Archive for the 'Educational' Category


Bioscopia: Final Thoughts

bioscopia-dinoBioscopia is now off the Stack. I resorted to a walkthough once — I tried to avoid it, out of a suspicion that once I started on the hints, I’d keep on hitting them. A game like this is pretty reliant on the wandering-around-confused phases, because that’s when you notice the hotspots you missed before, and find clues and items you’ll need for puzzles you haven’t encountered yet. But toward the end, when I had more or less exhausted the environment, this rationale wore thin.

bioscopia-lettersThere was one point earlier on when I was severely tempted to cheat: it involved four dials, each of which could be set to any of eight letters. A word puzzle? Unlikely in a game translated from a foreign language. The letters conspicuously included A, T, C, and G, the abbreviations of the bases that form DNA, so it seemed reasonable that these would be the four letters in the combination. But in what order? Only one ordering was accepted, it turned out, but if there was a clue about it, I missed it — and having looked at a couple of walkthroughs after the fact, I find that I’m not the only one. But assuming that it’s a permutation of these four elements reduces the solution space from 4096 possibilities to a mere 24, amenable to brute force search. Riven had similarly subjected the player to trying out the remaining possibilities in conditions of incomplete information four years previously, but it somehow seemed more acceptable there. Probably it’s because Riven was aiming for believability, and the occasional lack of pat clues worked into that. Bioscopia is far too fundamentally contrived to ever use realism as an excuse.

The game involves more situational use of biological knowledge than I gave it credit for at first, although it never really gives up on merely using science as inspiration for increasingly-elaborate combination locks. Also, I wondered earlier if the authors were aware of the irony of using robots prominently. It turns out that they are: the robots, it turns out, are the bad guys; the disease that overcame the researchers is caused by their fumes. So it’s kind of a nature-vs-technology plot, except that the whole place is still extremely artifical. There are no living animals to be seen anywhere in the game, which is particularly weird given that there’s an entire section about zoology.

Actually, there’s technically one animal: a human, a fellow explorer, trapped and sick and occasionally sending you text messages stressing the urgency of her situation. Curing and rescuing this damsel in distress produces the ending cutscene, a disappointing and slightly confusing piece of work, with some of the silliest-sounding maniacal laughter I’ve ever heard.

I’ve finished this game a full week ahead of schedule, but that’s OK, because the schedule itself has already slipped by two weeks. So I’ll be proceeding to 2002 without further delay.

Bioscopia: Symbols and Learning

Since my last post, I’ve started making progress again, mainly by revisiting places a lot to see if I noticed anything new. If nothing else, wandering in this way exposes the player to more “educational” content: in order to keep using doors, you have to periodically recharge your keycard by playing biology trivia at the card-recharging stations located in each major section, conveniently near the “big brain” machines that give you access to the in-game textbook containing all the answers.

The keycard turned out to be the key to my earlier stuckness, as it turned out that my initial low-clearance one could open two doors from the hub, not just one as I had believed. I could have sworn I had tried it on all of the doors, but I guess not. And by now, I have a superior card that lets me through any door with a slot. Not that all doors have slots. There are still puzzles to solve.

bioscopia-organOne of the first things I found this time around was an outsized organ attached to a wall, with an intake funnel and an outflow valve, like something out of a Fritz Kahn illustration. I’m not sure what organ it’s supposed to be — to me, it looks like a pancreas more than anything else, but that doesn’t fit the plumbing. At any rate, it was clearly a new type of puzzle: one based on interacting with biological mechanisms rather than just displaying knowledge of them. Mentally squinting, I think I can make out some less-obvious examples of this in the architecture, situations that are symbols of the processes that I’m supposed to be learning about, like how the circuitous entry into the inner part of the microbiology lab reflects the way a carrier protein transports a molecule through a cell membrane.

