very much her experience.
I do not want to read about someone else’s adventure. I did not want Kai to tell me how thrilling science was. I wanted to experience it for myself. I wanted Kai’s father to be questioning me. I wanted to be the student.
The glimpses of understanding I had throughout the game were satisfying enough to make me think about the history of the scientific process, but at the same time made it more frustrating. Each of those glimpses showed me what promise this game had. It showed me the creators are passionate about their subject matter. It made me want so much more than what Odyssey offered.
Is it possible to have an educational game in which you make discoveries not through scouring journals, but through your own observation, experiments and a teacher by your side? A teacher who guides rather than lectures?
The truth is I do not know if it is actually possible.
It is a shame. The idea of learning about the history of science without the aid of Google or really any modern technology is so ambitious and interesting. But it is not truly experienced by the player. It is instead experienced by an off screen character. I hope she had more fun with this than I did.
I’ve been seeing lots of talk about the Red Bull Mindgamers tournament that happened recently. It’s sparked some interesting discussion but there’s one point in particular that seems to keep coming up that almost warrants its own post.
That point is the competition design did not really feel like an escape room. Either the puzzles were too cerebral or it did not feel immersive enough (To the viewers. According to the players, there was much more story there to follow) or there were too many task based puzzles or a myriad of other complaints. Read the rest of this entry
Oxenfree is the game of my childhood. No, neither of my parents died nor divorced. I was not a rebellious teen who went to beach parties for some underage drinking shenanigans. I did not even dye my hair blue though not for lack of wanting.
But Oxenfree is about friendship and it’s the sort of adventure my friends and I craved growing up. We consumed every episode of X-files the moment they aired and quoted them much to the annoyance of our peers. We loved the idea of secluded islands with rich and tragic histories, big, mysterious houses holding dark secrets from the past, caves full of whispers and supernatural phenomena and a group of quirky friends who must discover the key to solving the mystery. Read the rest of this entry
I am in the midst of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) so naturally I am seeking any method of procrastination I can think of. I have denied myself my beloved Stardew Manor (more on THAT another time) but quick games that I can play for one hour at a time are still fair game.
Enter Sarah Is Missing, developed by Monsoon Lab and recommended to me by my friend Dan the Video Ninja, who has suddenly become my supplier for new and innovative story-driven games.
And yes, this is counting toward my word count. I’M BEING CREATIVE SO IT COUNTS!
Sara Is Missing (or SIM for short, an awesome play on words) is available on PC, Mac and Android. Because of the nature of the game which I will obviously get to I ended up downloading it for Android. If you decide to download the game for yourself and happen to own an Android, I would recommend getting this version. Even without having played the other versions, I know for sure this is the best one. Read the rest of this entry
I love the wonderful experimentation that’s been going on in video game narratives in the last few years. But every once in a while I crave a good nostalgic classic adventure game of ages past. Kathy Rain turned out to be the perfect way to spend my downtime.
Taking place in my beloved 1990’s, Kathy is a hardened, sarcastic and witty journalism student who visits her hometown after finding out that her grandfather whom she lost touch with has passed away. Naturally, not all is as it seems and Kathy soon finds herself elbow deep in government cover-ups, cults and good old fashioned super natural entities. Read the rest of this entry
Once I finish this game, I’d like to review it properly, but for now here’s a Let’s Play series I have begun with my friend Dan! It is the first part of many!
If you’re interested in seeing the story but don’t own a PS3 or play games, then check it out!
Also, here is the newest Dining and Dating! Don’t forget, you can send in questions!
Something interesting has been happening in video games lately.
Escort missions have become interesting and fun.
You remember escort missions, right? In which you’re tasked with protecting some poor, helpless character for a level or, heaven forbid, the entire game? Sometimes they’re meant to be a sidekick who is supposed to aid you in the game but has clearly grown up with a very different definition of “aid”.
I’ve filmed a new Whitless Letter! And as usual, I’m going to use this blog as a chance to expand on my experience :D.
