I said I wanted to get this done while the game was still in a Humble Bundle, and technically I succeeded, but it turns out it doesn’t matter because I’m not going to recommend it.
SOMA was sold as “Like Amnesia but sci-fi and underwater” and I love all of those things, so I had very high hopes. Hopes that were dashed. I don’t know if my tastes have changed since I played Amnesia or SOMA just wasn’t as good, but I stopped playing two hours in.
If we’re assuming the former, the problem is I’ve played a lot of puzzle games since Amnesia and my standards have gone up. Both Amnesia and Portal have puzzles so you have something to do while running from monsters and…eh. I thought I was cheating myself by looking up solutions so often, but then I solved a few myself and there was still no sense of satisfaction. It’s more just testing what the environment will let you do until the problem somehow goes away.
I was intrigued enough by the story to look up the ending. If you’re looking for something with similar themes, less terror, and better puzzles, I strongly recommend The Swapper, which remains one of my favorite games of all time.
On one hand, I try to stay away from negative reviews. Insulting things is easy, creating things is hard. On the other hand, mentioning a game on this blog makes its purchase tax deductible to me. You see my dilemma.
So let’s talk primarily about Psychonauts, which is an excellent game. It is one of those nebulous “puzzle platformers”, meaning it involves both jumping and carrying things around until they can be used as keys. But where it really shines is the meta game: most levels take place inside people’s heads, and reflect their inner damage. For example, the drill sergeant camp counselor’s brain is a fairly standard 3D platformer. Occasionally you have to knock a wall down, but there aren’t even real enemies.
Later on you enter the mind of a woman who clearly has bipolar disorder, and you work her through her abandonment by her stage mother by enacting a series of plays. Then you shoot down the real villain, her inner critic. You also help a guy with multiple personality disorder defeat his inner Napolean by entering a ~chess board to run errands for medieval peasants.
It’s hard to convey how much this works in context, but it really does. The gameplay is fun (most of the time. Don’t judge by the first level), the puzzles are solvable (most of the time), the narrative is rich, and they all go together really well. I might occasionally look up the solution to a particular puzzle and I will definitely look up where to find the collectibles because I’m an adult with a job work to do, but this feels more like hacking the game to my style.
The creative power behind Psychonauts is Tim Schafer. Schafer made himself famous making point and click adventure games for LucasArts. My older friends regaled me with tales of Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, but they were old and unavailable, even on gog.com.
I contented myself with new Tim Schafer games. Stacking‘s movement mechanic made me motion sick but otherwise it was reasonably fun. And eventually Shafer’s old games were not only remastered and released, but I waited them out until they appeared in Humble Bundles, which is very nearly free (although not entirely, IRS). And even more eventually, I had time to play both Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango.
I tried with these, I really did. I was afraid they were hidden gems I was failing because I couldn’t give them enough attention. But ultimately? They’re not fun. It’s not that the puzzles don’t make sense- they don’t, but I’d forgive that if exploring the solution space was cheap. Then I’d get to feel clever for figuring something out. No, both games’ sin is that they are slow. Walking across a room to pick something up is slow. Moving between environments is slow. Going through dialogue trees is extremely slow. Retrying a strategy with a slight variation requires going through the first six steps over again.
I thought maybe I just didn’t have the attention span for games anymore, which was a little terrifying. Then I played Massive Chalice, from the same studio but a different lead designer. MC is great. It’s a tactical RPG, where you move your dudes around to shoot things, but also a creepy eugenics simulator, where you breed your heroes to produce better heroes next generation. This game was frustrating and unfun at first, but in a way I immediately recognized would become fun if I put enough thought into it. So I did the natural thing and recruited my friends to play it too, so we could talk about it and share the burden of finding out how to play. This was a mixed success as far as “learning to play” went, as people disagreed violently over the best strategies, but it was fun.
