My last game was a great success. But it wasn’t nearly enough. So a new project is now underway.
The First Game
From January to March of this year, I made a simple game for my students. The premise was basic: give students a simple world full of simple English to explore. The location was my town’s middle school and the characters were the students and staff at the school. There was no combat: the challenge was to understand the game. There was also a friend recruitment aspect and a leveling system.
The game turned out great. Aside from being asked not to distribute it due to every character being named after real people, it had worked out as I imagined. But there were also many aspects that I noticed the game failed at, in retrospect.
For one, the game was just about clicking through lots of text. Yes, reading was important, but so was skipping it as fast as possible to get to the next thing. This was arguably one of the biggest weaknesses, and the reason why some of the weaker students were beating the game much quicker than the other students. The students who cared, read. The students who didn’t sped through everything then asked their peers in Japanese about how to get past a certain part or two. Since the game was very open-ended, most students had experienced part of the game in one fashion or another. The weak students just put the pieces together.
One basic example about how the game didn’t need to be read was the bonus area known as Gateway Mountain. In this area, modeled after a mountain behind my school, there were a bunch of hikers and gates blocking the way to the top. The gates would ask a question and there would be four answers. One answer would open the gate while the other three would knock a player back a few feet. Before each gate was a hiker who had the answer to the gate. What did the players do? Since the only punishment for a wrong answer was getting set slightly back, most students just kept spamming the door without thinking until they happened on the right answer. So much for reading.
And then, when it all came down to it, this was just a game about reading. There was no listening or writing. In reviewing games as study, I noticed one of my biggest praises or complaints was the inclusion or lack of spoken dialogue, respectively. While it is traditionally strange to have an 8-bit style game with voice overs, inclusion is better than not when it’s a game made to learn from. I just might need to have big character portraits to make it seem less tacky (or, well, something like that).
Finally, the game was short. This was a matter of time restraints, but when after the first few days of the game being out and some students had completed all the content, I was a little flabbergasted. I shouldn’t have been, knowing how games and books are (it can take months and months of work and be completed by a player/reader in a day). But because of that, I decided to go into overdrive to finish a lot of the extra content. Incidentally, those bits of extra content include the buggiest parts of the game. It was still finished pretty quickly. I could speed run perfect complete the final version of the game in just under 40 minutes.
I’m very glad I made that game though. It taught me a lot about the program itself and game design in general.
The Game I Wanted To Play
Why did I learn Japanese? To play video games of course. But the video games I wanted to play were made with native speakers in mind.
Were it books, the solution is graded readers. That is, books with good themes and stories, but written for someone whose command of the language isn’t strong. A pure beginner in Japanese might struggle with some of the wording and phrases, but nothing within the story is meant to be convoluted or flowery. A story minus the flair. No George R. R. Martin descriptions of food. No “why does anyone care about this” opening to The Scarlet Letter. No Shakespearean clever wordplay. Just pure, simple language. Well, as simple as language can be.
But when it comes to video games, the choices are surprisingly few. Yes, you can play a game like Mario and get by knowing almost no Japanese, but that’s not what I’m getting at. I wanted a full-blown RPG with slightly dumbed-down language. Even RPGs like Ni no Kuni or Zelda which have children in mind have surprisingly difficult language at times, at least for beginners.
While my idea wasn’t very fleshed out, the basic idea was a game wherein you were some English-speaking person dropped into a Japanese-speaking world. You’d have a helper that would teach you words. You’d keep learning words from NPCs until eventually you’d theoretically understand everything. The game would be primarily an action RPG because I like action RPGs, but understanding where to go and what to do would be in the realm of understanding language. If you didn’t take the right precautions, traveling outside of the towns would be instant death, and the precautions weren’t always obvious things (though the NPCs would state it explicitly).
I still think it would be fun to make a game like this someday. But if I were to make the exact above concept, I’d need a decently sized team. It’s not the work of a single person, or at least it’s not the work of a single present-day me.
Even still, that idea is old now. Dated. While it has some benefits, and it would have been ideal for me while I was learning basic Japanese, the idea in reverse wouldn’t work for my students. That said, some of the ideas from it influenced my current project.
The Second Game
So opens my next game. The basic premise is pretty familiar: A young boy lives on a floating island which all of a sudden drops to the earth, and everyone on the earth speaks a different language. That boy is Ichiro Okada, and his goal is to find out why his home fell from the sky.
As the game is for my students, the language from the get-go is Japanese for everyone on the island, and English for the world below. The world below is actually at peace, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a challenge for Ichiro. As he has no understanding of English, his battles are conversations with other people.
Inspired by the Gateway Mountain from the previous game, I wanted players to have to choose the right answer out of a few options, but actually give repercussions this time. That is, wrong answers would take away your health and correct answers would heal you. If you get too many wrong answers, game over.
In the beginning, conversations might only last three or four questions and have only one to two choices for answers. But progressively, the conversations will become longer and the choices will become more numerous. Additionally, damage for wrong answers will naturally increase.