This sort of architectural symbolism was found abundantly in Chemicus, where the whole layout of the game was an imitation of the periodic table of elements (with the noble gases only accessible through a secret passage, indicating their resistance to ordinary connections). I suppose Bioscopia‘s overall layout similarly resembles a cell, with the inaccessible tree in the middle representing the nucleus. I’ve been assuming that crossing that chasm is the passage into the endgame, which means symbolically, what, impregnating the compound? Virally infecting it? The ultimate goal of the game is to rid the place of an infection, a plague contracted by the previous tenants.

At any rate, the organ on the wall is one of the few cases of the game attempting to teach through an approximation to what Ian Bogost calls “procedural rhetoric” — that is, instead of presenting the audience with a statement directly, presenting a rule-based system that embodies the statement and letting the audience discover it by interacting with the system. It’s not a very advanced example of this technique, though, and it pretty decisively fails at its pedagogical purpose: I interacted with it, I solved the puzzle it was part of, and I still don’t know what I was supposed to learn.

Bioscopia and its kin

Around the turn of the millennium, Tivola Publishing released a series of three German-developed Myst-style first-person adventure games with educational aspirations, each focusing on a different science. The most celebrated of the three, and the one with by far the highest production values, is Chemicus. Andrew Plotkin’s review of Chemicus got me curious about it, and by extension, the other two, Physicus and Bioscopia.

Physicus and Bioscopia are both blatant Director games, Made in Macromedia and not too proud to show it, like many of their generation of cheap Myst imitators. All three games follow the basic model of wandering around a strange and deserted environment, poking at things with your cursor and solving puzzles that open up new areas — the puzzles, in these particular games, being to a large extent (but not entirely!) tests of your knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, which is also available through a sort of narrated and animated textbook within the game (sometimes a little shaky in its English translation). Physicus was much shorter and easier than Chemicus, basically a one-sitting game. I can’t really speak to the length of Bioscopia, though, because I haven’t finished it yet. I stopped playing fairly early on, finding it far less interesting than either of its brethren.

This isn’t because the curriculum was less interesting. It’s because it was less well-integrated into the gameplay. Chemicus worked as well as it did because it used practical chemistry to solve adventure-game puzzles — for example, freeing a golden object embedded in a block of silver by immersing it in nitric acid. Physicus was more like a bunch of concretized word problems: there were lots of machines that needed just one or two things adjusted, like the right weight to balance a lever, or the right amount of power through an induction coil. It was more contrived than the situational puzzles in Chemicus, but it was still based on interacting with the environment as an environment. Bioscopia, from what I’ve seen so far, mainly just tries to teach biology by occasionally quizzing you in various ways. There are puzzles about manipulating the environment, using objects on other objects and whatnot, but these puzzles have absolutely nothing to do with biology. They’re mostly about manipulating machines, prominently including robots — were the authors aware of the irony here? And some of the machines require you to demonstrate biological knowledge, but they could just as well be asking you about art history or Doctor Who trivia.

I suppose it shows something about the way the three subjects are taught in school. Chemistry and physics are presented as techniques, and techniques are things that can be applied in a simulated world. But biology is presented mainly as a collection of facts. It’s impossible to perform science of that sort.

Perhaps it’s best to not even think of Bioscopia as educational and just approach it as a game. We’ll see how well that works. But right now, I don’t think it works very well that way either.

Evolution: Conclusions

Somewhat miraculously, I managed to win Evolution without going any farther off schedule. My intelligent species was the Silurians Sleestaks Saurosapiens, which evolved somewhat after their time — I had managed to keep a fairly sizeable and diverse stable of dinosaurs alive after the Cenozoic extinction event, which actually doesn’t seem to be all that unusual for this game, despite the game’s arbitrary penalties on the feeding rate for for creatures that are out of their proper era. (It’s a pretty good system for keeping creatures from developing too far ahead of schedule, because getting a toehold is a struggle for any new species, but an established species that isn’t struggling any more is less affected.) But honestly, I think I could have pulled off a win even if my dinosaurs had gone properly extinct. Evolving a different intelligent species would have taken longer, but I was far enough ahead to take that time.