Massive Chalice’s breeding minigame is not what one might hope. Inbreeding is disallowed, there aren’t many families, and the long period of reproductive senescence creates big gaps in the ages of your heroes in each family. You end up throwing in whoever is least bad, rather than carefully crafting a strategy. Also, I don’t like hard choices. I make enough hard choices in my day, when I’m playing games I just want to build things.
Recognizing how creepy this sounds: I spent a long time looking for a game with the breeding elements of Massive Chalice or Crusader Kings 2, but where that was the entirety of the game. There’s nothing. There are some pet reproduction games but not with the depth I want. Basically I’m looking for AKC: The Video Game.
I really love physics puzzle video games. The general pattern for physics puzzlers is that you have a fairly small set of tools that alter some fundamental law, like gravity, and you use them to get to the other side of the room. The puzzles are quite separate from each other, and there is no metapuzzle. You walk into a chamber, you solve the puzzle, you walk out. None of this wondering if you’re did the puzzle wrong or it’s just a tree you walked in to, no metagame (I’m looking at you, The Witness. Either be a book of mazes or have a story, doing neither is annoying), just a puzzle to solve with a little reward pellet when you’re done. I have enough things in my day where it’s not even clear if I’m solving the correct problem, I don’t need that from my leisure activities.
The example you’re most likely to be familiar with is Portal.
Thomas Was Alone uses a couple of my favorite themes, including disparate people (rectangles) bonding together to solve a problem, and entwined moral and practical leveling up. The puzzle solving of using different rectangles to get them all where they need to go becomes a metaphor for social cooperation in really impressive ways. It is the first game I ever went through to get the collectibles not because I wanted the reward pellet from getting 100% completion, but just because I wanted to spend more time in the world. So you can imagine my excitement when I found out the creator, Tom Bithell, had a new game coming out, and by coming out I mean came out a year and a half ago and was in a Humble Bundle, because I am not super up on my video game releases.
Story wise, Volume is no Thomas Was Alone, and I think that’s true even accounting for the facts that I was playing during a truly awful week, and Thomas was Alone‘s story couldn’t have targeted me better if it tried. If you removed the story from both Volume is clearly the better the game, but part of what made Thomas Was Alone work was the superb integration between story and mechanics, so that’s not really fair.
But Volume‘s gameplay is excellent. You play a thief playing a AI-driven simulation of stealing (but are also actually stealing? To be honest I wasn’t paying attention. Oh, apparently you’re simulating it to show other people how to steal and then they do? That explains the moralizing at the end) from people who totally deserve it. If you filmed the results it would look a lot like a wireframe of a Bugs Bunny Cartoons. Guards can only see in a very prescribed area, so often the best thing to do walk directly behind them. If you enter their line of sight they will chase you, but if you leave it for long enough they will give up, which led to a couple of really entertaining chases where I ran around columns perfectly opposite them until they gave up. The game pokes fun at the simplifications it made- “I didn’t have the money to illustrate a bunch of objects so just pretend each of these identical gems is something different”, “Yes, transporters are impossible, but stairs are hard to code please just go with it.”
You’re given a variety of tools to manipulate the guards, like a bugle to create sound far away from you, and a way to generate a ghost of you running away so the guards will chase it (this one is a mixed blessing because it makes the guards more vigilant). The tools vary dramatically in entertainment value: I found the stun gun was no fun at all, because it removed the need for planning. Encounter a problem? Shoot it. It doesn’t even take that long to recharge. But the stunning tripwire was fantastic. Figuring out where to place it so you have as much time to run past the guard to your goal as possible and then lure them to it without getting shot is hard.
Like Thomas Was Alone and unlike every other puzzle game I’ve ever played, I completed Volume without once looking at a walkthrough. For Thomas this was pretty clearly because the puzzles were easy; for Volume I think it’s at least partly really excellent design. I didn’t know how to solve everything right away, but I always had more ideas of things to try. None of this staring at a brick wall wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do (I’m looking at you Fez).
