Lesson Plan: Lost Pig (Intermediate)
Game: Lost Pig (And Place Underground) by Admiral Jota (2007)
Level: Intermediate and up
Time needed to play: 2-6 hours (the lesson plan suggests a 45-90 minute pair/group play in class and a further 90 minute whole-class playing session with help from the teacher in order to get through the whole game.
Lost Pig Difficult Vocabulary worksheet (Intermediate): LOSTPIG_VOCAB
Lot Pig Map without descriptions: LOSTPIG_MAP
Lost Pig Map with descriptions: LOSTPIG_MAP_DESCRIPTIONS
Map with IF commands: lostpigmap_vocab
After using 9:05 as a basic introduction to the language and concept of IF, I recommend following up with a game that is radically different in theme and style. To contrast with 9:05, I would suggest playing a game that:
- is puzzle-based (requiring the close examination and manipulation of objects)
- has a more imaginative setting (not based in the real world)
- has a larger game-world, while still being a relatively short-game to complete
- requires communicating with a non-player character (NPC)
- has a protagonist with a set identity
Lost Pig (2007) by Admiral Jota is a flawless example of the above. In addition to its challenging puzzles, the technical implementation of the game and its parser is of the highest quality. However, what really makes Lost Pig a great game (and undoubtedly worthy of its multiple awards and ranking as one of the best IF games of all time) is that is extremely fun to play! The protagonist, Grunk, is an orc, on a mission to bring back a pig he has let escape from a farm. Grunk is not the brightest of characters and his simple but honest outlook on the world around him make him a very funny and loveable character to play. What is most original in the game, though, is that Lost Pig eschews the traditional second-person narration found in the vast majority of IF and is played through Grunk’s skewed first/third-person perspective. Because the world is being described as Grunk sees it, it is also narrated in his voice – the voice of an Orc, like this (click to enlarge the image):
This form of pidgin-English is used for all the descriptions and narrative text in the game except for the non-player character’s exchanges (a gnome, who speaks proper and jargon-filled English. While this use of broken English may seem contradictory to using IF for language learning (and indeed, I had to think very carefully before recommending this game for classroom use), it is actually a benefit in 4 ways:
- the basic language used in the game makes it accessible to pre-Intermediate (and possibly even lower levels, with extra support). I still recommend pre-teaching any difficult vocabulary related to objects and the environment.
- mentally parsing this Orc-flavoured English into standard English presents an additional cognitive task and provides an additional linguistic challenge. As well as decoding the Orc-speak using bottom-up reading strategies and mentally translating it into proper English, the actual meaning of the text and how it relates to the other texts then needs to be decoded using top-down reading strategies. Player input still needs to be done via traditional imperative commands and a good deal of standard English is used in input and output in order to communicate with the gnome (the NPC), as he can dispense a great deal of information regarding Grunk’s environment and immediate goals (in addition to providing an object needed to finish the game). My experience in using Lost Pig with students has shown that the Orc-speak in no way complicates the understanding of the text, and if anything, makes playing the game a funnier and more enjoyable experience.
- Seeing the world through Grunk’s eyes and understanding how he sees himself in the world makes it a very immersive and entertaining experience. IF gives the reader the power to be someone else, and in Lost Pig, this really is the case – the player will naturally begin to think and act like Grunk!
- This was the first game that I thought of using with learners initially based on an idea for a follow-up post-reading task. The pidgin-English narration naturally lends itself to students re-writing parts of the story (their story) in standard English. IF can make this type of task extremely appealing as each student or pair will narrate a slightly different tale due to the different actions taken (both successful and failed), the different paths followed and the different order in which they occurred.
Notes on playing the game
Using a map
The game itself is not geographically expansive, with only 7 initial rooms needing to be explored, but because of the inclusion of the NE,NW,SE,SW headings, it may make navigation more complicated for players not used to making mental maps. I would recommend giving the students a copy of a the Place Underground map (you can choose from the LOSTPIG_MAP which merely shows the layout of the rooms, and which can be completed during exploration or the LOSTPIG_MAP_DESCRIPTIONS which includes a description of the objects found in each room). Using a map will keep the students focused on solving the puzzles and not blindly wandering around in circles.
Close examination of objects and the environment is crucial
The game is extremely puzzle-focused, and while the puzzles are logical (following the alchemy-based logic of game-world), gathering clues to solve the puzzles requires the close examination of everything. The ‘X‘ command (EXAMINE) is your friend!
MILD SPOLIER AHEAD (skip this section if you don’t want a puzzle to be spoiled):
An example of this can be found when examining the murals in the statue room. Examining the east wall provides the following description:
“Picture have long purple pole that go from side to side. All around pole, there different yellow thing that float in air, like gold and bottle of beer and thing that Grunk never see before and lots of other thing too. Under that, there picture of pie. Mmm, pie”.