I think I was more or less primed for victory by my previous game, which was the first time I had actually played a game to completion. Well, not played exactly. Most of the Mesozoic era, and all of the Cenozoic, I zipped through at the maximum time scale. There wasn’t much point in interacting with the game at that point: I had failed to get a mammal population going, and the extinction event left me with nothing but a few stegasauri (more or less a dead end, good for a score bonus at game’s end but only capable of evolving into ankylosaurus and triceratops) and one single low-population dryosaurus unit. A dryosaurus can take you places — it’s a potential ancestor of both Saurosapiens and Psittacisapiens, not to mention all other bird species — but the catastrophe had left these particular dryosauri in a bad state, and they weren’t long for the world. Still, I let the game play out to the end, more or less leaving it alone once I had established triceratops and ankylosaur habitats. The ankylosaurs managed to survive to the very end, even as the virtual player named Darwin filled the world with bats and rabbits and thylacines, finally winning at the 57-million-years-ago mark by developing intelligent wombats.

The main thing I got out of watching that session was an appreciation of the degree of multitasking needed to win. There’s something in the neighborhood of 200 species in the game, which is a drop in the bucket compared to reality, but still far more than it’s easy to manage in your head if you’re in a dominant enough position to have most of them coming to you. (And yes, you do want to develop every species you can, if only to keep them out of the opponent clades.) Being the loser is relatively easy: once you start losing in earnest, you only have to keep track of two or three species at a time.

Nonetheless, it’s a lot easier to keep winning than to start winning. The classic strategy-game positive feedback loop definitely applies here. You might think that the periodic cataclysms and die-offs would put everyone on an even footing, but no. The clade that’s most widespread before the event tends to have the most survivors afterward, and also is in the best position to capitalize on any extinctions.

All in all, I’d say this is actually a pretty good game. Seeing it on a store shelf back in 1997, you’d probably assume that it’s just watered-down educational fare, but there’s some real game here. The main thing I’d change is the UI. The game uses a sort of MDI interface, with various components of the game, including the main view and the various information dialogs, placed in distinct windows with their own title bars, which you can drag around and minimize and so forth (all within a parent window). This may have seemed like a good idea in 1997, when people were still figuring out how to best take advantage of Windows 95, but only one of these sub-windows can have focus at a time, and that’s inconvenient — especially when focus is taken away by a modal pop-up.

Evolution: Environment and Migration

I’m still consistently losing. Or rather, consistently giving up when it’s clear I’m going to lose. I’ve started loosening up a bit with regards to deciding when that is, though. It doesn’t do to be too disheartened at the opponents beating you out to evolving a new species: in order for it to do them any good, they have to keep it from going extinct. And most new species have a bit of a handicap there, in that their ideal environment isn’t the same as that of the species that spawned it — that being more or less the point of speciation.

Environment has two components: terrain and temperature. The unit description window — the same one that indicates a unit’s population and how well it’s feeding — mentions the ideal terrain type and temperature for that unit’s species; more detailed information, including how well it survives in each terrain, is available in the species details. It’s easy to fall into the trap of paying attention only to the terrain type, because that’s highly visible: every tile on the map is decorated according to its terrain. But the temperature seems to be even more important to survival, and it’s displayed in a place that users tend to ignore: the info bar at the bottom of the window. It displays the temperature and terrain type for the tile currently pointed at by the mouse pointer — which is to say, it only starts to display useful information when you’re looking at a different part of the screen. It’s invaluable once you start paying attention to it, but I feel like the fact that the info bar is used at all, let alone for such a crucial feature, is a real sign of how new the idea of Windows as a gaming platform was. People didn’t really know how to use it, but they were willing to experiment.

