To this point in my game design enhanced foreign language teaching and learning (GD-L2TL) reviews I have not covered a traditional combat-oriented role-playing game (RPG). Hyper Light Drifter (henceforth HLD) will serve as the first in a two-game review that examines RPGs from two very different perspectives in order to mine them both for effective features for L2TL. (Teaser: The second game is Bastion). To orient ourselves, this review will have a couple of questions:
- Does Hyper Light Drifter afford learning opportunities for L2TL?
- How does a linguistically rich or impoverished game afford language learning opportunities?
We will start with a description of HLD, its community. Following that, we’ll attempt to answer our question with a review of the GD-L2TL features that HLD does well and not so well.
HLD is a 2D single player or two player RPG. It uses a top-down 3rd person view and is described by it’s creator, Alex Preston, as, “a combination of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Diablo“. It uses an 8bit pixel art and sound design which places it artistically also in the style of original Zelda games, The Secret of Mana and other early RPGs. On Steam, HLD costs $21.00 USD and can be found on sale regularly. HLD is operational on windows, macs and on the steam platform.
As an RPG, HLD is story-rich; with a fairly simple task cycle that will be familiar with anyone who has played any kind of RPG. HLD is visually stunning and the music direction is mysterious and dissonant. The entire world of the game is foreboding and irresistible. The opening sequence is full of conflict, hope, danger and sickness. It presents a world that appears post-apocalyptic with giant, menacing robots and slick, oil-like creatures which appear to make the protagonist ill. Metaphors abound (as they should) in this RPG. There is plenty to interpret and speculate on.
The game drops you into the world and very quickly the player is given explicit directions about the basic mechanics (dash, sword and gun) through very simple and direct puzzles that confront the player with a problem that can only be solved using a single mechanic. While the tutorial is simple, it does force the player to recognize early that the game is timing-based and it is simply not possible to jump into a group of enemies and hack-n-slash their way through it. The earlier the player learns this lesson, the better.
After the tutorial, the player is dropped into the actual, explorable, game world. The player’s tasks revolve around exploring each of the four areas, collecting useful items and assets and fighting enemies that exist in each area. This basic task cycle Explore –> Collect –> Combat are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. By exploring the game world, the player can find secrets that they can collect (health packs, currency, special items) that they can then use to improve their combat abilities (by giving them more life, upgrading their basic skills or a new item with new powers).
Each of the tasks however are also important independent of the others. By exploring, the player is looking for 1) the area waypoint that will allow them to warp to that area quickly whenver they want and 2) where the main boss is. Both of these are very important tasks to complete by exploration. The player is primarily collecting triangle pieces that will allow them to gain access to the main boss of each area. After beating the boss, the player finds a very large triangle that is important to collect. For combat, the player will be confronted with at least two major battles in each area. The first generally comes before the player finds the waypoint and the other is the boss battle. Through the area the player will confront other enemies that must be dealt with as well.
Socialization and learning
As alluded to in the introduction, HLD is unique in a few ways; most importantly for our purposes here, HLD does not use any human language to communicate with the player about anything in the game. That is not to say that language is not part of the game, it is, it is simply incomprehensible to the player for the most part, or it is communicated to the player through pictures. The character then, can use language, but the player cannot understand it, leading to an interesting division of the player from their character. The player experiences the game through the main character in a kind of Lave and Wenger-ian (1991) zone of legitimate peripheral participation. The character lets the player experience the world (though it is very foreign and you don’t understand the language) in a way that is reminiscent of visiting a friend who is from a different country.
The primary communities for HLD exist on two websites. First, the steam community hub page and second, the wiki page for the game. In addition to these two primary sources are a variety of youtube channels which have dealt with the content of HLD to some degree or another. Much of this video content is accessible through the steam community.
The steam community and the wiki both repeat a lot of useful information that the players can use to improve their gameplay when they encounter difficulties in the game. This is probably the primary function of both communities, however the steam page does have a semi-active discussion board, with about one or two new discussions initiated everyday and a very long history of content to explore. Players who have questions will likely have a few responses, though maybe not in a very quick fashion.
The steam community in particular mostly engages in discussions about tactics, difficulty of the game and the lore / background. Players also share screenshots of beautiful vistas in the game and secrets they have found. Some share fan-made artwork which can be quite impressive, but players don’t tend to comment extensively on this section. The most complete section of the community is the guide and review sections, where players talk about gameplay strategy, secrets and their overall feelings of the game.