Now before I start tearing apart the game and before you feed me to the wolves for daring to speak against Lara Croft, I do want to make it clear that Tomb Raider is a fun game. Errol and I have been having a blast playing it, and it’s started to become our weekly ritual after we do our podcast.
For one, it’s very pretty. I only just got my PS3, but MAN, games just look so good on it! The art design is pretty fantastic to look at, from the grandest ancient temple to the smallest abandoned hut. And Lara’s hair? Man, it’s hypnotizing.
For another, it’s great fun to explore. You don’t HAVE to pick up all of the diaries and artifacts lying around. You don’t even have to explore all of the tombs. But it does add a lot to the experience.
And heck, the characters are also memorable. Maybe a bit clichéd at times (do all sea captains look like Captain Highliner?) but still fun and supplied with some decent voice acting.
As for Lara herself, she’s enjoyable and engaging. I’ve never played a Tomb Raider game until now, but I feel like this prequel works well in establishing just how this woman became the tomb raiding badass we all know and love. In this story, she’s afraid and vulnerable, but also has inner strength and a pretty good sense of humour.
But it’s also because of this characterization that a huge flaw in the game soon becomes apparent. The best way to describe it is through example.
Early on in the game Lara has been captured by shipwrecked hobo men. Tough situation for anybody, especially when you have no weapons and your hands are tied behind your back. It’s a very intense sequence. Just as it seems she’s going to escape, one of the hobo pirates gets a hold of her and is well on his way to killing her when she manages to grab his gun and shoot him in the face.
This is Lara’s first kill. Or at least, her first human kill. Not just in the game, but ever, in her life. This is made apparent to us in the cinematic where she stares in horror at the corpse and promptly begins to hyperventilate and vomit. It’s a heavy and important moment for her, one that clearly affects her.
That is, until she kills fifty more enemies with bullets not five minutes after said encounter. Suddenly the hyperventilating, in over her head twenty year old has turned into Girl Rambo. Wave upon wave of enemy come at her, pummelling her with gunfire. She barely blinks as she takes life after life and loots their corpses for supplies.
There are a couple of problems I have with this. For one, it conflicts with the character the game keeps trying to build for us. The cinematics and script tell us that this is an inexperienced college girl, one is emotionally overwhelmed with everything being thrown at her. But the gameplay tells a very different story. It shows a ruthless, trained killer, someone who is will not hesitate to shoot a man.
For that matter, Lara, the fresh out of university archaeologist, is somehow an expert at everything she encounters. The game tries to cover this up somewhat, referring multiple times to “training” she received from both her father and her mentor, Roth (who is with you on your journey). But this term is vague, and it can only cover so much given the character. Hunting animals? Sure. Use of small firearms? A lady’s got to protect herself, why not.
But it can only go so far before it starts to seem ridiculous. Does this training cover how to use a machine gun? Or a WWI vintage trench gun? Or how to modify them for more effective use? Lara’s knowledge of firearms seems to rival event he most fanatic member of the NRA. And what about medical prowess? She’s able to treat a leg that has been chewed and mauled by a wolf down to the bone, and chalks it up to her working at a bar stating “A wolf bite has nothing on a broken bottle”. Yes, yes it does. And you need at least SOME medical schooling for that.
I realize that there is some suspension of disbelief when it comes to video games. But it’s harder to buy with a character like this. Think about Nathan Drake in Uncharted (aka Video game Indiana Jones).
He does some unbelievable stuff too. But it’s established very early on that he is an expert at what he does. He’s been raiding tombs for years. He’s run into his fair share of scrapes. If he picks up a machine gun and begins firing away it’s easier to believe because it’s been hinted that he’s probably had to pick one up before.
Lara is supposed to be new at this. She’s supposed to be inexperienced. She’s young and has had this “training” but according to the script nothing has truly prepared her to deal with a cursed island of pirate hobos and run by an…angry weather god queen?…I haven’t finished the game yet, so that’s still up in the air.