So, when you get a new species, it’s a fragile thing, ill-adapted to its environment and in need of nurturing. Which is kind of the opposite of how evolution is supposed to work, but regardless, the top priority is to get it to its ideal environment before it dies out. Even once it’s there, the environment doesn’t last forever. Plains turn to desert, mountains rise, the climate changes — sometimes catastrophically, as in a major asteroid strike. About all you can do is send your creatures to as many different places as possible and hope for the best. Which you want to do anyway: you don’t want your creatures competing with each other for food. (In extreme cases, I’ve contemplated marching my obsolete creatures into the ocean to make room for the new guys.) No, you want them competing with the opponets’ creatures for food. My greatest competitive successes so far have not been a matter of out-evolving the opponents, or of fighting and killing them, but of driving them away by out-breeding and out-eating them. Which is how invasive species work in real life, so hooray for accuracy.

Spreading your population out isn’t trivial, though. In order to get a unit from one ideal feeding ground to another, you typically have to cross areas not suited to the unit’s needs at all, and while it’s crossing those zones, its population will drop. This is how oceans work, by the way. You can send any species on a trek across the water, and it’ll just walk on it like it’s a blue carpet, not even slowing down. But while it’s out there, it won’t get any food at all. Birds can colonize remote continents more easily than most creatures, but that’s not because they have any kind of in-game-modeled flight attributes. It’s because they can move faster, and thus can cross more ocean before starving to death.

Evolution: Mechanics and Strategy

Posting very late today. Playing the Cenozoic scenario turned out to be an even worse morale-wrecker than attempting a full game. Because life is already pretty well advanced, it isn’t long before the opponents start developing the immediate precursors to potentially intelligent life, such as elephants and parrots and australopitheci, all while I’m still struggling to get out of the small-ratlike-creature phase. Seriously, I need to figure out how they’re managing it. The one trick I’ve figured out so far is to send my newly-spawned creatures out to colonize new territory as soon as they’re fit for the journey, thereby lessening the demands on the land and increasing the rate at which the population increases.

To explain this in more detail: Each “creature” visible on the map actually represents a herd or colony or something — at any rate, a local population. This was not clear to me in my very first struggles with the game; I had to read the manual to really understand it. When you click on a creature, you get a little pop-up window with details on that creature, including a green bar labeled “Population”. I think that when I first saw this I assumed it referred to the worldwide population of that species, but no, it’s the population of that particular “creature”. It essentially functions like hit points for the group. It fills or empties according to how well the creature is feeding; if it fills completely, the creature splits in two. So in this way, the game is more like a simulation of unicellular life than of tetrapods.

Having lots of creatures of a particular species isn’t good simply because it gives them a better chance of surviving. Each living creature also contributes to the rate at which its species accumulates “evolution points”, which is to say, research into development. Evolution points are automatically spent on three things, in proportions you can set on a per-species basis: improving feeding (and thus population growth), improving combat ability (against another species which you specify — predators use this to predate better, prey species to resist predation), and developing a new species (which you specify). It’s a lot easier to evolve a species that’s populous and well-fed, which seems a little iffy to me — doesn’t natural selection play a more prominent role in situations marked by desperate competition to avoid starvation? But I suppose we have to make some concessions to gameplay. The rule for strategy games is that success is rewarded with more success.

At the very beginning, it obviously makes sense to devote most or all of your evolution points to feeding. But there seems to be a point of diminishing returns there — the detailed species information has another of those green bars indicating how close to its maximum feeding-efficiency potential it is, and this bar seems to only asymptotically approach filling up completely. At some point, it makes sense to devote more and more points to speciation. I suspect that part of my problem is that I haven’t yet discovered the sweet spots for this transition. Do it too late, and the opponents will get the new species before you. Do it too soon and it cuts into the feeding points that would be otherwise growing your population and increasing your evolution point income, with the end result that, again, the opponents beat you to the new species.

You may be thinking “So what, so the opponents beat you out to a few early species. If you have the largest population, you’ll catch up.” Just one problem: When an opponent beats you to a species, it cuts you off. Each species can belong to only one clade at a time. Like the Wonders in Civilization, if someone else beats you to a species you’re in the middle of developing, the points you sank into it just go to waste. In one session, the opponents actually claimed all possible developments from one of my species, leaving it unable to develop further until one of said species went extinct and became up for grabs again.

