8 of Hearts: 2022 Games of the Month 2: PLEASE TOUCH THE ARTWORK

In the early years of the twentieth century, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who had previously focused on impressionist presentations of landscapes, was moving in a more abstract direction. Moving from the Netherlands to Paris in 1911, he was visiting his home country upon the outbreak of World War One, which made returning to Paris somewhat difficult. Already influenced by the new art style of cubism, Mondrian’s stay at the artist colony at Laren during the war allowed him to met other artists, such as Bart Van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg. The three artists, all moving towards abstract art, collaboratively began an art movement named De Stijl, or “The Style”, with a journal by the same name publishing essays on the movement and its theory of art, which Mondrian called “Neoplasticism”.

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8 of Hearts: 2022 Games of the Month 1: Praey For The Gods

Praey For The Gods is in some ways an extremely easy game to talk about. It is a Shadow Of The Colossus-like, a game where you find huge creatures scattered around the map at the direction of mysterious, disembodied spirits, climb to weak points spread around their bodies and slowly bring them down. Added on top of this is a winter themed survival system which mainly comes into play in the spaces between , which, with the breakable weapons, warmth mechanics, gathering mystical items to exchange in groups for either health or stamina, and a handheld glider for easy vertical movement, feels mainly based on The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild. As a final small comparison, the somewhat sparse writing often has the cadence and feel, if not delivery method, of a Dark Souls game: the opening narration talks about a dying world ending with a repeated refrain of “Ring The Bells”, which immediately put me in mind of “Link The Flame” as a short, three word mission statement for your aims in the game.

I don’t think these comparisons to other games are unjustified. The similarities to Colossus in particular are so striking it is genuinely hard not to talk about the game in those terms, defining it primarily by how it follows or deviates from a now seventeen year old game, but I feel like I want to avoid doing so too much. Partially that’s just due to me wanting to try and flex at least some review muscles and not take the easiest route, and partially because I feel the game has at least earnt being examined on its own, merits and flaws alike. In many ways, it is an extremely impressive game, considering it was developed by No Matter Studios, a three person team. Initially developed part time, they were able to switch to full time following a successful 2015 kickstarter campaign that netted them $300,000, twice their initial aim. The game was first released in 2019 as an early access title on Steam, with the full version released in December 2021, making it eligible for the January slot of these reviews. (For reference, the curious spelling is due to Zenimax protesting No Matter Studios filling as Prey for the Gods as Zenimax argued it was too close to the game Prey. No Matter Studios, not wanting to go up against such a big company, changed the name)

The game’s biggest strength is its visual design. “Frozen wasteland” is a very easy setting to make visually really boring, giving the player endless identical white and grey vistas to run (or slip on ice, or slowly trudge through snow) across, but the game gets around this by having its environment be primarily vertical. The archipelago of the game’s setting is a well laid out collection of mountains, cliffs and plateaus, taking a limited palette and using it to create an array of visually distinct corridors for you to pass through, while the grappling hook and glider provide easy vertical motion to stop navigating the island from constantly feeling like a literally uphill slog through the snow.
It helps that a lot of the cliffs are, in fact, frozen giants.

These are literally background features: you rarely even find yourself climbing across them before the finale, but as well as breaking up the landscape, having these great icy figures either towering over you or desperately clawing at the bases of cliffs, trying to pull themselves out of the sea establishes the mood of despair, of being a tiny figure in a doomed land surrounded by the shades and bodies of those who came and failed before you, where even the giants who’s shoulders you may stand on are nothing but helplessly frozen wretches themselves. It is a good mood to set for a game like this where, armed with little more than some fragile, cold damaged weapons that cannot even scratch their hides, you must face down monsters once worshipped as gods. The bosses are, themselves, appropriately huge and morbid in design, creatures of bone, fur and stone bound by ropes and chains by those who have come to the islands before you. The appearance of the first boss, the Satyr, rising out of the snow in the first cutscene was what initially sold me on the game enough to complete it, the way a hill becomes a seemingly mobile corpse of a giant, its face ripped back to the bone, swinging desperately at your tiny figure. The bosses are similar enough to be obviously of the same nature, while each having at least some gimmick such as being a huge tower like worm spewing purple lightning at you, a charging boar who you need to stun by tricking it into slamming into a wall, or a giant half dead crow that you desperately cling to as it flaps through the sky. It is all design aesthetics we have seen before, but it is done well, and the game maintains this morbid, frozen, desperate atmosphere through to the beginning of the finale, which…goes places I both expected on one level given some of the obvious inspirations but I did not expect how hard it went.