To be fair, going the “inexperienced greenhorn learns to be a badass” is a difficult road to go in video games. It’s a shooting game after all. She IS going to have to shoot people. But this brings me to the next problem.
None of the shooting matters.
This has to be the most densely populated cursed island I’ve seen in a long time. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of men who want to murder you. It gets to the point where after a while I couldn’t help but wonder whether ships were getting wrecked on an hourly basis because there didn’t seem to be any end to the enemies (and Uncharted is also a culprit of this).
As a result, the strategy to winning these battles is “shoot at everything that moves” and the impact of this young woman taking lives is significantly diminished. There are tons of bullets lying around, you can even salvage them from bodies you’ve already shot. It gets to the point where it’s not a big deal to shoot your way through a massive army of hobo men because you just fought one five minutes ago and you’ll have to fight another one in the next ten minutes.
It’s not so much the violence, but more that the choice to go the violent route does not matter. There’s simply no weight to it. I’m not just talking about the moral choice either. I’m talking about the tactical choices. Shooting guns in Tomb Raider has no consequences. There are stealth sequences, but there’s no need to bother with them for more than the minimal amount of time, because shooting is simply easier.
Never was this more apparent to me than when I started playing “Last of Us” this weekend. In this game, every single bullet is precious. You can’t carry that many and when you do find them, sometimes it’s only one or two at a time.
You can also craft items from random supplies you find, but sometimes WHAT you decide to craft is a hard decision. For instance, the same ingredients needed to make a health kit can also make a Molotov cocktail. Do you use those supplies for weapons that will be extremely effective in killing your enemies or do you use it for a health kit and rely on other means to get out of tough situations?
Because of this, the fighting is a lot more tense. Stealth is harder in terms of time, but shooting also alerts other enemies of your position. Melee weapons don’t last that long. It takes time to use a health pack and leaves you vulnerable to attacks.
So far there have been, maximum, maybe ten enemies to deal with at a time (some of them zombies). It takes just as long and sometimes FEELS more difficult to defeat them as a room full of fifty men does in Tomb Raider. The decision to use your bullets is an important one and you can feel the character’s stress as the supplies run low. Sure, you’re not going in guns blazing, but it still makes for some very exciting gameplay.
I do understand that the point of some games is to take down swarms of enemies in the most bloody and badass way possible. I understand that it’s entertainment, that for a few brief moments you get sucked in and feel like a god. I just think it was a mistake to try it out with Tomb Raider given the character and world the developers presented us. Lara Croft is a twenty year old student, not Kratos.
And you know what? At first, the game succeeds. You’re tied up. With no weapons. You have to sneak past an army of men who will kill you the second they see you. There’s no combat, but it is an incredibly intense part of the game. But it’s not long after that before you’re happily pummelling everyone you come across.
Give Lara more of a progression. If you want this to be a clean slate for the character, don’t make her an instant expert. Have her struggle in her aiming at first. Heck, don’t even give the enemies guns. This is a deserted island, bullets would be far more scarce. Not every ship that crashes would have crates of them lying around in their hold. Have her knock out enemies, not murder them. Prolong giving her a gun so that when she gets it, when she starts to get used to it, it’s a bigger deal.
Also, if you’re going to have her jump like a gazelle maybe hint at some sort of gymnastics background because JEEZ some of those jumps looked impossible.
Do you like to play video games? Yes? Awesome. Then you could be good friends with Errol. But do you like to FINISH those video games in a timely manner?…If the answer is also yes, you probably want to take a moment before letting him near your console.
For those of you who are not aware, I love video games. A lot. I love making fun of them even more. About two years ago (woah) I began doing a video series in which I wrote letters to various video game characters. Mostly it was a way to practice in front of the camera and to try my hand at writing, but it was so much fun I kept doing them. This is the latest one. Enjoy!
The nice thing about having a blog now though is that I can also use it to elaborate on the Letters a bit. Fun times! Read the rest of this entry