You may wonder how it’s possible to compete at all in a situation like this, given that speciation is like a branching tree. Claim any common ancestor of all mammals, and you prevent anyone else from developing any mammals at all, right? The game has a way around this, and it’s one of the weirdest things about it in its implications: evolution in the game is what the manual calls “polyphyletic”, which is to say, any given species can evolve through multiple possible routes. Most major branches of the tree of life start out as bundles of about five or six possible common ancestors; not at all coincidentally, six is the maximum number of players. The options from these junctions aren’t entirely equivalent — for example, any of the early mammals can be developed into Miacis and and thence into the entire order of Carnivora, but only one, the Alphadon, can also give you thylacines.

But are thylacines worth it? From the point of view of someone pursuing intelligence, they’re something of a dead end — but then, so is the entire order of Carnivora. But there are strategic reasons to pursue as much diversity as you can: the increased ability to withstand global disasters, the ability to colonize more types of terrain and deny your opponents their exclusive use, even just the points it gives you at the end of the game. Moreover, thylacines and carnivores are predators, and thus have the ability to attack opponents’ creatures — something that you tend not to get on the routes to intelligence. (Saurosapiens notwithstanding — they’re descended from velociraptors.)

But that’s all quite theoretical to me at the moment. Anything I say about advanced strategy is just a repetition of what it says in the beautiful, rigorous, and oft-consulted manual.

Evolution

evolutionSometime around the year 2000, when the dot-com bubble was deflating — a period that left me in a painful state of burnout, as the reduced demand for programmers paradoxically increased the demands on programmers — I spent a brief stint working under contract to Unplugged Games, Greg Costikyan’s premature venture to put games on cell phones. I honestly didn’t know who Costikyan was at the time, or who he would later become. If I had, I might have approached the work there with a more positive attitude. As it is, I did try to learn a bit about the man’s past work by picking up a copy of Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life, but I didn’t spend long playing it. It seemed dauntingly complex, and unintuitive to interact with. My first sessions were spent thrashing about wondering what I could do and watching the computer-controlled opponents encroach on what I thought of as my territory.

Going back to it now, I think I’m doing a little better, having read enough of the voluminous documentation to understand the basic underlying mechanics. But I’m still definitely in the thrashing-about phase, capable of evolving new species but incapable of keeping them alive. The manual says that a single full game takes about six hours (and that’s a fixed length — the game is realtime and progresses through distinct phases regardless of player actions), but it’s clear that I’m going to need multiple practice sessions before I can go for a win.

The game content concerns the evolution of tetrapods up to the development of intelligent life. (So, no trilobites or burgess shale creatures here, fascinating episodes in evolutionary history though they are.) Note that “Intelligent life” here doesn’t necessarily mean humans. There are several possible contenders, based on what-ifs: Psittacisapiens (evolved from parrots, which are already well-adapted to developing spoken language), Elephasapiens (from elephants, which have large brains and a dextrous frontal appendage for manipulating tools 1Not to mention the fact that, like parrots, they’re one of the few animals known to vocally imitate heard sounds — although this hadn’t yet been observed at the time this game was made. ), and a few others. These, and their immediate ancestors, are the only made-up creatures in the game, and also the most significant creatures, because the first player to develop intelligence wins. Or, well, that’s not quite right: according to the manual, developing intelligent life ends the game, at which point the clade with the most points wins. Points are awarded for achieving various milestones (first dinosaur, first mammal, etc), as well as for total biomass and diversity, but intelligence is the game’s golden snitch, giving you a 50% bonus on everything else.