Unfortunately the game is ultimately let down by its mechanics. I’d never say it drops below the level of mediocre, except for one notable and quite important exception, but the game is trying to do a lot and can’t quite stretch itself out enough to cover all it. The survival mechanics are, on one level, kind of obvious for the themes and atmosphere the game is going for. Having a warmth mechanic makes sense for a game about the end of the world triggered by an endlessly harsh winter, but the implementation is less lacking and more…minimal. There’s no recipes for food that I could find, just cooking and eating the meat and mushrooms you find across the island. The sleep meter rarely comes into play, at least on the default difficulty, as even a small amount of exploring will yield plenty of one use bedrolls to clutter your somewhat small inventory. The warmth mechanic is the closest the game comes to really engaging with these, since it is obviously linked to the state of the world, dropping faster in windstorms than in caves, and being controllable by making fires and upgrading your clothes (refreshingly seriously designed for a female video game character), but it still doesn’t *do* much, outside of the higher levels of the (admittedly impressively broad and clearly defined) difficulty levels. Those upgradable clothes are another example: while you can upgrade them with furs taken from hunt-able animals around the islands, the defence bonuses those upgrades provide are honestly less noticeable than the fairly subtle visual changes each part of the outfit goes through when upgraded. You can even find other clothing sets in treasure caves around the island, protected by puzzles that honestly tend to be impressive and enjoyable enough I wish they were a bigger part of the game, but these medium and heavy clothing sets still don’t feel important enough to really be worth focusing on. Hell, they are even called, in game, light, medium and heavy clothing.

Non-boss combat isn’t really much to talk about. There are very few enemy types, and it is rare to have an encounter with a minor enemy that actually feels interesting. The closest is probably the occasional puzzles where you need to trick tiny versions of the giant worm boss into powering mechanisms for you by standing behind the power conduits, which is less combat and more another puzzle, an area which, again, the game does well in general. The weapons do, of course, break, but the combat encounters are far enough apart and the weapons numerous enough that this was far less of an issue for me than it is in other, similar games. I suspect that in a more mook combat focused experience, the rate of decay would annoy me a lot, but here it is saved by it just not really mattering. The only things you need to keep an eye on is having a good supply of arrows, since they are useful for both some bosses and plenty of puzzles using classic “light torches with flaming arrow rules, and on higher levels, making sure you have a non-broken grappling hook on you at all times, since that is really the only weapon that feeds into the mechanical meat of the game.

Praey for the Gods is a game about climbing. Climbing up mountains so you can leap off them to glide to the bosses and start climbing up them. Vertical movement is key in this game, and while the grappling hook and the glider are pretty well handled, letting you keep a brisk pace up and down the side of cliffs, the core mechanic is climbing. And unfortunately it is probably the worst mechanic in the game. Not due to it requiring stamina: I think that’s a really good idea and fits this kind of boss a lot better than health as a limiter, since “can you keep going and climbing, or will you fall and need to start again” is a far more interesting limitation in a boss fight than “did you die and need to restart the rather long fight entirely”. There are some awkward bits in how the climbing controls in general, it being slow and kind of awkward to leave on command, but it is some specific but extremely common scenarios that cause the system trouble. For one thing, your character’s climbing animation will always point to a global up, and if she finds herself facing downwards, she will reorientiate herself so her head is always above her feet. The problem is you will find yourself climbing the arms, wings and other limbs of the bosses, meaning that you will constantly find your controls adjusting themselves with the movement of the bosses; you might begin climbing straight up along the arm, but then the boss lifts its arm, tilting the surface you are on ninety degrees and suddenly your forward motion is pushing you around the circumference of the wrist.
Even worse, when that boss lifts the arm, you may find your character struggling to hold on. This is hardly unexpected; you are climbing on giant creatures trying to throw you off, there needs to be some kind of mechanic that has you clinging on for dear life, but that mechanic is just spamming right click. It is an extremely boring mechanic, and one that you will find yourself doing a lot. Each boss has a number of metal sigils implanted in their body by the ones who came before you, which you need to reach on the body and ring by pulling out a central metal core and slamming it back in (The “Ring the Bells” action mentioned in the prologue, since doing so creates a bell ringing sound). Each bell takes three goes to ring properly, and both during each pull back and after each successful attack the boss will immediately start trying to throw you off, meaning that you will have to spam right click at least nine times each fight (the bosses having a minimum of three bells on their forms), not counting all the times you will start being thrown off while you are climbing the bosses. It’s a vital mechanic and it is just really badly done.

The individual bosses are impressively visually but are for the most part fairly standard fare mechanically, having a clear weak point you find and exploit to stun them long enough for you to start climbing. The standout for me is the fourth boss, a giant flying ribbon fish which avoids the climbing issue by spending the clambering over the boss stage of the fight either with you running around on its back and not needing to climb, or with you dangling from what is not the bottom as it flips over in midair, a fight that genuinely left me feeling dizzy and finding myself trying to mentally correct the rotation of my twitter feed having spent half an hour guiding a character as the screen’s contents rotates around me. There’s also a rather interesting sudden shift near the end, which I won’t go too far into here but at the seventh boss, which is notably the one that was released with the ending with the full release, the game suddenly introduces a new mechanic which becomes really important for the finale. Seven out of eight bosses is a bit too late to be introducing a vital new mechanic but I can understand why the team did it, given the development history.

The game is ultimately I think just over ambitious, adding too many mechanics in and not really polishing the core mechanics for the gameplay it is going for. With the exception of the climbing, nothing is done badly, but a lot of it is just the bare minimum in scope, reasonably competently executed. I feel like it would have been drastically been improved by a bit of focus, cutting some of the extra mechanics (I could do without the sleep mechanics at minimum even if the game kept the other survival meters) and really nailing the core boss climbing game play.

