Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Day 4: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

More DS gaming today. I played a bunch more MMA today, but in the spirit of "30 in 30" switched over to Professor Layton and the Curious Village (PLCV). It's an interesting puzzle/brain teazer game that I think I'm reasonably hooked on after about 90 minutes of game play.

I'm not familiar with the IP (movies, books, graphic novels?) but my biggest complaint about the setting and characters is that for an educational game designed to appeal to both boys and girls, why does the main character have to be a boy? Why must we oblige a request simply because it was made by a "beautiful woman?" And why does the apparent love interest need to be a girl? By adding a playable sidekick (Prof. Layton obviously should be a man), why not spend a little extra $$$ and let the player choose to be either Luke or Leah (Leia)?

I'm not going to dive into a rant about sexism in games (or literature, movies, tv, etc). But what irks me in the context of PLCV is that this sexism actually limits the approachability of the game. It's meant to teach kids critical thinking, teach them interesting facts about the world, and help them see things from a different perspective. It's rather sad that girls who want to play this game need to role play as a boy in order to participate.

This major criticism aside, the game is mostly quite enjoyable. The initial pacing is reasonable (with a few exceptions) and after 90 minutes of game play it's clear that there is a lot of content to discover and there are some interesting side/mini games to be played.

Quibbles to follow:
  • There was a point about 10 minutes into the game where I was presented with an overwhelming number of billboard hints that talked about the main/pause menu screen. It suffered from the classic TMI without any context. I promptly skipped through the billboards and figured I'd just learn about the features that were covered at a later point in time.
  • Some puzzles seemed arbitrary in the way they evaluated answers. One specific example was where I needed to move matchsticks representing dog legs around to solve a puzzle. There were four legs on one side and the goal was to move two of the legs to the other side (side view of dog vs. top down view of dog). Well, I moved two legs from one side to the other and failed. I spent "hint coins" only to be told that I had picked the wrong two legs. Lame. The final position of the matchsticks was almost identical in the end, but I was penalized for guessing wrong when there was no way to tell which pair was the correct pair to move.
  • The second main quest puzzle was a doozy. I needed a pencil and paper to work it out. I wish the game had prepared me for that eventuality -- and specifically told me that some puzzles would be easier to figure out that way.
  • It was weird not to have an avatar of my character in the world. Adventure games that let you wander around by clicking on the screen have an avatar of my character. Pixel hunter games tend not to. This game straddles these two genres, and I kind of felt like I should have some presence in the game world (other than during dialog sequences).
  • Stranger, is the fact that I was sometimes playing as Professor Layton and sometimes as Luke (his assistant). I'm not really sure why I would play as one vs. the other for any given puzzle.
Really, my biggest complaint is the arbitrary nature of the solution to some of the puzzles. About 20-33% of the puzzles I've solved so far seem arbitrary or require me to spend hints to help me better understand the parameters of the puzzle. I feel cheated because I need to waste guesses or spend hint coins in order to get a better explanation of a poorly worded or described puzzle.

What this game lacks, that a parent or adult educator would provide, is an arbitrator who can provide clarity when poorly worded/designed game rules confuse the player and who can award a "match point" to the player when his or her answer is correct even though the game's internal logic doesn't recognize it as such (cf. the dog leg puzzle).

Of course, a more scalable solution would be to use the power of the masses to help in these gray areas. Ideally I could post my answer to a forum of moderators who would judge whether I met the criterion or not and be awarded or rejected accordingly. But, that would be a different game.

These major complaints aside, I have had some really fun and rewarding experiences while trying to solve some of the tougher puzzles. One of the most rewarding experiences was when I "guessed" the correct answer for a puzzle, but then went back to the Puzzle Inventory later to solve it in a much more elegant way that removed any need for guess work.

One last "thinker" that occurred to me while I was playing: When should a player need to use knowledge obtained outside the game in order to solve puzzles within the game. I think back to the old Wizardry games that occasionally had text riddles to solve that required knowledge of things or words that existed outside the game world, and recall getting blocked and stumped. What's the difference between assuming the player needs to know "left from right" vs. "east from west"? The former seems quite natural. The latter assumes that the player knows which way north is and can then figure out east vs. west.

To take this one step further, should players be required to know "the sun always rises in the easy" to be able to solve a puzzle? Yes, this seems like a trivial bit of knowledge... But it would certainly have blocked progress on one of the early puzzles I needed to complete.

The way I reconciled the issue for this game was: This game was designed to teach critical thinking and educate children about things they might not already know. Would it have sucked to have to spend a hint coin to learn "the sun rises on the east?" Yep. But, within the goals of the game (teaching), it doesn't seem quite as bad as getting stuck in Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna because I had no idea what a "ziggurat" was.


Nels Anderson said...

To take this one step further, should players be required to know "the sun always rises in the east" to be able to solve a puzzle?

Heh, funny thing about that fact. A friend of mine was in grad school for child psychology. One of her assignments was to administer one of those super-long intelligence assessments. It was mostly shape puzzles, pattern prediction, etc.

But one section was just general knowledge questions, going from easiest to hardest. The first question was "In which direction does the sun rise?" It was the only one of those question that I got wrong. (I did remember it was east-west, not north-south. I just didn't remember which.)

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