EDT791: Literacy and Learning in Lost Odyssey

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Wed, 03/05/2008 - 19:04

Lost Odyssey is a traditional Japanese role-playing game (JRPG), similar in play mechanics and style to dozens of games that have preceded it, but its presentation and quality of execution are among the finest in the genre. As such, it makes a great case study for games of its style in the context of literacy and learning. While it features plenty of content that could be investigated in the context of a typical view of literacy (lots of text to read, complex dialog and storytelling, etc.), I believe that the most interesting insights lay in the player’s literacy of the game world, mechanics and ecosystem of experiences surrounding that literacy.

Kaim Argonar is Lost Odyssey’s immortal, amnesiac protagonist. The story begins in a typical JRPG fashion, with Kaim somehow having forgotten his past - a convenient crutch many games, not just JRPGs, use as a way to orient the player to the main character. Lost Odyssey is different from other games of this type, though, in that the main character cannot die and has, up to this point, lived nearly one thousand years. So, he should clearly have some memories. As I quickly found out, he does, and they all have situated meanings. As I have progressed through the game, Kaim frequently encounters something that causes him to remember a moment from his past as a dream. These memories are then presented through on-screen text and images. Gee states, in chapter four of What Video Games Have to Teach Us..., that “meanings in video games are always specific to specific situations.” While I believe many of these dream sequences are very well written and stand alone as interesting works, they also contain completely situational meanings. Kaim’s memory of a troublesome and, to some, annoying girl in a small village had a deeper meaning than it may have had, seeing as I had just briefly earlier learned that Kaim had lost a daughter some time ago. There are dozens of these memories presented throughout the game, each with its own contextual meaning.

The interface for the game is quite similar to that of other games of the JRPG genre, particularly during fights. Battles occur in a turn-based style and actions are selected via a menu in the bottom-left corner of the screen at the beginning of each round. I have played many JRPGs in the past, so I was easily able to understand the menu system and how to control battles. For example, a convention of JRPG battle system menus is to have additional menu items available by pressing left or right on the control stick from the “main” list of menu. Nothing in Lost Odyssey prompted me to do this, but I knew, intuitively, that it may be an option, so I tried pressing right and then left, on my own, to see if something would happen. Pressing left did, in fact, bring up a menu that allowed me to change my equipped accessories at the beginning of each round of the fight. Gee describes this as the intuitive or tacit knowledge principle, meaning that repeated experience with a type or genre of game is not only valued but frequently expected.

Lost Odyssey features a somewhat dynamic leveling system in that, as I progress through the game, enemies stay at a challenging level, regardless of how much time I have put into making my characters stronger. The game’s boss battles are particularly emblematic of this, in that they are always quite difficult and typically present not only a strategic challenge, but one that is almost like a puzzle in nature. I have found myself using what Gee calls “probing” during many of these situations. Several of the most challenging battles have forced me to fight and fail (probe), devise other potential strategies (hypothesize), test these strategies in the next round (re-probe), and analyze the results (rethink) - often doing this several times until I reach the right “formula” for success. In spite of this, the game has never felt unfair. I believe this is because the game is balanced such that I know I can win, as long as I figure out how.

One of the most fascinating ideas in chapter four of What Video Games Have to Teach Us... is that of affinity groups and appreciative systems. Gee describes an appreciative system as, “the set of goals, desires, feelings, and values in respect to the domain being engaged with,” that we use to determine the significance or acceptability of the result of an action. There are nearly an infinite amount of potential affinity groups that I may use to establish my appreciative system while playing a game, however, the key group I associate myself with for this game is the community of gamers on the Gamers With Jobs website. In a forum thread about the game dating back to before the game’s release date, dozens of gamers have discussed various its aspects. The thread has ranged from thoughts about screenshots and previews to complex discussions about the narrative and pacing. Ultimately, this thread, which I have participated in, led me to not only purchase the game, but also look at situations in the game differently. There are a few posts similar to the one below (I won’t even get into the language used here, as that’s not the type of “literacy” I’m discussing, but it clearly could be a topic of its own):

“Has anyone wiped out on a normal fight yet? Is the retry/checkpoint system equally kind when that happens?”

-- zeroKFE

“I've only wiped at certain story events, not necessarily bosses. They all had a checkpoint that started before the encounter. I haven't wiped against regular creatures. Then again, it's been so linear so far, I haven't had any reason to find myself outside of my depth.”

-- Certis

After reading this, I knew that many other players had experienced the boss battles to be challenging, so it’s “acceptable” for me to have found them to be tough. I also know, from this same discussion thread, that it’s important to have a variety of accessories and rings to equip on my characters, so that’s something to which I have to paid close attention.

Lost Odyssey makes use of many of the principles presented in the Situated Meaning and Learning chapter of What Video Games Have to Teach Us..., but I have found the most fascinating part of it is that I don’t even notice. Many times I have had to force myself to think about the game in the context of Gee’s work. This is a stark contrast to my experience with Persona 3, where I found myself constantly thinking about the game’s relationship to the course work - mainly, I now realize, because the game itself was so uninteresting and presented those aspects in such an obvious and intrusive manner. Lost Odyssey’s presentation (to a gamer with my background, mind you) of play mechanics and content is so refined that it typically melts away into the experience... which is precisely what we should be expecting of the finest educational materials.