Alternatively, that focus could go into fleshing out the writing. While you do find notes scattered around the island, I finished the game honestly confused as to exactly why I was doing this. There’s some vague talk from three dead ladies you find under a shrine about it being a route full of sacrifices, and you can definitely make some conclusions with some fairly basic knowledge of norse mythology, but it did leave me wanting just a bit more actual text. Not explaining everything but explaining something, at least. As far as I can tell there wasn’t any really lore relevant to that in the notes scattered around the island, which tend to either be from one particular guy who also does not seem to know what’s going on and is very worried about this (and which, to be fair, does explain the state of the island as you find it), or function mainly as hints for the bosses or treasure locations. The writing is, for the most part, fairly average. Not bad, but not standing out particularly either.

Praey For The Gods is, ultimately, a reasonably serviceable game that, like the frozen giants it displays, is trapped while reaching for better things. It is an impressive feat for the number of people working on it, but its lack of polish drags it down. I did play through the whole game before writing this, which I think should be taken as an important indication that it is definitely not bad, and some bits are really enjoyable, but it is not at all everything it could be. Currently it is on sale on Steam for £25, which I feel might be a bit much, but if you enjoy Norse mythology and boss climbing gameplay, you might want to pick it up maybe a slight discount. If you don’t already know you like the look of the game however, I’d leave this one.

Honestly if you have access to a playstation console I’d say you might want to just go get a rerelease of Shadow of The Colossus. I know I said I wasn’t gonna bring it up but it’s still true.

7 of Hearts: A couple of thoughts on Collectathons and a few on Yooka-Laylee.

It is recieved wisdom that the collectathon genre of video games had its heyday back in the 1990s with games such as Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and the Banjo Kazooie series. As the name suggests, collectathons are a particular genre of games that revolve heavily around collecting various items scattered around the game, usually with a heavy emphasis on 3D platforming mechanics.

While the genre has fallen out of the limelight, it has definitely had a noticable impact on later games, particularly ones by Nintendo; both Mario Odsessy and Breath of The Wild (the latter of which I have a lot of thoughts on, good and bad) borrow heavily from the genre with their wide open areas filled with secrets to find. I’d go as far as to say that a lot of modern free-to-play and live-service games such as Destiny 2 use a lot of the same mechanics. The main difference between a live-service open world game like Fallout 76 or Destiny and Donkey Kong 64 is that Donkey Kong 64 didn’t drip feed you the content in order to keep you playing (and hopefully spending money on microtransactions).

The late 90s were also a formative period for me in terms of gaming; I was born in 1992, so collectathons (specifically Mario and Donkey Kong, but also all kinds of cheap and quick tie-in games, such as a PC game of Rugrats in Paris and a Gamecube game of Spongebob Squarepants the Movie) were some of my introductions to gaming itself. The genre feels nostalgic to me. They were also great for kids who might not be able to afford to buy many games, since the focus of them tended to be that they are big, and expansive, and crucially can take a long time to play.

There’s one crucial itch that collectathons scratch however, one that I think they really excelled at, and that’s giving the player a constant feeling of progress and completion. Because there are so many collectibles in the game, you are constantly getting that endorphine boost from obtaining them and completing objectives on the micro- (unlocking that door), meso- (completing a level) and macro- (completing the game) scales. This, combined with the general low difficulty levels, makes the genre really good for playing when you have depression (as I’ve been struggling with). It’s a task designed to be completable that provides clear feedback and a sense of accomplishment, and on bad days that can be really comforting.

I recently completed Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and so I was interested in finding another game that could fill in those days where nothing else is going to get done so I might as well lose myself in a collectathon, and so I picked up the game Yooka-Laylee on my Switch.

Yooka-Laylee (or Y-L from now on in this post, because I can’t be bothered to write out Yooka-Laylee all the time), like Breath of the Wild, was released in 2017. Published by Team 17, it was developed by Playtonic, a group formed by former developers from Rare, the company that made Donkey Kong 64 and Bango-Kazooie. The game is in general a throw back to the golden age of collectathons, as you might expect from the team that created some of the key games of that genre.

Honestly I don’t have that much to say about the game itself. It is very much a game spilt between two time periods. The characters all have weird, quirky designs, usually with a punny name attached to them, with the titular pair, the reptial Yooka and the fruit bat Laylee being a pun on ukulele. Sometimes this works nicely, like the World 1 boss Rampo, a giant stone face at the top of a ramp that you need to make your way up using the game’s main movement mechanic (a legimately charming move where Yooka rolls into a ball and Laylee runs on top of him, allowing the pair to move more quickly while making a fun squeeking noise). Sometimes it just feels weirdly stale, like the floating, talking clouds or the skeleton explorer.

Like, I can see where they are aiming but…I dunno, maybe it’s just because I’ve seen a lot of quirky games, and if I was coming to this fresh as a kid they’d seem really unique, but they still feel like the kind of designs people reach for often in this kind of game. And, for that matter, in quirky, brightly coloured children’s properties in general…except that brings us to the final class of character designs which are definitely not for kids, such as the character who you buy upgrades from who is a…Trouser snake. Literally, he’s a snake curled up so he’s in trousers named Trowzers. Then there’s the plants you meet (who are some of the few female characters in the game) who ignore you unless you are transformed into a plant, and then flirt with you while giving you tips. The game doesn’t seem to know what tone it’s going for. Are you appealing to adults or to kids? I think they’re going for both, but they don’t land it.

