Something that I focus on heavily here is the artistic quality of games, but there is so much more promise and potential to videogames than just art and entertainment. This Kickstarter-funded piece of educational software displays that games are tools for learning as much as devices of entertainment. It’s not a perfect language-learning game, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction and a hell of a lot cheaper than Rosetta Stone.
Influent is a game that would, by normal gaming standards, be considered an educational tool because it is. When you buy the game, you get to decide which language you want to give yourself a primer for. To begin with, Influent does not teach you alphabets. I already have some pre-existing knowledge of Korean and because I participated in the Army’s rigorous linguistics program, I know exactly how your brain learns languages because I had korean jammed into my skull so hard that two years after my last tests, I still slip into korean from time to time. My biggest problem is that I don’t really have direct access to vocabulary lists, so this definitely helps in that way.
The way that you ‘learn’ in this game is by clicking different items with your mouse. It then appears down below in the written format and someone says it to you. The korean speaker has a hard time differentiating between the hard and soft sounds, but, whatever, I know enough to sort that out myself. Once you have a word you want to remember, you hit the spacebar and it goes to a language list. I tried sorting my vocab into neat lists like “clothing,” “food” and “things a baby might stick in its nose,” but things are sorted out in this game in a way that makes sense for life, not tailored to making little lists. This is a plus because if you learn vocabulary in a certain context, you might have a hard time remembering it outside that context. Right-cliking things in the world interacts with them, like opening doors and such.
Sometimes you will need to break apart a collection of items. Luckily, the game has sorted this challenge out pretty well. In order to select something that is a part of a whole, you hit ctrl to identify this, like the pillow on the bed or the leaves on a tree. There is also shift to crouch so you can see things placed under the bed or in a cabinet under the sink.
Once you have your sloppy jumble of words that you’ve heard, it’s time to start trying to sort this stuff out. There are two modes of mastery: time attack and fly by. Time Attack is a mode that will time you on how fast you locate the words in the environment. It says the words and you have to run around like a lunatic looking for them in the apartment. This is a useful tool, too, because it lets you choose from a list of ten vocabulary words, which you will remember discovering them, even vaguely, in that order, so your brain lays those pathways pretty deeply. Another feature of Time Attack lets you choose a randomly assembled list that the game concocts for you to identify.
Now, it’s good that you want to sort through these lists, but as you find the items, the words appear saying what it is, and someone says it. It is easy for you to get brain-lazy and depend on that, though, and eventually you are going to have to start stripping the training wheels away. This can be done easily, and the game encourages you to do it through the use of achievements. When you do time attacks you’ll want to start getting rid of the visual aide because that will teach your brain to start identifying what those things are just by hearing them. This is good because, most of the time, you will be hearing language and not reading it. It prepares your brain for hearing it. Take away the voice and leave the visual aide in order to learn the words based on sight recognition. This will be important for learning to read the language. I am not sure if you can disable both the audio and video for Time Attack to try in some kind of Hellen Keller mode, but the game doesn’t come with a module that signs vigorously into your hand.
Fly by is a mode where you learn vocabulary by piloting a little toy spaceship and zapping the item in question with the lasers. Hitting control in this mode still works just fine, and it even slows down the speed of flight so you can adequately identify what you are trying to select. Hitting shift will just make you fly faster. Be careful, though, because you can crash the ship, which is mildly frustrating as you wait for respawn.
Overall this is a game that clearly has some thought put into it, but there are many limitations. First off, there are a buttload of nouns, but there are only 5 adjectives and 5 verbs to learn in any language; in case you were unaware, most of language is fucking verbs and things placed to make the nouns interact with each other. On top of that, this is not a language-learning game, so much a language supporting game. It is great for studying up on your vocabulary and such, but it does nothing whatsoever to show you how to arrange those into a sentence and then use it to communicate… you know, the purpose of language in the first place. No language is spoken by a bunch of people standing in a room identifying objects, although that reminds me of an episode of Star Trek for some reason. On top of that, the game will show you the language as it is written, which is fine for most European languages as they all use approximately the same alphabet. But if you want to learn something with a totally different alphabet, this game offers no assistance. It just shows you how it should sound and what it looks like. If you want to learn how to write that down, it’s on you. And one thing that ANY student of asian languages can tell you, the stroke order is just as important as learning what to write.
If you need a great study aide, this game could be a great tool to include in your language-learning kit, especially if you’ve grown up playing games that teach you how to do math or something like that quickly. I know I did. Math Blaster was hard as fuck! The thing is, this game has you trapped in your apartment and it is kind of depressing because you can almost tell what happened to this guy. There is a report left on the printer, right? Your door is locked and there is a newspaper and a ton of adverts for food places. This is a guy who recently gave up on humanity and has decided to sit in his room all day learning languages from the disembodied voices in his head and the hallucinations in front of him. When you pilot the jet in fly-by, your character disappears entirely, meaning that he is totally losing association with reality and even himself! Then he runs around the house identifying various things in the house. Fuck the cat, that thing never moves, it must have died long ago, sad and hungry because the owner lost his mind.
Or maybe it’s just a language -learning game that focuses on a small list of vocabulary to get you started with a new language. Still, it would be nice to have various DLC’s that I could download for free according to new areas that pertain to real life. I wouldn’t be able to ask about a library or a restaurant or anything. It’s like a linguistic curriculum with only 10 different lessons. But if you want to walk away from this game with a bit more of a vocabulary, it’s definitely helpful. Check it out on Steam for only 9.99$ per language!