If I had one complaint about Volume that wasn’t about the lack of the magic of friendship, it would be that you don’t get enough time with any one mechanic. I wish the game had had more confidence that the puzzles were fun and it didn’t need to keep feeding me novelty. Luckily there is an ecosystem of user-made levels that I can only assume solves this exact problem.
So I heartily recommend Volume. While I’m at it, if you like this type of game you’ll probably love Swapper, which might be more fun mechanically than even Portal and has narrative/mechanic integration to rival Thomas Was Alone, although this time the narrative is about watching your body die horribly over and over again, which is somewhat easier to represent in gameplay. And for people like me who will enjoy even mid-tier representatives of the genre, Q.U.B.E is totally adequate.
There’s a lot of games that attempt to be educational out there. I break them down into the following categories.
You do the exact same work, but receive stickers or points or badges for doing so.
Example: Kahn Academy badges, arguably all grades. Extra Credits describes an intricate system here.
I was a grade grubber for years, and I’ll admit I still kind of miss the structure of school. But gamification wears off really quickly, and Alfie Kohn has made a career out of arguing that extrinsic rewards are inherently harmful. The one benefit I see in Extra Credit’s system is that it would reinforce students for other students’ performance, cutting down on bullying the smart kids. It may also encourage the strongest students to help the weakest ones. Or it might make everyone hate the weak students or help them cheat so they can get a pizza party. Kids will do a lot for a pizza party. And they may start to resent the smart kids for not helping enough. So I guess I’m against this, but that may stem from years in the worst possible educational environment.
In that same video EC suggests the much less likely to backfire benefits of tailored difficulty curves and immediate feedback. These strike me as much more valuable, but they will mostly fall in another category.
These are games that don’t really teach you anything you could use on a test, and often have fictionalized elements, but do build conceptual fluency, which can make it easier to learn real things later. Pretty much any game set in the real world qualifies for this, but my personal favorite is Oregon Trail for introducing millions of school children to the concept of dysentery.
A lot of the games on Extra Credits’s steam shelf fall into this category. I was initially pretty dismissive of this, but I’ve changed my mind.
There are a lot of reasons that middle class + white children do better at school than poor + minority children, but one of them is the amount and type of knowledge they’re exposed to at home. Poor parents flat out talk to their children less, which gives them less time to transmit knowledge. They’re also less likely to have the kind of knowledge their children will be tested on at school. As Sharon Astyk so heartbreakingly puts it, her foster children needed to be taught how to be read to but had a highly developed internal map of food-containing garbage cans.
There’s no video game for learning to not chew on books. But there are lots of video games with maps. A big part of my 6th grade social studies class was blank map tests, where we would be given a blank map and have to label all the countries. We had a decent teacher, so I suspect this was fluency building and not drilling for drilling’s sake: when we read about Egypt and Greece and Rome, she wanted us to be able to put events in geographical context. I didn’t know where every country was, but I did know, or at least recognize, the names of most countries. This put me strictly ahead of the girl who called Syria “cereal”. When we took tests I only had to put effort into remembering locations, she had to put effort into locations, and names, and possibly what a country was. And it’s really hard to put in that effort when you don’t see a point and this other girl is doing so much better than you without even trying. Carmen San Diego, or any video game with a strong sense of real-world place, could have given her a way to catch up. Even if it wasn’t fun, it wouldn’t have had the same ugh field around it that studying did.
This is related but not identical to what Extra Credits describes as “familiarity builders“, where the goal is basically to make something interesting enough people look up the actual facts on wikipedia later.
Drill and Killers:
These games overlay what they’re trying to teach on top of typical game mechanics. These are more than fluency builders because they use the same skills you’d use on a test or in real life, but they don’t teach you anything new, they just give you practice with what you already know. Examples: Math Blasters, Mario Teaches Typing.
How good these are depends on who you ask. I suspect you need a certain minimal fluency to make them at all fun, which makes the difficulty curve important. And they’re less fun or game-like than the other types on this list. But some things just have to be drilled, and video games are a more fun way to do that than flash cards.