This tone problem carries on with the writing as well, particularly with Laylee. She’s abrasive and makes sarcastic and often cruel comments to other characters. I honestly kind of want to dislike her, but at the same time she is coupled with Yooka the chameleon. Yooka has no character. Well, I mean, he does, he’s the one who goes along with all the weird collectathon tasks that get thrown at them, which is technically a character trait I guess, but still. He’s so bland I prefer Laylee, the character who keeps making me go “…wait why am I doing this?”

Y-K is very self-aware, with a lot of references to the fact that it is a game; characters refer to levels, special moves, and the villains in particular are constantly mentioning “the next game” (which has been announced). The game opens with Yooka and Laylee relaxing in their new home, the remains of a pirate ship coincidentally directly outside Hivory Towers,  the corporate base of the big bad (a capitalist bee named Capital B). Their initial dialogue almost made me wonder if I was missing a game in the series. There’s no real introduction to the characters or why I should care, even by the standards of collectathons. I at least get why Donkey Kong wants his golden bananas back and to rescue the other kongs. The introduction to the game’s main goal, collecting the pages (or Pagies) of The One Book, is just that Laylee happened to find it in the pirate ship. She doesn’t know what it does, and honestly neither do I even now (there’s some vague mention of it being able to rewrite reality or something?), but off we go to save them from Capital B’s evil machine to suck in all the books of the world!

(Since I messed up the flow a bit by only mentioning Capital B in the last paragraph, I will say he’s a perfectly servicable villain for this kind of game. The parody of corporatism isn’t exactly subtle here; he is introduced in an actually pretty funny scene revealing a gold statue of himself in the lobby of Hivory Towers while berating his right hand man, Doctor Quack, a duck driving around in a gumball machine. I don’t get it either, but along with the saptient shopping trolleys in the third level, he’s one of the few designs I think really stands out.

While exploring the main hub of Ivory Towers, you sometimes get Capital B popping up and saying things like “Thanks for taking out that last minion, now I don’t have to give him a raise!”. It’s a nice bit of characterisation, but most of his lines could have easily come out of a particularly dull set of Dilbert strips. No, that’s unfair. I’m not going to compare the writers to Scott Adams, they don’t deserve that level of slam. And yes, I’m aware having a two paragraph long bracket break here also messes up the flow of the writing. I just don’t care.)

Still, all of this could be ignored fairly easily. I wasn’t coming to Y-K looking for deep writing, or even shallow writing. I was coming to it looking for fun platforming challenges that give me small bursts of that wonderful feeling of completing something.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Y-K actually fufils that very well. It isn’t bad, it’s just medicore. A lot of this is due to the awkwardness of the camera, which is definitely a throwback to the 90’s era of collectathons. This isn’t a good thing. Some of it is due to Yooka feeling overally responsive; there’s a lot of moments when I’m trying to do some precise jumps that get ruined due to what I think is a small change on the joystick, and that would be a small change in something like Mario, sending Yooka and Laylee skidding off a platform. Some of this might just be porting issues for the Nintendo Switch however.

The level designs are also not great. Part of the issue is that with the exception of the first level, they mostly just look the same throughout. Probably the worst one for this is the third level, set in a swamp that is supposed to be a maze, which has a constant murky green aesthetic and no real centrepiece for the level to help position yourself around. Furthermore, with the exception of the bosses, there’s no real variation in the enemies you face. There are bees floating around on metal platforms that shoot projectiles at you, there are jellyfish in the water, there are eyes which possess objects to attack you and every level has it’s own reskin of the default enemy, and that’s about it. The closest you get is some enemies wear hats, and they take two hits to kill. This adds to the feeling of homogenity the levels give.

It isn’t all bad. The second level features an area called the Icymetric Palace, a pun that actually really landed for me since the inside changes the game from a 3D platformer to an isometric viewpoint. Isometric games have a fixed camera position, angled away from all the axes of motion; up/down, forward/back and left/right, or the X,Y and Z axes. In Yooka-Laylee this is particularly welcome because it means you are no longer wrestling with the camera, removing one of the biggest issues with the game.

I do enjoy Kartos (“The God of Ore” as Laylee jokes), an old mine cart you can play a good old-fashioned minecart minigame with in each level. These are just really fun, simple games where you jump around collecting gems (again, with a fixed camera angle).

Another cool mechanic is being able to use Pagies to expand worlds. When you first unlock a level (represented by “Grand Tomes” that you can enter the pages of), you can’t access all it has to offer. However, if you have collected enough pagies, you can use them to expand the Tome, and thus open up new areas to explore, most notably unlocking the boss fights of the level.

I do feel this piece comes off as perhaps more critical than the game actually deserves. The main issue is a constant feeling of mediocrity. It has a lot of fun tools, particularly mechanically with the special moves you can unlock; both Yooka and Laylee get ones that play off their species, with Laylee getting ultrasound and flight based powers while Yooka can eat certain objects to gain temporary abilities like fire breathing, gets some tongue based platforming powers and of course, invisiblity. The problem is that the rest of the game just does nothing with them. The levels are compotent, but boring, like wandering around a town of identical houses. The enemies are bland, the writing just doesn’t quite get to where it wants to be, and the result is a game that I just struggle to care about even though it is of a genre I usually really enjoy.

EDIT: Added in the object possessing eyes to the list of enemies, and also remembered “oh yeah, I liked the Kartos bits!”