But that’s the ending, which I haven’t got anywhere near yet. At the beginning, all you have is a single early amphibian species. This strikes me as just about the worst place for a beginner. I have some intuitive notions about the differences between wolves and squirrels and giraffes and so forth. I even have some expectations about the mastodon, the eohippus, the tyrannosaur, etc. But when I’m given the choice of what to evolve next, I have to choose between things like eogyrinus and diplocaulus, and I have no idea what their relative merits are. But I suppose this is what makes the game educational. Still, it probably means should probably switch to playing the Cenozoic scenario to get used to the game mechanics and strategy on more familiar grounds before trying to tackle a full game.

To me, the game it most clearly evokes is Civilization: it’s a game played on a world map at a large time scale (although here the time scale is large enough for plate tectonics to significantly alter the map over the course of a game), in which you expand your population and pursue a branching tree of developments, competing with a number of opponents for advancement and dominance. In fact, it reminds me a little of the Civ II “Age of Reptiles” mod, in which all your units were dinosaurs, and you researched technologies like “serrated teeth” and “bony plates” in order to build new types of dinosaur. But that was ultimately played within the framework of Civ, which meant that it was all based on your dinosaurs doing unlikely things like living in cities and tilling the soil. Really, in some ways, this game plays a lot more like a competitive version of The Gungan Frontier. Creatures roam about freely unless told not to, reproduce spontaneously if they’re healthy and well-fed, even potentially prey on their teammates.

More about the game mechanics next time.

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1. Not to mention the fact that, like parrots, they’re one of the few animals known to vocally imitate heard sounds — although this hadn’t yet been observed at the time this game was made.

The Gungan Frontier: Finished?

Open-ended games present some difficulty for deciding when to remove them from the Stack. The Gungan Frontier at least contains some optional discrete challenges in the form of those training missions, the last couple of which are more like missions that you train for by playing the main game. The penultimate mission asks you to turn around an ecosystem on the verge of collapse due to overharvesting, and get it to the point where it can support a city population of 60000. This would be most easily done by temporarily forbidding all harvesting while you get things into shape, if it weren’t for the stipulation that you lose the mission if the city population ever drops below 5000. I have now managed to pass this test (something I didn’t manage when I first bought the game), but my own best efforts at designing a stable ecosystem from scratch have been a lot closer to the losing end of that range. (Indeed, when I passed the 60k mark in the mission, it wasn’t with a stable ecosystem. Rather, I impatiently gave the city an extra population boom at the end by giving them permission to harvest as much as they wanted of everything, leaving the system in far worse shape than when I started. This is perhaps the grossest violation of the spirit of the game imaginable.)

Anyway, I’ve completed all the explicit challenges in the game, which leaves me with the implicit ones. Creating a stable ecosystem is actually quite easy: all you really have to do is throw in some plants and refrain from overharvesting them. Which raises the question of why you need animals in the system at all. There’s one species of plant that’s carnivorous, and another that supposedly uses an animal to spread its seeds, but for the most part, plants in this game don’t benefit at all from having animals around.

But adding animals to the mix is crucial to exploiting things for the city (in the same way that cows allow us to indirectly eat grass), and also for maximizing your “bio-score”, which seems to take biodiversity into account. But city population and bio-score are just numbers, and even when they’re both far from optimal, Boss Nass will regularly ring you up with effusive congratulations on your success. (I wonder if I can turn him off like Jar Jar? Past a certain point, he’s just as much of a pointless interruption as Jar Jar ever was.) More important, to my mind, is the because-it’s-there factor. The longest possible food chain seems to be five steps, with the Rancor as apex predator. Keeping a five-step chain stable would be a considerable challenge, and thus something one could pursue for its own sake. Then there are some exotic combinations to pursue. I mentioned a carnivorous plant, the Tooke Trap. It can combine with the Shiro, an herbivorous turtle-analogue, to form the Shiro Trap, a bulbasaur-like symbiote: the plant grows on the animal’s back to provide the plant with mobility and the animal with camouflage. Creating a system with a stable Shiro Trap population would require enough set-up that you’d pretty much have to pursue it as an end in itself.

