a review of LIT
a videogame developed by WayForward Technologies
and published by Nintendo and WayForward Technologies
for the nintendo wii
text by Hamish Todd
Jon Blow and Marc Ten Bosch recently gave a lecture called “Designing the Universe”. That lecture is one of the most important discussions of abstract thought there’s ever been, so you should forgive the glib-sounding title. Having said that, a more descriptive title might have been “How to make a video game as fun as Portal”.
Orthogonality is an ideal introduced into video games in a minor point in that lecture. It is very important. I bring this up because LIT is a good game, and it could have been a great game – its only problem is a crippling deficit of orthogonality.
The premise of LIT is excellent: move from the beginning to the end of a dark room. You can light up parts of the room. You can only move through those parts of the room which you have lit up.
It’s exactly the game you played in your childhood with sofa cushions and armchairs until you broke the coffee table and your mum told you to “never play the lava game again!”. There’s something primordially relateable about the light/dark distinction. The engine is clean and consistent. It’s a workable and unique game concept with the potential to show you interesting things.
You have various tools that allow you to light the room up – that was the bad decision, the decision that made the mechanics of LIT non-orthogonal. For example, you use cherry bombs and slingshot pellets to smash light-emanating windows. There’s only a tiny difference between the effects of a cherry bomb and a slingshot pellet. The difference is slightly interesting, but having both elements muddles the rules of the game. Neither the slingshot pellet nor the cherry bomb can have their capabilities fully explored.
If a good level designer has to introduce a mechanic to you, they do it slowly. They isolate concepts, then gently but firmly draw your attention to them, ideally expressing their exact usefulness and limits.
LIT’s level designers were very good, so they knew that the introduction of every tool had to have this treatment. Some tools require the use of other tools, which complicates matters. But LIT gets around that complication – there is a well-calculated simplicity to the layout of every level. It shows a powerful understanding of the human learning process.
There’s a lot of talk of the “gamification of education” at the moment. The plan is basically to create a streamlined and formalized version of the “gold stars” system used in the past by some teachers. The reasoning is: in, say, Runescape, children are made to do boring things in the name of “levelling up”. If educators can convince students that they will level up by learning something, then the kids will want to learn things that they previously saw as boring.
Gamification in that sense is obscene.
There was a very important study done in Pakistani cresches a while ago. Women were picking up their children late. This was a liability, so much so that the managers of the cresches introduced a fine for parents who picked up their children late. A lot of conventional economics would tell you that this would reduce the number of late arrivals. In actual fact the opposite happened: the mothers started to turn up later and later.
Why did this happen? The answer to that would have profound implications for the social sciences, and it will have profound implications for video games.
The truth was that, prior to the fine being introduced, the women already had an incentive to be punctual about picking up their children. That incentive was the avoidance of shame.
That’s the simple part of the conclusion. The profound part is the fact that the introduction of the fine diminished the power of the shame.
The fine enumerated the exact significance that lateness had. It was indistinguishable from the cresche saying “we are offering to extend the hours of our service, at the following price:”. By introducing monetary punishments, they were communicating: “The value of punctuality is no greater and no lesser than the body of this fine”, exorcising any moral or emotional significance the fine had.
This is the folley of “gamifying” education. By enumerating (fake) positive and negative consequences for learning, it will distract from -or destroy- the intrinsic value learning has.
The purpose of acquiring knowledge is not to score points. To think we should acquire knowledge in order to score points is a perverse thought. Yet this is the instinct we risk instilling in our children.
There are a few other things that have found themselves under the “gamification” umbrella, and some of them do make the world a better place. Things like foldit(**) and gwap.com(*1/2); the clever systems of self-testing used by the Khan academy(****); things like foldit(**) and gwap.com(*1/2); Ian Bogost’s Newsgames.
These projects have all looked at different video games and attempted to use features of them to achieve something good. As far as I can tell, they have done so without making any horrible compromises.
Again: attempts at gamification are built with particular video games as their bases. In the case of the abominable project to gamify education(zero stars), the basis game is Dragon Quest, or maybe Farmville. This is the grave mistake; the basis game should be LIT.
All the above mentioned projects are rather incomplete, because they are not very fun. But LIT is fun. LIT tutors you, in a clear and beautiful way, about the specifics of a system and the many tools that connect you to that system. It is adept at dividing the system up and expressing the segments in focused environments. The approach LIT’s creators used are what you should investigate if you want to gamify a complex tool.
If we’re measuring the value of LIT in itself, though, the complexity is a drawback. There are so many different features to introduce; the designers barely had time to do anything except deliver these elegant introductions, which make up at least 70% of the game’s levels. Donkey Kong ‘94(***1/2) has a similar problem.
The other 30% of the levels contain one or two neat exhibitions of what Marc and Jon would call “higher level behaviour”. The bosses are creative and purposeful too, if a little drawn out and demanding of a movement system better suited to puzzle than action.
Then there are a lot of stupid levels – Sokoban-style jumbles of things you’ve already done. Because of these, the game is too long. Because of the relentless, if thoughtful, overabundance of mechanics, the game is too complicated. LIT is short and simple, relatively speaking, so these are strict criticisms. But from post-Portal puzzle games we should be expecting great things. The best game of this year, by the way, seems to have been English Country Tune(****) – that game gives us almost all the things we expect from a post-Portal puzzle game.