3 of Hearts: Crank Up Some Games – The Playdate system

So I saw this on twitter and thought people might be interested. The company Panic, who you might know from making the game Firewatch, has just announced a new handheld gaming system called Playdate.
It is, for the most part, fairly simple; it’s a black and white screened console with games built in, a d-pad and an ‘a’ and a ‘b’ button. The unique part is that it includes a crank at the side that you can rotate as part of the control system. This opens up a couple of fun ideas; it’s very easy to control the speed of the crank, and it can obviously go in both forward and reverse. One of the games they demo’d on twitter was called Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, which used the crank to send the character forwards and backwards through a set of motions. The crank was suggested by the company’s partners, teenage engineering.
The other part is that the games are released once a week, although the console comes with them all preloaded. I’m not entirely sure about this, but it does give you the chance to play them one at a time without spending additional money.
Overall, Playdate looks like a fun gimmick. It’s not going to take the gaming world by storm, but I’m glad people are experimenting with new control methods for games, even if they don’t quite work out.

Jack of Hearts: Games and Failure

Jack of Hearts: Games and Failure

Game and… is a series of articles in various media focusing on evaluating the mechanics of games, how they are created, how they affect us, and how we can apply them to the world outside of games.

Games and Failure

I die a lot while playing games.

That’s less self-deprecation about my skill in such games and more just due to the nature of many games. Death, and failure in general, in many games is just a set back. You come back at your respawn point, whether the beginning of the level or your last save or your team’s base, and now you can try again with the hindsight of knowing at least some of what you need to do, and where you might have gone wrong last time. Even in games where failure sends you back to the main menu, the option is always there to start again. Even how much of a setback that is decreasing over time; compare Super Mario 64’s removing a life from your stock to the most recent Mario game, Mario Odyssey, which just removes 10 coins in a game where collecting 1,000 coins basically happens by accident as you hunt for the various power moons, the goal of the game [1].

Games are actually really forgiving of failure. I mean, sure, there are degrees of setback they apply to you; you might get sent back to the beginning of the level, to your last save (which can admittedly be a while back), or have a penalty applied to you until you are able to recover what was lost when you died [2]. In some games, usually strategy or 4X games [3], you will be made to restart the entire campaign, unless you reload your last save and are able to work around whatever made you fail.  But even with all of that, the point is not to say “you lost, look how bad you are at this!” but “You lost. Wanna try again, this time having a better idea of what you need to do?”

Some of this is just necessary. A game aims to keep you playing, particularly when they are using models like games as service or arcade machines [4] which aim to monitise themselves by having players make small payments over a long period of time, but this has spread out to basically all games, to the extent that having a failure state has been suggested by some as a fundamental property of games; i.e. something may be an interactive experience but if you cannot fail, it is not a game. I don’t want to discuss the definition of a game here. Instead, I want to focus on how the way we can learn from and indeed, use the way games encourage you to continue on, to move past failures and eventually succeed to help us handle other situations.

Games being used in learning is nothing new of course, and nor are interactive experiences, whether on a computer or more traditional “analogue” games, but we tend to classify them as childish, and indeed these games can be patronising. I have fond memories of the Adi and Adiboo games, but I wouldn’t recommend them to an adult who’s maths is at the kind of level Adi covers (partially because I haven’t looked at those games for years; maybe I should get hold of them and have a look) [5]. They are still used however, with the cartoony visuals removed, particularly in subjects like maths and language vocabulary that computers are far better at being able to handle than, say, marking a piece of literary criticism. While I do think that there is a space for Educational Games, particular because the interactive nature of games allows you to learn by actively doing, rather than passively learning, I want to make it clear that this isn’t what I am suggesting here. Nor am I talking about the gamification of learning, where the concept of experience and levels are used to provide a reward for effort and learning successfully. That’s definitely an interesting topic, and it’s on the list to cover in a Games and… article, but it isn’t this one. Rather, I want to focus on the other end of the spectrum; how do we handle failure?

Learning from your mistakes isn’t a new concept, but we can still ask the best way to encourage and assist people in doing so, a question that the field of pedagogy (the science of teaching) has been trying to answer for a while now. Before we continue, it is important to acknowledge that methods of learning are not universal. The following section will discuss a number of mindsets towards and techniques of learning. These may not be directly relevant to you the reader, or indeed techniques shown with a positive lens here may, for whatever reason, not be useful for you personally. However, I think they hold up in enough cases and are underused enough (that is, people who might benefit from them haven’t encountered them) that they are worth exploring here.

One of the most important factors in whether people feel able to learn from mistakes is the surrounding culture and particularly the response of whoever the learner views as a teacher, whether an actual teacher, a supervisor or just someone the learner looks up to. Fischer et al. (2006), a study detailing the self-reported responses of medical trainees to a survey on how they learn from failure, notes that when they feel able to report the failure they learn more from it. Furthermore, they note that there is a culture of covering up mistakes in many hospitals, and as they spend more time working in medicine they find themselves defending individual cover ups while acknowledging that ethically they really shouldn’t [6]. This is fairly common in professions where mistakes can have grave consequences; indeed, some industries use a concept called a blameless culture, where mistakes are not punished so that people don’t feel they cannot come forward to admit that they have made them (Dekker, 2016). This, while a fascinating topic by itself, is slightly off the topic of this essay, particularly as, as I noted above, one of the big benefits of games is that they remove the real life rewards and consequences for the player, allowing them to simply focus on what they can learn from the situation. Now, obviously on a practical level making mistakes with consequences can be an excellent, if, depending on the situation, traumatic, learning experience, but we are discussing using the premise of treating learning spaces as a game and the benefits of doing so, not trying to create a universal system of learning.

