Educational games have always had it tough. While I was in school getting my Master’s in Game Development, Educational Game creation was always a hot topic that was swiftly and passionately debated. The over arching challenge that everyone could agree on for a successful design was for the designer to be able to prevent the fun factor and the learning aspects of the game from clashing with each other by teaching the user without explicitly throwing the information in their face. After all, games are fundamentally about learning and very few if any players find themselves a master at a game’s mechanics when they start up a new game for the first time (and if they did, that would probably mean that your game is unoriginal and/or bad). The designer’s challenge is to teach the player how to play their game through contextual in-game cues with escalating difficulty after proven mastery.
Here’s a bit of backstory on my history with Educational Games. When I was 7 years old, my mother tried to get me to play a game called Math Blaster: In Search of Spot, which if anybody was playing games as a kid in the 90’s, you knew what Math Blaster was all about. On the outside, it seemingly had the perfect pitch to both parents and kids. You were a space explorer named Blasternaut (and Blaster is a cool word) that had to rescue your robot companion, Spot, from evil aliens while along the way there was lots of laser shooting involved. What kid doesn’t want to shoot lasers, right? While that all sounded wonderful, the problem was that the initial game mechanics felt like little more than a parent telling their child that “You can only play for X amount of time, but then you have to do your homework”. The first time you start playing the game, you are placed on a timer, where you have the freedom to shoot the previously mentioned lasers, before the game cuts into your fun by presenting you Math problems that you have to solve. This little game of give and take only served to clash with the idea of creating fun, and as a result, I had a tough time actually wanting to come back to the game for more.
Influent saw itself have a tremendously successful Kickstarter back in 2012 and has steadily grown to incorporate a wider variety of languages. Influent takes on the challenge of teaching a language through playing a game by taking cues from games like Shenmue, Toy Commander and even the recent and very successful indie game, Gone Home. The game is in the details and only by being diligent in exploring all of the environment’s nooks and crannies will you pick up each and every word. While you won’t find any story details about getting revenge for the murder of your father or uncovering the mystery of your lost sister, what you do have is a plethora of nouns, verbs and adjectives to test yourself with, as well as a few nods to some of the biggest game franchises of all time like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy within the environment. One thing you will notice right off the bat is that the game does not allow you to be lazy. It doesn’t hand you a nice list of everything you need to know, the game assumes that you have the motivation to learn all by yourself. And in this day and age of games handing players rewards on a silver platter, this is a nice change of pace. After all, nobody learns anything if they don’t try.
When you start up Influent for the first time, the tutorial walks you through the basic mechanics of the game which mostly involve movement, switching between 1st and 3rd person perspectives and the game’s core mechanic, adding words to a vocabulary list in increments of ten. The environment you find yourself in is a simple household with four different rooms, a kitchen, a bedroom, a living room and a bathroom. All of these rooms are saturated with a large number of objects related to that particular room that you can click on. Upon clicking an object, an audio recording with a very clear and native pronunciation of that word plays, giving you the proper way to sound that word out. Some objects, are hidden just enough out of plain sight, that it requires a keen eye to make sure you get every one of them. As you add words to your vocabulary, the game takes another step up by implementing a timed memory game called Time Attack. This can work both for and against the player, depending upon how you add words to your vocab list. For instance, on my first word list I had adding words from all four rooms and when it came time to test myself, my problem wasn’t matching the right words, it was simply remembering where each object was. Word to the wise, build your vocab lists with objects from the same room, you will have a much easier time, especially when you are still getting feel for where everything is. One you have correctly matched a word three times in a row, the game rewards you with a gold star on your vocab list, indicating that you have mastered that word.
Once you have mastered 50 words, the game presents you with a new type of timed quiz called Fly By. In Fly By, you take control of a toy fighter jet and fly around the house shooting lasers at the words you are trying to select because lasers simply make every Educational Game better. It is definitely a fun and quirky alternative to guiding the protagonist around his house and offers up a whole different set of game mechanics. Granted, the dodging and weaving can end up extending the length of the challenge, so I found myself unable to obtain the Mastery Rank for each word nearly as quickly.
As a personal preference, I found the game much easier and much more comfortable to play in 1st Person as it is often difficult to be able to discern certain items, particularly smaller kitchen items like the Cinnamon and Basil Shakers. The problem with these smaller items is that a lot of them seem to share the same or similarly shaped models, so you have to discern one from the other via their textures, some of which can be a bit difficult to see, especially if the item’s label isn’t quite centered, which I did encounter more than once. Another problem I had was that a few items, like the carrots and butter inside of the refrigerator were difficult to double click on during Time Challenges because they were blocked by the drawers and shelving that held them with barely a sliver of the objects peeking out. This resulted in a fair number of miss clicks during the tests as I found myself accidentally clicking the refrigerator and being given a wrong answer. Miss clicks were also a problem with really small objects like pens and pencils as well the moving fan blades in the living room. Fortunately all of this was alleviated with the Fly By mechanics as the plane was able to get me better angles on these tricky objects that playing as the protagonist couldn’t. I did not get the feeling that any of these tricky objects were arranged to be intentionally difficult to get to, though it would have added a whole new layer to the game if there were places that only the plane could get to.
When looking at Influent as a whole to judge it accurately, which is in terms of it being an Educational Game, there are two primary questions to consider. Is it fun? And do you actually learn from playing this game? The answer is yes and yes. There is legitimate fun to be had in playing Influent regardless of its genre, particularly if you are the kind of player that likes exploring every last pixel of a game world. There is something innately satisfying about the little interactions that take place within Influent. Something as simple as opening the refrigerator to reveal a whole wealth of new words and then realizing that you can open the vegetable drawer for even more. Influent is a very good teaching tool, namely for beginners looking to get their feet wet or to jump start their journey into learning a new language. More importantly, the designers have answered the challenge of balancing the fun factor with the need to learn. Influent is a fun game to play and that’s all you can ever ask for when playing any game. Take that, Math Blaster.