An astute reader may have noticed that the green-coloured pole found in the game seems to display some kind of repellent force when green-skinned Grunk picks it up. The picture in the mural gives further evidence to any initial suspicions the reader may have on the pole’s special properties. Conversing with the Gnome and enquiring about the pole should result in a final confirmation. However, some crucial information on the pole’s potential use is still missing. Going back to the mural with the purple pole and yellow objects, when I first played the game, I thought that the pie mentioned by Grunk was merely another non-descript yellow object, like the gold and bottle and only included as joke. Alas, the pie can be examined, providing essential information needed to solve 2 puzzles in the game.
Talking to the gnome is important
Lost Pig is a shining example of how to implement an NPC that is not only interesting and useful to talk to, but actually exists as part of a puzzle. Conversation with the gnome is done by using the TALK TO, ASK ABOUT and TELL ABOUT commands:
- TALK TO GNOME will provide a very general verbal exchange
- ASK GNOME ABOUT POLE, or TELL GNOME ABOUT POLE will get the gnome talking about the pole, possibly opening up other possible topics of conversation. As the conversation is topic based, typing in the TOPICS command will present a list of possible topics which can be further developed. However, the parser in the game is extremely well-developed (the best I have seen in IF) and an enormous quantity of words and commands will be understood by the game. Furthermore, not only will the game understand many commands, it will actually produce specific output or make lasting changes to the game-world upon their use. As an example of the wide breadth of commands understood by the game, try removing Grunk’s pants and eating them or setting them on fire. He is an Orc, after all, and many potential orc-related actions and their results have been considered and implemented by the author.
Lost Pig, as a true example ‘user-friendly modern IF’ (alongside Bronze, by Emily Short) has implemented the GO TO command, which automatically takes the protagonist to a chosen location as long as it has been visited before. This saves a lot of moving back and forth through locations and is a wonderful companion to a map.
An incredible hint system
Lost Pig has one of the best built-in hint systems I have yet to come across in an IF game, making the need to use a walkthrough upon getting stuck unnecessary. Typing ‘HINT‘ or ‘HELP‘ produces a menu where the hints can be accessed. Hints for every puzzle and explanations on the use of many objects are available in a hierarchical system – you can choose to be given successive hints for a given problem until you think you have enough information to tackle the problem yourself. The list of hints also indicates which puzzles have already been solved, which is a useful indicator of how much progress has been made. The score counter in the status line (at the top of screen) shows the player’s score out of a possible 7 points. The game can be completed upon acquiring the 6th point, while the 7th point is only attributed to players who heed the Gnome’s words very carefully. While the hint system is incredibly useful for autonomous play, students will probably not have much time use them during play in a structured lesson. If students start using the hints during a lesson, they may not be able to contain themselves and stop when they have just enough new information to help construct or prove a hypothesis. During class play, I recommend that the teacher give out little clues as needed to keep the students trying to make connections without becoming completely demotivated by lack of success.
- Pre-teaching vocabulary (20 minutes)
Because the general language level of the text in Lost Pig is very basic (except when talking to the Gnome, who uses some rather obscure terminology), most of the vocabulary that may require clarification is related to the objects found and used in the game. Grunk, himself, describes many objects in a simple way upon closer examination. For example:
> X forest
Many tree and bush and leaf and branch and other plant like that. That what forest mean.
> x chest
Chest mean wide box with lid. This one too big to carry. Chest full of black powder.
As most of the difficult vocabulary is related to objects found in the environment, I decided to present the LOSTPIG_VOCAB task as a picture matching activity. The advantage of this approach is that during correction, the visual stimulus in addition to further prompts from the teacher can be used to activate schema (eg. “What do you do to a lever?” to elicit ‘pull’ or ‘push’; “What does a magnet do? to elicit “attract” or “repel”.) Because Lost Pig is so focused on logical puzzle-solving, this schema-activating approach may help the students overcome some of the initial obstacles in a quicker fashion.
The answers on the worksheet can be removed to make the activity more difficult for higher levels, and if used with advanced levels, the worksheet should be adapted accordingly.
Lost Pig, while not a large game, will still take some time (2-6 hours) to complete because of the need to discover the nature of the puzzles and how to solve them (some requiring repeated cycles of trial and error). In the impossibility of arranging a series of lessons in a computer room (and to be realistic, the students’ continued interest/motivation may begin to wane over a prolonged period of play), for Lost Pig I would suggest a blended learning scenario:
1 – Get the Lost Pig.z8 game file and download and install Gargoyle on each computer. Although Lost Pig can be played online here and here, in order to be able to create more than one save game file and importantly, to create a transcript of the gaming session, a software interpreter is recommended. If there are local restrictions on installing software, the Gargoyle installation file can be downloaded onto a computer and executed and installed onto a USB pen (by choosing the pen as the destination drive instead of the default c:\programs). Alternatively, if playing online is the only or preferred option, having only one save game file is still useful (but will only be restorable on the machine it is created on) and a transcript of the game session can be still be created by manually copying and pasting the text from the web-browser.
