Vintage Game Club: Thief
Zoe on the skins

Hot for teacher


I've long been interested in how games teach us to play. Maybe it's the educator in me, always on the look out for ideas I can steal borrow for the classroom. Teachers and game designers share an abiding appreciation of a simple fact: humans crave learning. Whatever we may say about the ludic/narrative dimension of games, part of the itch that games scratch for us is an urge to understand how things work.

The best games communicate their systems to us in ways that feel satisfying, and the quality of this dialogue between player and game often determines the success or failure of the game. When Alyx introduces Dog to Gordon in Half-Life 2, the player learns how to use the gravity gun, a vital skill required by the game, by playing fetch with Dog.

Embedded in this game-within-a-game tutorial - and without resorting to an expositional cutscene - is an interaction with Alyx's wherein her affectionate personality emerges. We see evidence of her remarkable engineering skills, and we discover the perilous life she's led and the lengths to which her father has gone to protect her and provide her with companionship. And we learn how to use the gravity gun by playing with it.

I mention this because I've been playing Demon's Souls like a man possessed for the last few days, and I'm intrigued by how it functions as a teacher. In this case, the designers have built a pedagogical system into the game that ingeniously melds single-player discovery and multiplayer cooperative problem-solving. As I noted a few days ago, this game was designed to be HARD, so teaching the player how to meet its challenges becomes a design imperative in Demon's Souls.

In this regard, Demon's Souls is like a gifted and promising first-year teacher, full of terrific ideas and big ambitions - but a little rough around the edges. You can't help feeling inspired by such a dazzling upstart, even when she forgets some of the basics.

Demon's Souls manages to strike just the right balance between failure-as-frustration and failure-as-tutelage. Dying results in harsh punishment (though not as harsh as, say, a rogue-like), but the impulse to try just one more time never seems to diminish because failure feels like your fault. You know you can get past that guard. You just haven't found the right strategy yet. When fatigue begins to stand in your way, you're playing a game with a firm grip.

Of course, it's possible you're simply not ready to fight that guard, and here's where Demon's Souls brilliantly identifies a teaching moment. Other players can leave notes in the environment to help you. Advice like "Don't bother until you're level 20" or "Just run and don't stop" can get you past a tough spot - or it can function as another layer of challenge. "Oh, really?" you think to yourself, "Well, we'll see about that." The game also offers more familiar multiplayer co-op in the form of summoning helpers for especially difficult areas.

And here's where the first-year teacher shows signs of inexperience. Demon's Souls sometimes fails to properly indicate or explain how its systems work. A visit to the official wiki or a plaintive tweet can get you over the hump, but going outside the game for such assistance contradicts the self-contained in-game co-op (hey, a hyphenated trifecta!) design goal Demon's Souls establishes for itself. The inventory interface is cumbersome and difficult to decipher, and it's often hard to tell which weapons are true upgrades, what potions do and when to use them, etc.

Apparently the designers assumed this course has prerequisites, and prior experience with RPGs will certainly give the player a leg-up. But as a gamer with plenty of RPG miles on my tires, I wish Demon's Souls did a better job explaining its core mechanics and signaling condition changes. As Jesper Juul observed in Half-Real, "To play a game is to interact with its Game State," and Demon's Souls makes this harder than it should be, with no apparent payoff. Most of the time, difficulty in Demon's Souls is meaningful difficulty, but that's fodder for another post. :-)

Don't let my quibbles with this game's pedagogy trouble you too much. Demon's Souls is one of the best - and easily the most addictive - games I've played this year. So, yeah. I'm hot for teacher. If you're thinking of squealing to my wife, don't bother. She already knows about it. ;-)