Abstract Skill Builders:
Games that teach useful skills. They would need translation to be anything useful on a test or in real life, but it does build up some part of the brain.
Example: Logical Journey of The Zoombinis, which teaches pattern matching, logical thinking, and arguably set theory.
On one hand, abstract skills like these are very hard to teach. On the other hand, people are very bad at transferring skills from one domain to another (which is why some people can make change just fine but have trouble with contextless arithmetic, or can do arithmetic but not word problems). On the third hand, people are very bad at transferring skills from one domain to another, so if there’s a tool that helps than learn that, it would be very valuable.
You don’t technically have to learn anything to play these games, but you will be rewarded if you do.
Example: Sine Rider. Technically you can get by with guess and check, but you will win faster if you actually understand trigonometric equations.
A step further than skill builders or drillers, these games have both flavor and mechanics based in the subject you are trying to teach. These games are not necessarily complete substitutes for textbooks because it’s hard for them to be comprehensive, but they do completely teach whatever it is they’re trying to teach.
Extra Credits is a video series on game design and the game industry. It has interesting insights I don’t see elsewhere, but it is also… low density. You could compress most episodes into a single written paragraph and lose nothing. I tend to watch them when being told the same thing over and over with completely unnecessary accompanying graphics is calming, rather than annoying, which isn’t very often, so I only just caught this video on whether games can induce empathy.
If you are not in the mood to be reassuringly talked down to, they helpfully provide a summary:
Many studies have investigated whether or not there is a link between video games and violence, but few have looked at the bigger picture. What is the correlation between video games and empathy? Since games put us, as players, in the role of characters who are not ourselves, asking us to understand their situation and the problems that they face, they have the potential to teach us about how to empathize with others. While many gamers have anecdotal evidence about games that made them feel a character’s pain, there’s a disappointing lack of formal studies into that side of the question.
I didn’t think anything of it until a week later at my Effective Altruism meetup, when we were discussing egalitarianism/maximization. In a nutshell, EA believes that all lives are equally valuable, so if you can save two lives for $n each or one life for $2n, the most moral thing to do is to save the two lives. Phrased that way I don’t understand how it’s at all controversial, but in practice it comes up against many people’s instinctive priorities. For some, passing over a homeless person to give to GiveDirectly doesn’t just give them fewer warm-fuzzies, it feels actively immoral. Someone at the meeting suggested it was a matter of empathy- people naturally feel more empathy the more often they see someone, or the more they have in common with them.
This is of course obvious, which is why so many charities try to up the empathy you feel for their beneficiaries, by implying you’re helping a particular person when you’re not, or just sending a letter with a few heartwarming stories of all the injured dogs they’ve saved that year.* They do it because it get donations, but it’s very hard not to slide into poverty porn. I find those examples really manipulative, but I loved the ability to choose out specific recipients when donating to Modest Needs so clearly I’m just as susceptible.
This is where I thought of that Extra Credits video. What if instead of telling people how awful extreme poverty is, we gave them a video game demonstrating both the difficulties poor people faced and the resources they used? Some things I would like to include:
Trade offs, trade offs, trade offs. Do you invest in your child’s schooling or new farming equipment?
Bee Sting theory– demonstrating how it is easy to do the right long term thing when you have a few problems, but when too much is wrong sometimes palliatives are all you can manage.
The importance of social capital. The poor (both in the US and the 3rd world) get a lot of criticism for spending so much on alcohol and ceremonies, but the fact is that that builds social relationships that can be crucial later on. This doesn’t mean spending a lot on booze and parties is optimal, but that the change must come at a societal level.
How many well intentioned NGOs fail. E.g. my continuing hate for the play pump.
Ideally you’d like to convey the scope of preventable deaths. I don’t know how to do that respectfully. You could do something like Shelter or The Oregon Trail, where you go in knowing some characters will die and the goal is to save as many as possible, but that seems a little horrifically callous.