2 – Students play the game in the classroom in pairs (45 – 90 minutes).
Provide a Place Underground map and make sure they have access to the difficult vocabulary worksheet and the IF for Beginner’s vocab card. A copy of the map (without room descriptions) and the IF for Beginner’s card on the same sheet can be downloaded here.
At the beginning of the playing session, students use the SCRIPT command to begin the process of saving a transcript of the gaming session. The transcript is saved as a .txt file in a chosen location, and can be used for post-reading analysis and further language tasks. Students save their progress in the game (at least once, at the end of the playing session) using the SAVE command.
3– Students who are interested in the challenge can continue at home (preferably, without using hints) by using the RESTORE command with a saved game file (from step 1). Save game files (*.sav) can be moved and copied and opened on any computer with Gargoyle and the same game file.
4 – The game is played as a whole-class activity with one computer connected to a data-projector and the teacher or students controlling the input. The focus here is for the class to collaborate as a group to brainstorm how the puzzles can be solved and the commands necessary to test their hypotheses. The teacher can now freely give hints to point them in the right direction. It is important here to take the students step by step through the logical progression of solving a puzzle. The green pole and needing to examine the east wall in the fountain room as well as asking the gnome about it is a perfect example of this. (90 minutes)
As I mentioned earlier, the first idea I had for using Lost Pig with students was to get them to re-write parts of their own traversal through the narrative (using a transcript file created with the SCRIPT command) using correct English and narrative tenses. The different order in which the text is explored and the different puzzles that are attempted and solved/unsolved, offers a unique take on the story by each pair of students. The individual students are asked to choose a few sections from their game transcript and use those as the basis for a narrative composition (there is no need to make this overly long, but I have received multiple-page compositions!).
Final thoughts on Lost Pig:
While Grunk’s broken English makes the game accesible to perhaps even false-beginner level language learners, the puzzles, while not too difficult for experienced IF players, still require in-depth exploration and various trial and error attempts, which makes progressing through game a slow-moving process. Furthermore, certain puzzles need to be solved early on in order to provide access to later ones (eg. acquiring the red thing across the stream to open up the possibility of Grunk helping the Gnome, in addition to finding an exit from the caves).
Problem-solving in IF, while introducing challenge – and as a result, ‘fun’, into the reading process, is also the element that puts some learners off of the experience because it is too difficult. Why? In my experience of teaching in general and especially since using IF in learning contexts I have come to the conclusion that:
- most learners do not have active imaginations
- most learners do not have the logical/lateral/critical thinking skills needed to solve the types of problems found in IF (and as a consequence, in real-life).
There seems to be a Catch 22 here: we want to use IF to stimulate enjoyment and fluency in reading – but many students do not have the required skills to make the most of it because they do not have much previous experience in reading (thus activating their imagination and problem-solving skills). In a nutshell, the vast majority of young learners I have come across simply do not know how to think in these terms – but there is a solution! – I simply cannot think of a better or more engaging tool than IF to stimulate reading and problem solving.
I had a group of students play Lost Pig for 90 minutes in a case study documented in Pereira (in press, IGI) where they commented on some of the perceived linguistic benefits of playing IF:
- “We need to think about verbs in order to advance in the game because we are more focused on the text of the game and because in order to finish it we need to pay a lot of attention to find out things that allow us to move on. Besides that, we learn vocabulary.”
- “You have to know a lot of verbs (but not like the past or past participle of the verbs), a lot of vocabulary.”
- “It could be an important tool to learn new vocabulary and to use different types of vocabulary that is used in more practical situations and not typical classroom behaviour.”
- “English is being practised when you command your character and you sometimes have to try to find other words to say the same thing you meant for the computer to understand what you are saying.”
Additionally, the students mentioned the following cognitive benefits of playing IF:
- “we gain the ability to build a world in our mind around the games story”;
- “our minds get faster and you can solve more complex problems in the future”;
- “you acquire more logical skills and you develop your imagination”;
- “it improves your ability to solve problems and learn to use your imagination”.
Beyond the linguistic affordances of IF, it is an obvious tool for stretching imaginations and forcing students to think of solutions to problems from different perspectives. With Lost Pig, after playing through it as whole-class activity and looking at how each of the puzzles can be solved (doable in 90 minutes), I believe that students will get a better idea of what they really need to do to play IF and importantly, they will realise how weak their problem-solving skills really are, and that playing IF may be a good way to exercise them.
And besides language, shouldn’t we be helping them acquire these transferable skills which they will need throughout their lives?
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