The review section has a lot of weekly and daily activity, however all the reviews from the week previous to this posting had zero comments related to them. The interpersonal communication of the community is a bit lacking for social learning, but it does represent a store of knowledge about the game.
The L2TL Review
Following Sykes and Reinhardt’s (2013) sociocultural critique of Task-based learning (TBLT), this review will focus on specific game-design features that might be leveraged to improve L2TL. For a review of what these features are and why they are included see this foundational post. We will start with a overall review of each feature, followed with a short discussion of specific ways to leverage HLD for L2TL.
Tasks and Goals| Not useful………………………………………………………X…….Useful
√ HLD has a simple cycle of three primary tasks and easy to understand primary goals. For exploration, it is to find the warp-point and the triangles. For collections it is money-bits and keys if possible. For combat it is to defeat the main boss and the secondary fights that occur.
√ Tasks interrelate in ways that are helpful. Exploring leads to finding money-bits and money bits are used to upgrade combat options.
√ The player has choice in how exactly to upgrade their play and which way to explore and how much they want to collect.
Feedback| Not useful……………………………….……………………x………Useful
√ HLD is a skill-based mechanical game. Every input the player chooses is meaningful and simply button-smashing will quickly lead to death. Players get a lot of good feedback very quickly through this for combat in particular.
√ The game’s feedback is multimodal and utilizes implicit cues rather than explicit direction. Enemies have specific cues, the HUD has a specific cue and the environment also utilizes specific cues that the player comes to recognize the more they play.
√ HLD’s wiki and steam page are full of really useful information regarding all the tasks and secrets in the game. Players who get frustrated will find new hope on the forums.
X HLD is not dynamic. The enemies do not scale with the player. Meaning the early game is quite difficult and as the player masters the game skills, the 2nd and 3rd areas might be comparably easier.
Interactivity| Not useful……………………………….……………x………………Useful
√ The game’s art style is used for massive effect. The 8bit style can make things hard to decipher, but the art style effectively highlights important aspects of the game for the player. The musical score is magnificently cued for the player to get them emotionally ready for the game.
√ The game world is somewhat interactive. But it is importantly consistent in what is possible to interact with. Players know when they can subvert expectations based on cues.
X/√ Attendant communities are semi-active, but have a huge repository of useful information.
Context and Narrative| Not useful………………………………………x……………….Useful
√ The game world and lore is rich, mysterious and inviting/foreboding. The opening cinematic is an effective hook and the basic tasks of the game reveal a dystopian and ruined world just asking for heroes.
√ The game features zero language forms. This means the player must interpret the world and make sense of it anyway they know how. One possibility is to use the forums to get all this information. But the player can also just interpret it as they want.
X/√ The player experience is disconnected from the character experience. Meaning, the emergent story that the player directly experiences is oddly out of place for the avatar. For example, the player does not know any of the language in the game, but the character does and interacts with others.
Motivation| Not useful………………………………x…………………………….Useful
√ HLD has all of Prensky’s elements of games, which makes it largely an engaging game.
X Flow is a problem in the game. It requires a lot of energy to play the game well and if the player hits a difficult spot, then it can be ultimately frustrating. This in part has to do with the games limited adaptation to the player. As the player progresses, they get more powerful, but the new assets are not the most important parts of the game, upgrading the player’s literal mechanical skills are, which means the player may need to grind, but the system feedback is not clear about this.
X Play sessions may often end on frustrating moments, meaning the player needs to find motivating reasons to come back to the game. Stopping at difficult moments in the game and exploring the forums for good ideas is a possible solution.
Potential Applications for L2TL
HLD presents some unique possibilities for learning and some challenges and this section will only be able to discuss in broad strokes some of the ideas that I think, once fleshed out, could really be effective learning activities. To begin, we’ll discuss the lack of linguistic input in the game and the possibility for extensive negotiation for meaning (NfM). The challenge of motivation will be addressed through player agency and finally some possible transcendence through the use of in-game “cues” and communicative cues.
Exploring a world you don’t understand
When HLD begins, the sound design and the visual presentation of the intro and tutorial are breathtaking and curious. The game hooks the player with a mysterious story and game-play that has quality “game feel”. The lack of linguistic cues becomes simply part of this world and its appeal. But what to do when the player wants to discuss the game with friends or an online community? Suddenly the need for language presents itself and in particular, the need to think critically about what kind of language and why, or what Swain (2009) has coined, the player needs “to language”– or use language to talk about language. This explicit, and socially meaningful, attention to form is why GD-L2TL improves upon other types of form-focused or communicative-focused approaches.
