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

3 stars

Bottom line: LIT is “the best teacher you ever had for a subject you didn't like.”

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*1/2); the clever systems of self-testing used by the Khan academy(****); things like foldit(**) and*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.

–Hamish Todd


10 Responses to LIT

  1. Are we in a hate-FF7 period, or in a love-FF7 period? I can never keep track anymore.

    Anyway, whatever value FF7 has, it lays precisely in its lack of orthogonality. One moment you’re crossdressing in a dystopic cyberpunk metropolis, the next you’re being haunted by or stalking a dragon-slaying bishounen ripped from Bersek, the next you’re genetic engineering chocobos, the next you’re gaming the materia system. The thing jumps all over the place; plot, characterization, “main” game, “mini”games all pull in different directions and seem to meet only by accident. (Actually, the fact that the game works at all seems to be an accident.) It’s a kind of beatlike stream-of-consciousness world-exploring experience that one would never get out of the school of elegant designer indie videogames.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love tight neat focused elegant videogames as much as the next nerd. I play the Megaman Zeroes (***½) essentially to do one action repeatedly—slide and slash robots; slide and slash robots; slide and slash robots—the friction is so perfectly pleasurable, I ignore everything else in the game and consider its other systems cruft. But sometimes I miss playing with huge ambitious experiments that try to do everything like FF7; sometimes I want to play with videogames that are less like Scheme and more like Common Lisp, to draw a programmer’s metaphor. So, what I wanted to say is, yeah, I like nonorthogonal games too. Some of them at least. Sometimes.

    • I’d actually like to see more of that in indie games. It doesn’t all have to be Portals and Mario 3’s. The indie world could use a few San Andreases and FF7s.

      I suppose the tight, elegant design structure is appealing because you know you’re not biting off more than you can chew, but even Godhand allowed itself Chihuahua races that must have taken about five minutes to program.

    • Ouch! That was harsh! It was harsh because it pressuposes that playing a huge mess of a game with many systems will necessarily be bad-quality entertainment, and therefore a waste of leisure time. That might be true for you, or even for most people, I don’t know; but it doesn’t hold for me. FF7 was one of the best times I ever had; I’d spent all my allowance in the rental-shop to happilly climb that long stair, play in Gold Saucer, watch Shiva for the umpteenth time; my memories of it are rose-tinted by that particular affection we feel for a time that was a great, great time. Chrono Trigger was one of the best times of my youth; e.g. I really enjoyed the soup contest with Ayla (I’d have enjoyed it even more if someone had told me that the “soup” was actually supposed to be alcohol); but I wouldn’t have enjoyed a dedicated soup-contest game at all. As a game, it’s pretty stupid; you just mash the A button to watch a very, very crude animation. In fact, the whole “main game/minigame” model misses the point. The soup contest only works because it was a contest between Ayla and Chrono/me, because his/my friends were watching, because it was in Laruba, because we were on a quest to find the red stone to fix the Masamune to fight the Demon Lord to save the future—all of that is contained in that soup bowl: the smaller systems are given meaning by their emotional context. And that is how I enjoy nonorthogonal games; that is how I still prefer nethack and shiren, flawed as they are, to their perfected cousins like crawl or brogue. Though I understand the appeal of focused, well-designed games too, you know, and your critique of Lit is well-taken.

      I just don’t think that all games from everyone ever should necessarily strive for orthogonality.

      And yeah I read your disaster-game essay when it was first published, and it is in fact pretty good! I could think of nothing interesting to comment, but keep on being awesome!

      • Thanks for saying something nice about the IC article, having no comments/reputation bar it’s hard to gauge how the heck people felt about it.

        It’s funny, I was just about to mention Chrono Trigger – which I stopped playing because of a mini game about mashing a button!

        Don’t drink the kool aid man! That mini game was an insult to your intelligence and mine! If a system like that can be made praiseworthy by “emotional context”, then emotional context is lipstick on a filthy bulldog!

        I don’t like cutscenes… but why couldn’t that just have been a cutscene? If the answer is “to make you feel more involved”, well… Jesus, I just think that if you find yourself creating or justifying actual button mashing, then there must be a fundamental problem with your approach to games.

        And not to insult you personally man =/ this is an industry-wide problem and I’m obviously the one in the minority.

        Having said all this, minigames aren’t so bad. Rhythm Heaven is a minigame compilation, and it’s glorious. Orthogonality is to do with not having two tools that achieve the same thing.

  2. Your worry about gamification (should that be “gamEification”? GAMification sounds like turning things into legs as legs are referred to by not-quite-gentleman from the 1930s) echoes Joyce’s humanistic appropriation of the idea of simony in his short stories. Simony of course being that process in the Catholic church whereby one can use money to purchase “holy” sacraments and even high church office. The concern, broadly stated, being that any time we ensnare something of inherent value in a foreign value system we risk obliterating all native value. The ensnaring value system can be pecuniary, but needn’t necessarily (e.g., if I explicitly treat my relationships with women as a means to procure sex I risk obliterating the manifest value inherent in any human relationship).

