Learning to code, one game at a time

Many see video games as a form of entertainment, but they can also be educational. Not only do they teach us to open our eyes and see new aspects to the world such as different ways of living; they can help us learn employable skills that can be used in our day-to-day lives.

Most of my career so far has been in an IT role where I’ve looked after best-practice and policy, so a move in July to a new job where I’m required to write code has been a little daunting. Although it’s fun there’s so much I need to learn – but I don’t need to worry because games may have the answers. A number of releases make use of mechanics that help teach various programming mechanics, so I’m adding the following onto my study-list. Bring on the revision.

2013: Typing of the Dead: Overkill

Although this title doesn’t teach any programming skills directly, what it does do is teach players how type faster – and that’s invaluable for getting the code out of your head and onto the screen as quickly as possible. Rather than blasting away at zombies with a gun using a controller, in Typing of the Dead: Overkill you instead use your keyboard to enter words and fire shots. Modern Dream’s release is my guilty pleasure: I really shouldn’t like it for several reasons, but somehow it manages to suck me in every time.

2015: Hacknet

I initially had to tell him know when a colleague asked me recently whether I’d ever used Unix. But after he showed me a few of the commands it hit me: I recognised them from playing Hacknet by Team Fractal Alligator. This title simulates computer hacking through a Unix-like operating system, and the core gameplay is to connect to other machines and run dedicated programs to break their security. Get in, take what you need, and get out again – but don’t be reckless, and don’t leave a trace.

2015: Human Resource Machine

Playing a game where you’re a corporate office worker who must complete mundane tasks like moving things from an inbox to an outbox doesn’t sound all that entertaining. But when it’s by Tomorrow Corporation and teaches you elements of assembly language, it’s kind of fun. Once a puzzle in Human Resource Machine is completed, you’re shown how many instructions were used and how long they took to process, giving you the opportunity to optimise your code.

2018: ERROR: Human Not Found

If you’re looking for a game that’s going to introduce you to programming without getting too heavy, ERROR: Human Not Found by CelleC Games is a good choice. This visual-novel is about a scientist who’s trying to clear her name after the death of an artificial intelligence (AI), and has portions of point-and-click adventure interspersed with four types of computer-science-based puzzles. It’s free on Steam so there’s nothing stopping you from giving it a go if you have a couple of hours to spare.

2019: Baba Is You

This one was recommended to me recently by quietschisto from RNG and, although I usually prefer my titles to have a storyline, it sounds like it’s good for helping you get to grips with programming. Baba Is You by Hempuli Oy teaches you how to code in a roundabout way: the rules you have to follow are present as physical blocks in the game world and you can manipulate them to cause surprising interactions. Turn yourself into a rock, patches of grass into hot obstacles, or even the goal of the puzzle into something entirely different.

2019: while True: learn()

while True: learn() isn’t only a game about machine learning, neural networks, big data and AI; it’s also one about understanding your cat. You’re a machine learning specialist who makes neural networks but it turns out your cat is better at it than you are, so build a kitty-to-human translation system to find out what else your pet is capable of. This title is used in schools and universities in countries all over the world and developer Luden.io receives tons of pet photographs from players each week.

Have you played any other video games that have taught you something, programming or otherwise? Let me know about them in the comments below so I can add them to my study list.

Beginner’s guide to indie: part three

It’s time for the final part of my beginner’s guide to indie and, if you didn’t find something that tickles your fancy in part one or two last week, then hopefully we’ll manage to put that right today. Once again, a big thank you to Dan from Now is Games for suggesting I write this series and being the inspiration behind it.

As mentioned in my last posts: the following list contains only games I’ve actually played myself (except for the final category below) and, as pretty obvious from the content on Later Levels, I tend to favour adventures or games with strong narratives. However, I’ve made a point of not making every entry a point-and-click so hopefully there’s something for everyone here. Without further ado, let’s round this series off!

Typing games

Epistory – Typing Chronicles is a game I’m not sure many people know of but it’s definitely worth checking out if you enjoyed The Typing of the Dead: Overkill (my guilty pleasure). There are no zombies this time however: the world unfolds in front of you like an origami storybook and it tells the story of a writer who’s stuck for inspiration. You defeat your foes by typing words shown on-screen and every element in the title is controlled exclusively with the keyboard.

On the other end of the typing-game-spectrum is Hacknet, a simulator based on UNIX commands and real hacking rather than the Hollywood-version of it. The hacker responsible for creating the most invasive security system on the planet is dead and it’s now up to you to unravel the mystery and ensure that Hacknet-OS doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. If you’re not good under pressure or tend to type with two fingers only, then it’s probably not one for you.

Visual novels

I’m not a huge fan of visual novels and so my knowledge is somewhat lacking, but here’s one I actually enjoyed playing. Cinders is a mature take on the classic Cinderella fairytale and it’s not as cutesy as you’d imagine: this heroine isn’t afraid of taking fate into her own hands, even if it means breaking the rules. There’s plenty of player choice and my Cinders became an independent lone traveller who didn’t need a man by her side – you go, girl.

Next up is one of my favourite video games: To The Moon. It’s been called an adventure and an RPG but its gameplay elements are so light that it’s more like a visual novel with some movement. If you’re looking for action then it won’t be to your taste; but if you want to get drawn into an amazing story then I urge you to pick this up as soon as possible. Just be aware that you’ll be crying like a baby by the time the credits roll and will probably need a hug.

Something different

Looking for something different? Then you’ve come to the right place. First in this section is Her Story, a full-motion video (FMV) game which has you sorting through clips of old police interviews in order to discover what happened to a woman’s missing husband. Viva Seifert plays the protagonist and she does so perfectly; her body language, expressions and tone of voice all come together to make you wonder if she’s lying about what she knows…

Proteus isn’t a title that will appeal to everyone but if you’re in need of a ‘digital holiday’, then here’s your stop. Although the only mechanic is exploration and all you can do is walk, it’s a lovely and calming experience: this procedurally-generated island is home to creatures and ruins with magical properties, and a dynamic soundtrack changes in response to the world around you. A new island is generated each time so you’ll always see something unique and can use the ‘postcard’ feature to capture it.

What’s next?

There are loads of indie titles waiting on my wishlist and here’s what I’m playing next. I’ve heard good things about Night in the Woods, an adventure game focused on exploration, story and character. College-dropout Mae returns home to resume her former life but things aren’t the same: it seems different now and everyone has changed. Leaves are falling, the wind is growing cold, strange things are happening and there’s something in the woods…

Athena from AmbiGaming has been playing RiME recently and she has convinced me to give it a go! You play as a young boy who has awakened on a mysterious island after a torrential storm. Wild animals, long-forgotten ruins and a massive tower beckon you to come closer; and armed with your wits — and the guidance of a helpful fox — you must explore the enigmatic land, reach the tower’s peak and unlock its closely guarded secrets.

It can be an effort to work up the motivation to turn on the console or PC after a long day at work when you have only a spare hour in the evening; and sometimes the thought of jumping into another 100-hour open-world RPG can be a bit daunting. But it doesn’t mean you have to give up gaming completely because that’s where smaller indie titles can fit in nicely. Although huge big-budget games do have a certain appeal, there’s also something nice about being able to make good progress in sixty minutes and complete a title within several sittings.

Hopefully you’ve found an indie release among the 23 I’ve listed in my three-part beginner’s guide that has inspired you to give them a try. If you have any other recommendations, please feel free to leave them in the comments below and give me a few more to add to my wishlist!