Another issue to discuss is why people want to learn. What is their underlying goal [7]? Two common reasons are to demonstrate how competent you are at something, or performative goals, and learning to improve your own abilities, which we might refer to either improvement or mastery goals. Now, this is one of those awkward situations where I would wager that most people would say they want to learn for the sense of mastery; performative goals tend to be more specifically about showing a particular person or group of people what you are capable of (Wolters 2004). However, it is far easier to encourage performative goals, simply because they are based around demonstrating what you know. Performative goals aren’t inherently bad, but like the negative consequences they often encourage not learning from mistakes but instead avoiding the people you are trying to perform to, while mastery goals tend to encourage using mistakes as a learning experience (Wolters 2004, Turner and Patrick 2004).

Games I think have mechanisms by which they can encourage the player to try to improve their abilities, rather than demonstrating their skill. One is something we will find difficult to transfer to a learning setting, which is the greater ability for the creator to control the learning curve of the game compared to the learning curve of most real life topics. I want to discuss this in another G& essay [8], so I won’t go into it here, but essentially games are far easier to control and can make you feel like you are improving far more quickly than you are actually learning about the game because you are gaining new tools and powers in a far more controlled environment. However, there are two other ways they encourage you to learn. First of all they are very good at informing you what you are aiming for, giving you a motivation to work out how to overcome the obstacles in-between you and that solution, and secondly games don’t treat failure as a problem. They provide temporary rewards for success, not permanent consequences, and that sequence of short bursts of rewards, even if it is just a pat on the back. This, I think is something we can take over from games. Rewarding people for the entire journey, not just the final destination, and giving them clear reasons to motivate them in the short term; not just a long term goal like “I will be able to communicate in French” but “I will be able to say this thing I want to say in French”. Meanwhile, the games either not responding to your failure outside of a short death animation or, if they do respond, then showing it as a challenge and encouraging you to continue to overcome it. Probably the best example of this is from Toby Fox’s Undertale, which tells you “STAY DETERMINED!”.  As I said, failure treated as a chance to try again with new knowledge and experience.


Figure 1: The Undertale Game Over screen

For a concrete example, I do quite a lot of maths in my everyday life, both in my work and my free time. I enjoy maths, and I can do it to a reasonably high level, and I am aware that this makes me fairly unusual. When I try to teach maths and explain the concepts to people who struggle with it, one of the big issues I face is overcoming their fear [9]. Not of mathematics (although for some people that is in there as well), but fear of failing at mathematics, and a corresponding fear of being mocked and mistreated because of that failure. The fear that a single mistake that will hang over you, or worse that you will never be able to move beyond those failures.

Often, the students I am teaching are students doing a scientific subject at a university level, and there’s basically no field of science where maths is not a vital and major part of the research toolkit; even in fields such as sociology statistical analysis is essential. Even knowing this however, for some the anxiety of failing at maths, and being mocked or treated as stupid because of that failure, however temporary, makes actually doing the maths really difficult. This is within a classroom setting, not an exam or, worse, research or designs that might influence the real world. It is in a setting specifically created to give a space to learn without incorrect results causing problems. It is a space where incorrect results should be responded to with “You got that wrong. Wanna try again, this time having a better idea of what you need to do?”

In other words, I am saying that classrooms are gaming platforms, the lessons are the levels and we are all Mario…Okay, I’m not actually saying that, but I think the similarity of both being environments where failure is essentially devoid of external consequences and is simply an indication you need to go back and do some additional work is important. It allows learners to focus entirely on learning, so that when there are consequences, they already have all the tools they need to handle it.



[1] Given that lives are basically meaningless in a lot of Mario games, a hold over from the days of arcade machines [4], you could argue that losing one is actually less of a set back than losing coins; really the biggest set back is you do get a Game Over screen when you run out of lives, which sets you back to the start of the level.

[2] This is a mechanic codified by the Souls games, and other games like Hollow Knight, which make you drop your in-game currency and have a mechanical penalty, usually a drop in maximum health, applied to you. This makes failure, and continuing on despite it, a core mechanic of these games.

[3] For anyone not versed in gaming terminology, 4X games are a genre of games where the player(s) control a full faction, rather than a single character, and scout throughout the world, build new settlements and technologies, gain resources and battle opposing factions. 4X stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate, and was coined by the game writer Alan Emrich in 1993.

[4] See “Games and the First Age of Microtransaction” – TBC

[5] Upon trying to track them down, I discovered the Adi and Adiboo series were created by the french Coktel Vision, which usually focused on adventure games. The games were sold in various languages, with Adiboo (or Adibou in french) seeming to be more well known and spread around than the older Adi. I kind of want to track them down and give them another look; we’ll see how that goes.

[6] Rationalisations for bad behaviour of individuals of groups you are a member is is a very important topic I’d like to explore. If I ever do I will link it here.

[7] See “Games and Goals” – TBC

[8] See “Games and Skill” – TBC

[9] For more discussion on how I think we might be able to improve maths teaching, see 9 of Hearts: An Introduction to Mathematics.