    Education has already suffered extensively from simony (grades, standardized tests, college entry, parental approval, etc.)– gameification would just be the latest chapter. The important question is: what is the inherent value in education, and how can we set up students to experience and appreciate it?

  3. @pcook: I don’t think education has suffered from simony; rather, I think education IS simony. What does “education” mean? Without embellishment, it’s just a buch of techniques to get children/the poor to learn what we think is important. There’s no way you can force people to share your own opinions about the intrinsic value of culture, math, science; education pressuposes an external, extrinsic reward/punishment system because it assumes a top-down, teacher-subject, we-know-better model.

    The only way to get people to learn things for their intrinsic value would be to (gasp!) allow them to learn to do whatever the hell they want. But this undoes the entire educational model; instead of objects or targets, the learner becomes the primary subject and agent; as Holt would put it, instead of educating, you just make resources available to help people do stuff better. As long as we are setting up the students, they are necessarily learning because of us, not because of the topics. It’s only when the students set themselves up that they can come to truly appreciate the topics. And—here’s the catch—in most cases the set of topics they’ll appreciate will differ greatly from what we think worthwhile. I know I’d much rather have spent my youth studying, say, medieval calligraphy or comparative folklore or the etnographic history of textiles than fluid dynamics or the demographics of America or endless, outdated biological terminology.

    To see how all of this applies to videogame and gamification, cf. the recent essays by Tim on The Sims Social: the internal motivation-systems of videogames can be simonized, too.

  4. leoboiko: I agree w/ you to a point. Just as w/ the church, so in school: simony can actually serve a more insidious purpose than undermining established value systems. It can REIFY them through the very process of convincing people that the original system is being undermined. I.e., one may be very skeptical (or, as I am, almost wholly dismissive) of the church’s “core” values and yet still find literal simony farcical. In acknowledging this dialectic, however, there may be a tacit strengthening of the original value set. If its overturn is a concern, there must be something there to begin with.

    To borrow your earlier term, an orthogonal conceptual approach to simony might view simony itself as itself valuable–instead of undermining the values of the catholic church, its very existence exposes them as fundamentally ridiculous. Or, as you’re framing the issue with education, the blatantly simonic nature of gameification resonates with the core emptiness of educational doctrine.

    However, I’m wary of the formulation of “value” as necessarily TOTALLY personal and relativistic. And if the term does have some general overarching function (as I think all pieces in a language game must), I’m certain that individuals are NOT always the best arbiters of what has value to them. For instance, as a six-year-old I didn’t like math. It was boring and I didn’t see the utility. But now, as an adult, all the grounding I got in math has allowed me to do thinks like: manage my finances. I can now see that what I DIDN’T value as a child has great value after all. More broadly, consider that each child going through the education system will one day make many decisions with many ramifications. Many of those decisions could be informed by a proper understanding of the power and limitations of the scientific method–If I’m comfortable discounting science as a construct, I might be very comfortable disregarding empirical data on, say, climate change, public health, etc. This disregard could produce a suite of behaviors inimical in the aggregate to aggregate well being. Certainly this would have NEGATIVE value, not just for me, but for all those w/ whom I’m enmeshed.

    Is our education system piss poor? Yeah. Is it too normative? I’m not sure–it could be that it’s not normative in the right ways. Perhaps certain core skills should be required, but more flexibility in how they are applied/practiced could lead to greater freedom for students to follow their own unique trajectory. Of course, “freedom” is a problematic concept too–many children don’t KNOW what they value. They’re in the process of figuring it out, and part of the natural process of doing so involves social triangulation. Education could play a part in this.

    Anyway, I’m not saying it’s not all extremely thorny and problematic. Just that I’m not sure a curriculum comprising SpongeBob and senseless acts of self-aggrandizing aggression (pretty much what the average young American child would choose were she truly free to design her own education, despite your backprojected curriculum of calligraphy and textiles, and mine of cognitive neuroscience and Edwardian literature) is really for the best. So maybe this smacks of paternalistic elitism. Guilty.

  5. @leo I don’t think the world is civilised enough for what you suggest. There are people with vested interests in stupidity, and they will do their best to make people as stupid as they can. People who want to inform (journalists, academics, some entertainers etc) have to compete with them, and we are not yet good enough at expressing the information we have – not yet.

    Supposing we have a child who chooses, of their own free will, to do math. What do we then do with that child? We’d get someone to teach them math in much the same way as we do now. Wikipedia’s great, but if you want to get results you usually need a human being who is sensitive to the problems and opportunities that explaining something has. And that would be more boring than Spongebob, as pcook tells us, except in the hands of that tiny minority of maths teachers who are really sensitive to that stuff.

    You *usually* need a human being. I believe we could get software to fill this niche even more effectively than teachers do. LIT is a step toward software like this.

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