By playing the game, noticing specific features and then talking about their experience with another student, players will be forced to assign or discover forms and meanings related to their experience. HLD allows this process to go one step further with its co-op mode. By playing together, players can (and do, see the video below) discuss specific events, items and emotions related to the shared experience and affords joint attention.
The teachers responsibility in this experience is paradoxical, they need to 1) allow the players to explore freely and discuss attentively and 2) guide the development of communicative forms. I think this can be done by asking the students to pay attention to, in part, the game cues they are presented with (that they will need to pay attention to anyway, if they want to play the game).
Using the BA model (see here for a review and example), players can be allowed to play the tutorial either alone or with a partner and then discuss what they did together (possibly guided, with as few restrictions as possible, by a reflection worksheet). They would then talk with another pair or individual and compare and contrast their experience with the tutorial. Finally, each player or pair would reflect and plan for their next game session what they want to do, how they want to do it and any other feature of the game they want to explore.
Game cues to communication cues
Following that Explore –> Examine –> Extend cycle, the teacher may mine the student conversations for any examples of game-task cues (e.g. enemy attack tells, exploration symbolic cues) to discuss as a class. The students will be asked to play and collect any other examples of “cues” that communicate to the player something important about the game related to the three tasks and possibly the lore of the game or other personally interesting features.
Students can share cues with each other and any other secrets they find (all the while, languaging to help them describe what exactly it is they are doing). At some point in a BA examine cycle, students can help transfer the concept of “cues” to social-linguistic communication by exploring the steam community for tasks that the community engages in ( e.g. discussions, guides, reviews) and how people “cue” their communicative intentions to others. The screenshot of a current (as of this posting) question may serve as an interesting example. Students can be asked what the participants intentions are? What do they want to accomplish? What forms do they use to do so? How do participants initiate, transition and conclude their communicative turns? In the example, “Kiba” titles her post “question”, which piques other users who may be more helpful (or just think they are) to engage. Kiba uses fairly informal writing styles (e.g. “gf”, “…”) and provides several questions that cue the reader to respond in specific ways (e.g. “…steam but I need…”, “how does it work? do I just … or what?“).
What is really special about this kind of community-based sociocultural interaction is that the forms used to ask questions in this forum are unlike anything taught in most classes, even in most TBLT classes. In particular, the ending “or what?” is particularly rare, but useful and effective in this community (and potentially others).
Dealing with frustration
Finally, one note that I think any teacher and students that attempt to use HLD for L2TL need to address is the difficulty of the game. For dedicated gamers, the difficulty of the game will be motivating and exciting. But for casual gamers, the difficulty of the game, particularly if they haven’t played an RPG like this, may possibly become frustrating and demotivating quite quickly.
Dealing with this problem is, largely I think, a problem of communication. Mark Brown’s video on communicating clearly the intention of game designers to players who may find those intended play styles frustrating is the key to good design. In the case of HLD, the teacher’s role is in communicating clearly to the students what kind of game HLD is. In particular, that it is meant to be a punishing game. That the difficulty is intended, but that there are ways over-coming it.
When players confront difficult segments of the game, the teacher should encourage the players to try as much as they want, but when they feel frustrated, importantly, they should feel free to step away from the game and explore the game community for a little while.
This is important for at least two primary reasons. 1) resetting the player may be all that they need in order to overcome the problem they are having and 2) by going to the game community, the player has a motivated and goal-oriented reason for exploring the information there. What they choose to read will be meaningful in a way that is often completely absent from most L2TL. The teacher’s role in this instance is ensuring that the player knows what to do when they feel frustrated and they are guided in their exploration for finding useful information.
Teachers are often wary of presenting their students with failure. For many, failure to perform as they think the teacher or their peers expect is part of the reason classroom-based language learning is anxiety promoting for many students (myself included). HLD, I think, and games in general provide a great example of how fail states are really sites of learning potential. They naturally create Vygotskian zones of proximal development, which can be exploited for L2TL. Failure in games is a sign of future success.
How teachers and students then use HLD and fail states in general to promote language development is the key feature that this GD-L2TL approach wants to capture. HLD provides an engrossing game world with a significant game challenge that provides ample opportunity for NfM and languaging to promote internalization of linguistic forms and uses. The social community provides plenty of linguistic examples and mediation for any time the player encounters a fail state.
However, HLD will not be interesting for all players, and like the work-simulator problem, a possible solution lies in giving players options. In the case of HLD, the option might be a different RPG altogether. Perhaps a game like Bastion, which we will look at next.