As a required element for the battles, the game will also feature voice acting. Supposing someone gets all their answers correctly, the conversation will actually seem like a conversation. Students will see the words. They’ll choose the responses. They’ll hear the answer if it’s a correct one. I’m thinking I’ll extend the voice acting through the whole game, but as it is, putting it in the battles alone will be a tough project.
Bad voice acting can ruin an experience. Or make it great. In any case, it’s a risky move—a gamble—but one I wish to work on.
Another personal complaint about the first game was the short nature of it. It could be finished quickly. There was no reason to stay in the world for a long time and explore. If I could casually speed-run it in 40 minutes, a lazy playthrough might take all of two or three hours. I’m looking for a game that should take 15 or more hours. I don’t want a game to be long for the sake of being long—I want a game that will keep players exposed to English. I want a game with so many secret areas and side quests that players talk among themselves for a while after release discussing new things they’ve found.
And more than that, I want to give them an English world that they can easily immerse themselves in. As long as it’s fun, the longer a game is, the more easily it is to immerse yourself in it.
Shortly after the start of the game, the main character learns that his people can actually use magic if they say certain words in English. Throughout the game, and in some sidequests, the main character gains magic he can use to travel the world. Alongside these arbitrary skills, conversations grant exp and money like traditional RPGs, where the exp goes automatically to increasing your level (which increases your HP) while money can be used to: 1) buy items to heal you 2) buy things to upgrade other stats 3) items for sidequests 4) etc. Talking to a new NPCs will give a secret stat called “mini-morale” that when accumulated will increase your “morale” by one point, lessening the damage you take from wrong answers. Doing some other task (I’m not sure which) will increase your pride, which affects how much health you heal from a correct answer.
While there will be items to heal you, I expect most students with time on their hands will probably opt to repeat conversations over and over again to heal themselves. Like one of those people who gets to the max level in the first area of the game, thinking they’ve cheated the game, I want players to feel like they’re doing something “wrong” when in fact repeating correct conversations is actually an ideal language practice.
Even better, the dialogue in the game is partially based around the textbook that’s used in most Japanese junior high schools. That means that if a player wants to get ahead of the textbook or practice material in a certain section of the textbook, they can see the words they need for class in new contexts. Having the game be so close to the textbook means that there’s an even greater chance that schools will allow their students to play it.
Which actually brings me to my most ambitious goal with this project: for this game to be spread around Japan. That is, convincing friends and fellow teachers to distribute the game to their schools and students. And maybe the game will even inspire others to make their own games. Maybe this could be a genre of language learning games.
But that’s far in advance. Maybe too far. Right now I need to worry about writing the dialogue for the game.
To Include or Not Include
With a project of this size, just as I’ve thought about voice overs, I’ve debated the addition of other features.
The first is actually the addition of save points. Should I have them? If I don’t have them, then students can save wherever they want, which is better for schools that might want to use the game. Additionally, it’s preferable for students who want to practice a certain conversation or word, being able to load the game exactly where they want. But it also negates some of the difficulty in a game where it’s actually possible to take 0 damage the entire game, supposing you answer every conversation correctly. Just save before every fight and spam through the options hoping you don’t die? I think I’m going to have to playtest this game in my school to see how necessary it is.
In addition, if I have time, I’d like to have an in-game dictionary that increases every time you encounter a new word from the textbook (and a few others I think are personally important). As the game is for beginners, the dictionary would have the Japanese translation and explanation of the word, but it would also give you the pronunciation if you selected it. This would be an ideal feature and something that could cement the game as an amazing free learning tool. It also takes a ton of effort.
God, this feels like a kickstarter stretch goal.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that with a project of this scale, I have some anxiety.
Part of that anxiety is natural for any project. When I begin writing a book, the same thing happens. I have so many ideas, but the fact that they aren’t written down yet, and the fact that something could happen like dying or, god forbid, losing my data, makes it feel like I’m fighting an upward battle.
I’ll tell you: putting my data on my school computers for my last game was a huge relief. Like, at least now there was something tangible as a testament to my time.
It’s little different from learning a language, I guess, except that there’s a lot less instant gratification at the beginning. When you learn a language, remembering a phrase or reading something you couldn’t read before is an awesome feeling.
But with a game as well as a book (or anything creative, I suppose), there’s so much work that goes into the initial part. Writing dialogue before it enters the game that I can do basic run bys with friends before I put it in the game. Doubly so for the Japanese dialogue. Writing background scripts that make the game do what I want. Debugging. It’s better to get it out of the way in the beginning, but it means that it can take awhile to get to anything that you can show off.
But man, when I got that “morale” script working, I was super happy. Or pretty much any time I make an area that connects to the world map, even if that area has nothing inside of it. So there is definitely something to the journey.
Other days, however, when I’m slogging to get even a single line of dialogue into the game, it can feel like this will never amount to anything. I used to follow pseudolonewolf because he made awesome games, but his blog is largely him complaining about how he can’t work. I still can’t stand his blog, and yet I think I’m starting to understand his feelings a little more. Or maybe that’s just my own hubris.
Oh well, bit by bit.
I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.