Weekly Little Big Planet: the hard way

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Iced Wind is a cute adventure level where you scoot around in ice caves collecting bubbles. It certainly doesn’t have the personality of last week’s Toy Story level, but it’s a good little platformer I played last week. I actually meant to go back to a level I found too difficult to finish and try to figure out why it had given me such problems, but my PS3 pulled this updating scam on me where it insisted I had to download a 568MB update for LBP2 before I could play it. I freaking hate that forced-update scheme, but what’re they gonna do? They know that left to my own devices I’d put that off forever. Oh well. I’ve only got to wait 267 more minutes until it’s updated.

I wish there were a way I could be warned about those things. A little bell that would cause me to salivate and automatically know I had a wait ahead of me. Or a warning sent to my iPhone so I could schedule the update for when I’m cooking dinner and getting my kid to bed. Something. Instead I it takes me by surprise in that tiny window of time I have for gaming and annoys the hell out of me. I suppose there’s no way to train someone to expect this.

Because I don’t mind training. If it’s good. In point of fact, I love it.

After the jump: good for you, good for me, mmm good

I’ve mentioned before how the human element impacts my enjoyment of games, especially with regard to coming to love board games later in life than most of my friends. I have one friend in particular who is without peer when it comes to introducing his friends to a game he likes. He has a white board he’ll prop up at the end of the table, and makes up index cards to provide quick visual references to drive home his points. He is methodical while being personable, and is patient with questions from those among us not familiar with the jargon of gamers. When confronted by a player who does not know what the term “skill check” means, many folks would be tempted to pack up Twilight Imperium and break out Boggle. Not this guy. He goes with it. He’s got that thing good teachers have.

That’s the human element. And that’s one thing I love about learning games.

But it’s also one of my favorite things to learn a game on my own. Actually, that’s not entirely true. How do I put this? To learn a game by being taught by that game how to play that game.

Ugh. Could I make that any more tortured? Try again. I love it when a game is good at teaching me how to play itself. Especially when I don’t realize this is happening. I remember Far Cry 2 doing this. I was a good couple of hours into that game when I suddenly realized how the game had led me along, teaching me how to play it, without explicitly telling me to do this or that. It just showed me the way. I made plenty of mistakes, of course. That’s part of learning too. But I never got frustrated or overly confused. The game brought me into its world and made me comfortable. So I stayed there for many, many hours. I still return to it, and I’m convinced this is because the learning experience was so gratifying.

Far Cry 2 taught me by leading me along. A great method. But straight forward training can work too, as long as I don’t feel that training is a chore, something I need to just get past so I can get to the game. I always feel that way when playing Command & Conquer games. I get impatient with those tutorials and just want to jump into a skirmish and figure it out. This week I went into the tutorial level of a game expecting to feel that same way. A friend had suggested the game to me and I was kind of dreading it because I don’t consider myself much of a tower defense guy, and I’d seen a couple guys play it at our weekly LAN party while I was doing something else. I didn’t pay much attention to it, but it looked like tower defense seeing it out of the corner of my eye. Meh.

The game turned out to give me the single best non-human tutorial experience I’ve ever had.

It’s called Toy Soldiers: Cold War and the tutorial is the first level, Basic Training. I know. Basic Training. Whodathunk that would be a tutorial name? Rolling my eyes I jumped into the level. Damn. I was immediately happy that I had paid such minimal attention to the guys playing the game the week before, and especially pleased I’d tuned out when our friend was explaining how to play it. Because learning this game on my own was a sublime experience. Actually, I need to change the tense there. I’m still learning it, and having a blast. I really cannot recall playing a tutorial where I was as excited and invested as I was playing this game’s Basic Training level. I had to try it a couple of times before I really got it, had to learn that anti-air could only be placed on certain pads the hard way, and that I’d need far more anti-tank emplacements, also the hard way. Learned that selling and rebuilding is important to be able to do on-the-fly the hard way too. The lesson of what a good helicopter pilot does when his battery is low didn’t come easy either. But none of these lessons frustrated me. The game taught me in such a way that made me feel I’d accomplished something even through failure. I’ve never wanted to beat a tutorial level more.

I realized this as I battled the boss of the level on my second attempt at Basic Training. I was pouring shells into the Antonov-A40,this ridiculous monster Soviet tank, relying on my other anti-tank emplacements to take care of the early part of the screw tank waves spilling forth from it (having learned there was more to the game than machine guns, again, the hard way) when I became aware of my adrenalin level. I was flying around the screen, upgrading and repairing like a madman, when suddenly I started laughing. I’m never that good at the twitch stuff, yet here I was being good at it, because the game was teaching me to be good at it. Upgrading. Repairing. Selling. Rebuilding. Upgrading again. Jumping in to fight. Diving back out to repair again. All of it fluid. Natural. With a big goofy grin on my face.

A moment of discovery. Here. Alone in my room. Just my 360 and me. Teacher and student.

Here endeth the lesson.

Click here for the previous Weekly Little Big Planet.