The game contains a total of 85 distinct lifeforms, although the number of species is somewhat less due to multi-stage life cycles: one species of plant has spores that drift about independently, one species of animal lays eggs that you can harvest separately, a couple of animals have young with different diets and predators and terrain access than their parents. If a player really wants a thorough Gungan Frontier experience, there’s plenty of complexity to explore. The game itself contains encyclopedic data about each organism, but it’s not organized in a way conducive to big-picture planning. If I really wanted to delve into it, I’d start by making a chart of all the predator-prey relationships, annotated with observations about how much things eat and how fast they reproduce. (The game is packaged with a poster showing all the species, and I hoped at first that it would be such a chart, like the tech-tree posters often packaged with strategy games. But no, it just shows names and pictures.)

But I don’t think I want to delve into it that deeply. Self-imposed implicit challenges are never a requirement for removing something from the Stack. I’ve spent a significant amount of time fiddling with ecosystems on my own, and that’s all the game can ask from me.

The Gungan Frontier

gungan-surfaceA random pick from the stack today: The Gungan Frontier (released 1999, bought by me maybe six months later when it hit the bargain bins) is basically an ecosystem simulation, the sort where life forms roam about a 2D world, eating each other and dying off when they over-predate and so forth. Countless computer science undergrads (myself included) have written sims of this sort, but this one is a bit more elaborate than most, with multiple overlapping food chains and varying terrain. And, of course, it additionally allows player interaction, mainly by means of seeding the environment with organisms you’ve got in storage. By my reckoning, there’s enough interactivity to make it a game, but it’s a game like Sim City, in that it’s not essentially goal-oriented. There’s a set of training missions with explicit goals, such as raising the population of a particular creature to a certain threshold within a time limit, but in the game proper, the only goal is to keep things going indefinitely. But even though there’s no win condition, there’s definitely a lose condition: your stores are finite, so if things go extinct, you can’t necessarily replenish them.

gungan-cityThere’s one other thing about the game that makes it particularly Sim City-like: the city. The whole premise is that you’re creating this ecosystem for the benefit of a space colony, which harvests the organisms for food and building materials. If you like, you can switch the main view from the ecosystem to the colony, watching it add pods containing classrooms and hospitals and the like as it gains the necessary materials, or, if you’re not doing so well, watching those pods gray out through disuse as the colonists move out. It really seems like the colony view was designed to provide some of Sim City‘s particular experiences and motivations, but because the only things you can interact with are over in the ecosystem view, I seldom look at it. It seems a bit of a shame, because someone clearly went to some effort to create it.

The game was marketed as an educational game, but it seems to me to have aspects of what’s come to be called “persuasive” games as well. (I suppose these things are not clearly separable.) The whole point is to teach you the importance of caring for the ecosystem, so obviously there’s a bit of an environmentalist agenda there. But it’s a very non-specific environmentalist agenda, and somewhat muddled, what with its underlying assumption that wildlife exists primarily to be exploited. But consider how the harvesting of resources works. You can set the harvest rate for each species to a few rough categories: “None”, “Some”, “Lots”, “Maintain”, “As needed”. As far as I can tell, the “Lots” setting translates to “Render this species extinct as quickly as possible”. Although that’s handy in a few of the training missions, where you don’t have to worry about lasting consequences, it’s hard to imagine it being useful in a real game. No, the “Lots” option is not there to serve a gameplay purpose, but to convey a message, that unbridled consumption yields environmental devastation.

I should probably mention that this is nominally a Star Wars Episode 1 game. This doesn’t make a great deal of difference; of all the Star Wars-themed games I’ve played, this is probably the one that has the least to do with the movies. (The closest runner-up for that honor is probably Pit Droids, a puzzle game also from the Lucas Learning line.) A few of the organisms are taken from the movies; for the first time, you get to see dewbacks, rancors, and dianogas in the wild. But the Star Wars movies don’t contain nearly enough plant or animal species to form an ecosystem, so the bulk of the critters were invented for this game. Boss Nass will occasionally send you a voice message about how the colonists urgently need more materials, and sometimes Jar Jar Binks will pop up to say something utterly pointless. Finding the option to turn off Jar Jar is one of the game’s most satisfying moments. It’s almost as if he was included for the specific purpose of allowing the player to disable him.