Dekker, S. (2016). Just culture: Balancing safety and accountability. CRC Press.

Fischer, M. A., Mazor, K. M., Baril, J., Alper, E., DeMarco, D., & Pugnaire, M. (2006). Learning from mistakes. Journal of general internal medicine, 21(5), 419-423.

Turner, J. C., & Patrick, H. (2004). Motivational influences on student participation in classroom learning activities. Teachers College Record, 106(9), 1759-1785.

Wolters, C. A. (2004). Advancing Achievement Goal Theory: Using Goal Structures and Goal Orientations to Predict Students’ Motivation, Cognition, and Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(2), 236-250.

3 of Hearts: 4:17 am April 2nd

The time in the title is accurate as of when I start typing this.

I suffer from depression and anxiety, and tonight I’m awake at a silly time in the morning in no state to try to sleep, so I guess, given that at least here in the UK April’s Fools day has come and gone, I might look at the various ways that bits of media I’ve followed have decided to celebrate it this year.

There’s two major trends I think are worth looking at. The first is simply the existence of Patreon, a site that encourages a monthly release schedule by it’s very nature. A lot of creators drop their work at the end of one month and the start of another because that’s the deadline if you are using a monthly payment model. Patreon as a site is interesting for me partially because it’s an alternative to the standard method of monitization online, advertising, and partially because it has become another example of a business model that is highly sustainable but not one that’s going to enjoy repeated massive growth which is being torn apart by the demands for constant, exponential growth in the market, but that’s for a time that isn’t stupid o’clock in the morning. For our purposes, the position of April Fools at the beginning of the month simply fits in neatly with this existing timeline, encouraging material that is not simply a prank but is also worthy content in and of itself.

The second trend is the pushbacks against cruel pranks. Online content creators often rely on their own brand, and being unpleasant, even for a temporary joke, will reflect on that brand. Furthermore, the existence of this brand allows for an easy April Fool’s joke by pretending to massively change your brand, using it as a way to explore a style or a topic that you wouldn’t usually touch.

Anyway here’s a top…whatever list of April Fool’s for this year. I’m not even gonna edit that once I’ve finished and know how many there are.

1.) “Folding Ideas Pivots To Fortnite”, on Folding Ideas, Dan Olsen’s youtube channel, isn’t really an April Fool’s video. It sort of dabbles with it at the start, but that only really goes as far as the first five to ten minutes, which is a set up for the final idea about the use of Fortnite as a creative platform, and how it doesn’t really work. I don’t know whether I’d describe it as a pretend April Fools joke, or an April Fools joke where the joke is that you expect an April Fools joke and get instead a discussion on the game Fortnite and how it manipulates players to make money.

2.) A lot of larger corporations and brands go for the “Here’s a product we’d never actually create” April Fools. A stand out this year is probably a tweet from the official Doom account, crossing the violent demon killing shooter with Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting, a program that like Mr Rogers I have never seen but that a lot of American internet users tell me is super wholesome. Ross’ aesthetic, though simple, is iconic enough that even I got it immediately, but this one kind of sticks out because Bob Ross famously became the chill, laid back painter in the show because he was fed up of being a drill Sargent in the military, a job that involves shouting and being unpleasant, making the use of the aesthetic here either be a wink to his history, a humorous juxtaposition between Doom the ultra violent game and the laid back show (probably the intended reading), or kind of an awkward joke dragging the aesthetic of the show back towards the militarisation that Ross created it to escape from. I’m too sleepy to say which.

3.) There’s one advert that I saw which appeared to actually be a product that just happened to come out on April First, so it had to make clear “no this is real, we just had to do it now”. But I can’t remember what it is and Facebook isn’t showing me that specific ad again.

4.) In the “Jokes that aren’t really jokes” category, the insect loving Bogleech wrote a review of creatures called Squisherz, in a similar vein to his reviews of Pokemon and Digimon. The framing of the essay is that Squisherz is a forgotten ‘mon franchise contemporaneous of the former two, and the blog post makes repeated references to the show and more specifically the fandom reaction to it. Halfway through I was getting into it as a parody of pokemon in particular, assuming that Bogleech himself had designed the creatures. I was enjoying it, but some of the gushing about the bits of the designs he loves got a bit weird assuming he made them. Like how the book of the Never Ending Story takes a detour to talk about how fantastic the main character, and thus the author’s, imagination is once he starts to remake the world, it was getting tiresome.

Then at the end, he reveals that the joke was actually entirely different. Squisherz was designed by an artist friend of his for a game called Hyperspace Outlaw, and the piece ends with shout outs slash advertisements for the original creator. It kind of feels like the opposite to Folding Idea’s video; rather that examining how a piece of work is advertised and monitized, it is an advert itself, although yes there is a difference between an indie game on itch.io and what Fortnite has become.

5.) The most depressing April Fool’s joke this year comes from the webcomic Whomp!. The main character, a somewhat parody version of the writer Ronnie, is shown to have lost weight, changed out his colourful shirts for a simple beige pair, and now has a sunny, optimistic outlook on life.

Somehow, despite Whomp being regularly depressing, this is the most upsetting portrayl of Ronnie for me. I should probably ask why.

