Lost in Translation - Pathfinder:Destination & Designing Around Language18 Jan 2017 13
Intuitive touchscreen controls are one of the greatest weapons in the armouries of mobile developers. Yet when the first action in a game consists of attaching a dead bat to a crane then clinging to the corpse as it lowers you, that's stretching the envelope. These are the opening seconds of bizarre Chinese language puzzle game Pathfinder: Destination. It only gets odder from there.
There is some text in the game. Some of it is even in English, like the title and the words "Start Game". Beyond that you're on your own unless you can read whatever Asian language the developer used. He's aware of the problem, though. Many of the controls and help boxes are icon based in an attempt to make them language independent. The trouble is that the game itself is far too weird for the icons to make any sense.
As I struggled with things initially, I got the idea of pasting the app store description into Google translate. It confirmed the language was Chinese and gave me the most wonderful English mangling of the original text. I did just about manage to understand the game was about clearing the path for an adventurer to progress on their quest. Less so as to why said adventurer will kill your avatar without a thought if you happen to be in the way.
My favourite part of the translation, though, was this gem. "Unique way to cross the border: the use of unconventional props or wild strange to crack the organs." During my time with the game, I certainly found it unconventional and wildly strange. But I never got the chance to crack anyone's organs. On reflection, I'm quite glad about that.
What Pathfinder: Destinations gets wrong is the presumption that universal controls equal universal understanding. Just because users have come to take certain controls for granted doesn't mean they will know how to use them. In one of the most bizarre moments, I had a "conversation" with an NPC which consisted of a set of pictograms on each side. After a few minutes of clueless tapping I figured out it was a simple puzzle: I had to select right the missing picture to make a story. The "right" missing picture in this case, however, made no sense. The resulting story involved a magic sword, a golem and a pile of rocks. But the correct sequence was not the one that suggests itself from those images.
Harping on about UI design has become a shrill note of mine, lately. Yet it's hard to overstate how important it is and how easy it is to get wrong. The great thing about mobile gaming is how it lends itself to quickfire play wherever you happen to be. So games need to be smooth and accessible to facilitate this. The same is true of mobile websites yet companies spend vast sums on getting the UI just right for an easy customer experience. Game developers should be spending the same level of attention.
Many are small outfits who can't afford the time or expense involved. For them, there is an interesting get out clause. The more time I spent with Pathfinder: Destinations, the more I found that trying to work out what the hell was going on became a game in itself. The actual puzzles on offer were not particularly challenging. What became fun and interesting was figuring out how to interact with the game so you could take the actions needed to solve them.
At least, it was fun until I somehow deleted all my save data. I'll never know whether this was a bug or because I pressed on the wrong button with a Chinese label I couldn't read. There were certainly enough rough edges in the game for the former to be a possibility. Player experience wasn't at the forefront of the developer's mind. One of the most obvious oversights was having to go and re-fetch your equipment at the start of each puzzle. There was no need for this: it consisted of a few taps, was never part of the challenge and was just pointless busy work. Then again, anyone that builds the ability to easily delete a save without warning isn't thinking much about their players.
Experiencing the game did make me think about other mobile games that have made a virtue out of telling you nothing at all. In the excellent Prune, for example, part of the charm is working out for yourself how to interact with new level features as they appear. Indeed the unpredictable nature of how your effort affect the game is a feature. It reinforces the sense of wildness about the game, making you an observer trying to help rather than someone totally in control. That's central to the game's eventual message. Progress to 100 works with the concept in the other direction. It challenges the player with obtuse puzzles that require imaginative use of the all the input devices on your mobile. It's playful, clever, odd and rather brilliant. But it didn't get that way by throwing random collections of mechanics/images into a game and hoping for the best.
You'll know the old saw about the words only being a small part of communication. The experiments on which it was based are suspect, but we can recognise a broad truth beneath. Even today, explorers contacting isolated peoples in virgin rain-forest can rely on a widely understood series of expressions and gestures to make themselves understood. Our shared humanity unites us, whether it be face to face or across thousands of miles of fibre-optic cable. That we can do this on mobile, bypassing the cumbersome region-locking of other formats, is one of the great joys of the medium. Sadly, as Pathfinder shows, another great uniting trait of humanity is taking miracles for granted.