The Typing of the Dead: Finished

totd-endIn the final level of The Typing of the Dead, the rotting corpses give way to what look more like artificial life forms or androids, grey-skinned and sporting built-in lightsabres and other superpowers. The advanced tech doesn’t stop them from just standing there like ninnies and letting you type at them for a while before they attack, though. That’s just essential to the way the game is played, especially since the phrases you type are getting pretty long by that point, but it fit the zombies better, because you expect zombies to react slowly. The end boss, the Emperor (the bosses are all named for tarot cards), is even more artificial-looking, a demon made of clear plastic. According to its creator (in an unbelievably awkwardly-dubbed cutscene), it was engineered to solve the world’s ecological crisis by ruling over humanity. Maybe this was less stupid in the original Japanese, maybe not. Some people have said that the schlockiness of the House of the Dead 2 material complements the game’s campy and self-mocking sense of humor. I just say that the cutscenes are not a significant part of the experience, and skippable.

The first time I reached this point of the game, I had only a few remaining lives, which Emperor Perspex quickly removed. The game does some dynamic difficulty adjustment, at least for bosses: after you get killed a few times in succession, it starts using easier words. But in order to take advantage of this, you need lives to waste. So after my first attempt, I resolved to earn enough coins to play with 9 continues instead of 5.

There are five coins to be earned on each level, and each of the five is earned in a different way. You can make it easier to get particular coins by adjusting your approach to the game. For example, one coin on each level is earned by completing the level without any continues, and is most easily earned by setting the difficulty level to “Very Easy” and giving your top priority to avoiding damage, even if it means letting civilians die. Another is earned for scoring above a certain threshhold (the threshhold varies from level to level). This is best accomplished by setting the difficulty to “Very Hard” — which confers some kind of score bonus — and giving the civilians top priority — who cares if you lose lives yourself, saving those guys is worth a lot of points! A third coin comes from getting an “A” rating on a certain number of words. Ratings are based on how fast you type, but only the time from when type the first letter counts. So getting lots of A’s involves refraining from initiating attacks until you’re ready to type an entire word in a burst, which can mean ignoring both your health and the civilians.

This kind of strategizing may be missing the point of the game: you’re supposed to win through typing prowess, not through gaming the system. But it kept me interested enough to keep on playing, by giving me goals to strive for that seemed easier than trying to fight Emperor Plexiglass again. When I had my 9 continues, I made another run for the end. Ironically, by then I’d had enough practice that I only needed 4.

totd-creditsAfter the ending, there’s an interactive credits sequence: as the names of the developers scroll by, you can type them. Typing an entire section of the credits before it scrolls away releases a zombie from a bacta tank, and the released zombies dance to the background music, forming a chorus line of the dead. I found this bonus segment unexpectedly difficult, because the names are mostly Japanese, and Japanese uses different letter patterns than those the game trains you in — not many English words contain the sequence “ryo”, for example. 1The only one that comes to mind immediately is “cryogenic”.

Anyway, the game works! I can totally touch-type now, with punctuation and everything! It’s pleasing to be able to take a skill away from this experience; somehow, it’s always the weird games that are life-changing. Any game with a twitch element teaches you a skill, really, but usually it’s a skill that’s only applicable in playing that game, or sometimes other similar games. And this is definitely a twitch game — when I was at my best, I was typing from my brainstem. When I was at my worst, I was flailing at the keyboard madly, too panicked to see what I was doing wrong (usually something stupid like still trying to find a key I had already typed). That sense of panic, and the ability to overcome it, is something that you just don’t get from ordinary typing practice. I’d guess that even Mavis Beacon doesn’t provide it. No, if you really want to learn to type, what you need is zombies. Seriously.

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1. The only one that comes to mind immediately is “cryogenic”.

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