In 2017, the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn escaped from its confines of publication and crunch, whereupon the internet could be rapt up with it for exactly its alotted unit of Discourse Cycles, during which time a wheel got spun, 9/10s were assigned, stars were bequeathed, and the conversation began. It seemed likely at the time that it could have gotten a full scoop of anxiety about a future of misshapen technology attempting to reconcile itself with a world that was not made for it, but ruined in its creation by the people it was ostensibly made to serve, and maybe a side order of What If Girl Hot, But Too Much? but the problem is Nier Automata happened five days earlier, and its creator was weird and quirky in a way that was easier for reviewers to Do A Discourse at.
This meant that Horizon Zero Dawn mostly got to be one of those merely excellent pieces in the neverending consumer cycle. It’s someone’s favourite game, and they love talking about it, and it gives them ideas and it’s opening their horizons for things games can do, and that’s all great, because every game is someone’s favourite, and yes, I know it’s you, Librus. Anyway, the point I bring up is that with the existing slots of Discourse, what Horizon Zero Dawn got, in essence, was the conversation about its interface, and about mapping.
This is the ongoing conversation about how some games are better when they don’t give you maps or orienteering tools, a question that opens up interesting positions between ideas of game design, obscurity and resistance, and an equally important question about player accessibility, where gamers are in general treated as if they need the game’s difficulty to be taken out of their hands, because The Gamer is a strange beast who can only be satisfied with a game when they are made to experience it in a singular way. This is a conversation that’s been going on for a while, and you’ve probably heard it around Dark Souls games in terms of difficulty in general, but also around earlier games like Fallout 3.
The problem, as is typically expressed runs that when games too readily present you with ways to find your goals, you naturally gravitate towards focusing on the device that lets you find your goals, rather than on the world or experience around it. This is presented as a universal problem with those videogames, something that everyone experiences when they play these games a lot.
I personally feel that this problem is much more about being a type of player who has to try and finish games as quickly as possible in order to make meaningful comment about the game such as if one has say, a job about writing about those games. Basically, I think this is a problem that self-selects.
Anyway, the thing this makes me think about, though, is The Super Solvers.
Super Solvers Midnight Rescue is an educational game from 1991 created by a company called The Learning Company. The Learning Company was founded in 1980 by a guy named Warren Robinette, a name that maybe means something to you if you’re a scholar of the video games of the olden dames. Warren Robinette was the creator of one of the most influential games of all time, the Atari game Adventure.
The Learning Company was a company he founded and that released a range of games starting with the Reader Rabbit line, and wound up creating a range of educational games made for schools called the Super Solvers line. These games centered on you, a member of the group called the Super Solvers, opposing the work of Morty Maxwell, the Master of Mischief in the little town of Shady Glen. Morty is a serial problem-causer, usually with a coalition of some kind of useful goon robots that help him enable a suitably preposterous plan that the school-aged Super Solvers can be called in to help out with. In this case, his plan is to get rid of the school by painting it with invisible ink, with the help of his robots that are each made out of some variety of painting device.
In this game, you need to deduce which of the robots is secretly really Morty Maxwell. You do this by taking pictures of each robot, which give you information about the robot you can check to a list of four clues. That list of clues you get from finding reading puzzles around the school, where you read a little bit of text, then answer a simple question based on it.
This is created to be an educational game with a focus on encouraging kids with gameplay that is approachable, and builds on skills that we can obviously see as things we want kids to have in an educational environment. Things like educated guesses, logical exclusion, and the ability to logically extrapolate from a reading sample. It also wants to communicate with kids clearly – which means there are literally no erratic or irregular components; the backgrounds are always the backgrounds, you only can interact with the specific puzzle objects, and everything else in the game is just secondary material.
What this means is that very quickly, moving through the levels, you can learn to discard the visual information you’re getting, and as you start to read the passages, and become familiar with them, you stop needing to even parse the text you’re reading – just a few crucial ideas. I know I found it faster to jump to the end, look for the question, then turn back to re-read the text to look for the answer.
What’s more, this game’s play loop is pretty simple; you have a time limit of ‘three hours’ which is much closer to thirty minutes, during which time you have to photograph the robots, collect the cues, then pick the correct robot. That’s it, that’s all there is to it. The game advances you on a chart that means you have to complete this loop with almost no variation something like fifty times. This means that if you want to see the end-game, you have to save the school over and over again.
While this isn’t a bad thing and Minecraft and other games have taught me the importance of games where you can spend a lot of time digging a metaphorical hole, this repeated game loop meant that over time, you stopped seeing the details of the space you’re in, and stopped even considering them. I started reading the text looking for a small number of keywords – or, once I saw a keyword I knew, I zipped to the end to punch in the answer, pretty confident that I knew what I needed. I had to rip through this game fast because that’s the only way I was going to get to the end, to the highest ranks, where I was sure that if anything about the game would change, it’d happen.
This is the 1990 version of tunnel visioning in games that we periodically discourse about nowadays. The game wanted to teach me to engage with its systems, and so, I did, and over time, I stopped engaging with the framing around that system. As a natural byproduct of playing the game, I learned what I should and should not focus on, what did and did not yield me the progress I was seeking.
What I’m saying is that basically, Midnight Rescue is Dark Souls.
Now, one final detail that doesn’t fit anywhere is that the Learning Company existed non-stop for thirty eight years, 1980 to 2018, whereupon it was shuttered and its assets acquired properly by its parent company, a textbook and educational printing company with the amazing name Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.