EDIT: So the next strip after that is the same but with thin Ronnie bleeding from the eyes and covered with glitches. So…make this a multi-part joke, getting steadily darker?

Anyway, that’s my list. If I remember I’ll come back when I’m awake and edit in some links. Happy April Wise day everyone.

7 of Hearts: Let’s Go Pikachu and the dichotomies of Pokemon.

The Pokemon franchise has been a long running and consistent companion for me from when it was first released in the UK back in 1998. The first choice of which starter to take (I choose Squirtle), opening my first booster pack of trading cards to reveal a shiny Zapdos, finally leaving Mount Moon after getting lost there long enough to have a Blastoise, first seeing the second generation games when a neighbour down the street had a Japanese copy of Pokemon Gold, first discovering online battle simulators in the fourth generation…honestly, that sentence was originally just going to be three points long but I just kept finding things to add to it.

Pokemon, for those unaware (however many there are left; one of the things I found funniest about the recent trailer for the live action Detective Pikachu movie was how it assumed everyone watching knew the world already), is an RPG game franchise set in a world populated by the titular Pocket Monsters, or Pokemon. It is a mainstay of Nintendo consoles, and is one of the company’s signature games along with the likes of Mario and Zelda, but it isn’t actually developed by Nintendo, being spilt between the companies Game Freak and The Pokemon Company. The player takes the role of a Pokemon trainer, journeying through the various regions of the world, catching Pokemon in devices known as Pokeballs and battling other trainers. The ultimate goal of each game is two-fold; to defeat the Pokemon League, the best trainers in that region (each game being set in a different location in the world), and to complete the Pokedex (an encyclopedia of Pokemon) by catching every Pokemon in the area; hence the tagline “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”. Usually along the way you must battle a team of criminals, with motives ranging from Pokemon trafficking to awakening Legendary monsters to boil the sea, flood the land and/or rip apart space and time, or in the case of the wonderfully pathetic Team Skull, not get beaten up by random children.

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5 of Spades: Dark Souls of January

Dark Souls is a series of action RPG games made by FromSoftware and published by Namco Bandai Games. I called it the Dark Souls series but it is more often called the Souls Series, starting with Demon’s Souls in 2009 before moving on to Dark Souls 1 through 3 (2011, 2014 and 2016 respectively). The series was initially released on Playstation and Xbox, two consoles I have not personally owned, so the entire series kind of passed me by. However, I kind of know the basics of the games through pop culture osmosis anyway, and I am going to put what I think I know down here without actually checking them, as a way of seeing how much I think I got right at the end of the month.

1.) The Souls games are set at the end of a period called the Age of Fire. That flame is going out, and correspondingly we are journeying through the remains of a once great kingdom, battling the corrupted remains of it in an attempt to either rekindle the fire or put it out (I’m not entirely sure which).

2.) Mechanically, the Souls games rely heavily on using death as a teaching mechanic, with the expectation that the player is going to die a lot and come back, wiser. Characters are fragile and the world is brutal.

3.) You the player are undead.

4.) You can kill everyone, including friendly NPCs who would usually be invulnerable in games, which makes me think that you might be trying to put out the fire mentioned in 1 by removing everything it has to burn.

5.) The games are known for being incredibly hard, mainly as a result of 2.

6.) The phrase “X is the Dark Souls of Y” means that X is a very difficult or dark version of Y. Ironically, the overuse of this phrase means that comparing things to Dark Souls is the Mario 1-1 of video game analysis.

I’ve wanted to at least try one of the Dark Souls games. Like I said, they have kind of passed me by, at first due to them appearing on consoles I don’t have, and then, once they went onto the PC, just because I didn’t buy them, usually because of the cost. That’s not a problem now, since we are coming out of the annual Steam sale and I was able to pick up Dark Souls 2 and 3 fairly cheaply, so that’s one excuse gone.

I’ve been a long time fan of the Legend of Zelda series, another long running action-adventure series, and Dark Souls reminds me a lot of them, specifically Wind Waker. Besides both being post-apocalyptic settings (albeit due to almost exact opposite reasons: Dark Souls has too little fire and Wind Waker having way too much water, being set on the surface of a great sea that has flooded the land of Hyrule, the setting of most of the games), Wind Waker’s combat is heavily based around dodging and well timed strikes. Admittedly the art style is very different, but just from looking at footage, the mechanical combat feels similar.

The other thing I am curious about is to see if it is indeed as hard as everyone says. The way video games use death and failure as a teaching method kind of fascinates me, and we’re going to get back to that in a future post. Having a game that is has that mechanic as a primary feature sounds really interesting to me.

So, anyway. For the next month, my regular streams will be focused on one of the two Dark Souls games I picked up during the Steam sale, Dark Souls II and III. (Dark Souls I was not in the sale, so while it was my first choice, I don’t have it.) I’m currently thinking I will look at II, not III, leaving the sequel for later.
Given that, on the main blog, we will be looking at Agatha Christie, it would make more sense to be doing a detective series, maybe the Ace Attorney series, but as I said before, the streams and the blog themes will not always match up thematically, so…eh.

The first stream will be in an hour after this post is put up, at 7pm GMT 01/01/2019. See you on my channel then, or, if you want to revisit it later, I’ll edit this with a link to a recording.

update: Here’s the link to the recording. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNmbGIDM4_Q&feature=youtu.be