I have several ideas for how to do this. You could do the trade offs with a choice mechanism like that of Depression Quest or Long Live the Queen. Soha Kareem has has apparently done some great work with video games to express her experience of microaggressions and sexual abuse.
EA strikes me as having a real comparative advantage when it comes to producing video games, relative to other charitable movements. And by “real comparative advantage”, I mean “lots of programmers”.** None are games programmers specifically, but it might be a skill worth picking up.
*Pro-tip for my local humane society: this may not work as well on cat owners as you were hoping.
**We were up to two non-programmers at the last meeting. High five.
Plus Trauma Centers’s difficulty curve is insane, and they found a way to make repeating unskippable cutscenes worse. But one of the nice things about game development getting cheaper is they can make games for me and the four other people who will appreciate a cross between an immunology textbook and Majesty, which is the best way to describe Immune Defense. In Immune Defense you play as the immune system, releasing various immune cells (each with different skills, and customized to different pathogens), which you do not directly control (it isn’t pac-man) but can lure over to the bacteria with antibodies if the %^&*ing macrophages will stop eating them. In place of the usual Hit Points it has an inflammation count, which is actually pretty reasonable. It has some biological inaccuracies (I’m reasonably certain real neutrophils don’t change receptor types instantaneously), but it’s still overall educational. Note the lack of rocket ships in this trailer.
That said, it’s obviously still in beta, and if the phrase “immunology x majesty” doesn’t grab you, you’re probably better off waiting. The tutorial is really lacking and they need to smooth out some of the controls. But I had a ton of fun until tendinitis forced me to stop playing, and if “immunology x majesty” does inspire joy in your heart you will probably enjoy it a lot, so check out the IndieGoGo and demo.
Humans have an amazing ability to ascribe intention and emotion when logic tells us there could not possibly be any, a fact demonstrated most succinctly by this clip from Community
but proven somewhat more rigorously by An experimental study of apparent behaviour (PDF), in which experimental subjects were asked to watch and describ a short film showing some shapes moving around. If you would like to play along at home, I’ve embedded the video below.
The first subject group (n=34 undergraduate women) was given no instruction beyond “describe what happened in the movie.” Exactly one subject described it in purely geometric terms. Two others described the shapes as birds, and the rest described them as humans. 19 gave a full story. The stories people told (in this treatment and another where subjects were primed to view the shapes as people) had a shocking amount in common, suggesting there was something innate in the interpretation.*
My point is, humans will bond with anything. In many ways it’s easier to bond with/project onto simple objects than actual humans or almost humans. This can be used to great effect in art, to evoke desired emotions without all the messiness of using real people. A simple example is an extremely short, simple game whose name I’m not going to tell you, because it would bias your experience of it.
Did you play it? The game’s name is Loneliness. Can you guess why?
I like to think the shunned little square from Loneliness grew up in to be Chris in Thomas Was Alone, a game about rectangles making friends. Thomas Was Alone‘s premise sounds kinds of dumb: it’s a puzzle platformer with some narration ascribing emotions to the rectangles you solve puzzles with. But it pulls this off so masterfully I actually bought branded merchandise of it, which is something I can’t say about a single other game. The story is genuinely sweet, but the real skill is in how the puzzles reinforce it. Each rectangle has slightly different skills, some more useful than others. Chris is a shitty jumper whose initial story revolved around resenting the better jumper, and who is nothing but dead weight in the first puzzles (the other rectangles could get through without him, but he could not with them) suddenly becomes indispensable, I felt pride and relief.
TWA starts out a little slow. If you want to play, finish the first world before deciding whether to continue or quit. But I highly recommend it both as an interesting example of human psychology, and as a piece of happy art, which I don’t think we see enough of.
Okay, fine, I don’t see enough of because I’m a severe subscriber to the dark and edgy trend. But that just makes Thomas Was Alone more impressive.
*Attenuated by the fact that women attending college during WW2 is a narrow subset of the population.