Review of Influent: A Language Learning Game for PC

 

A few months ago a gamer friend and fellow language enthusiast alerted me to this new(ish) PC game called Influent. Being a diehard gamer, and as it was readily available on Steam, I grabbed it without so much as a second thought. I really had no idea what to expect – a first person exploration game devoted to language learning? Is this a dream come true? Or a nightmare waiting to happen…

Influent tells the tale of one Andrew Cross, an inventor, who sets out to create a device called the ‘Sanjigen Jiten‘; a device that will automatically translate any language into the language of its user. The premise of the game is that the device is stolen from Cross as he goes to present it to a major tech firm and he must now prove that he was the inventor by rebuilding the device from scratch.

That’s where you, the learner, come in.

It’s your task to collect words for Andrew’s project. You take control of the young inventor, and viewing the world through his eyes, go about ransacking his apartment word by word.

Every item or feature of the house has a word attached to it and as you collect them they are added to your compilation. You can then study these words as you wish, or play mini games such as “Time Attack” in which you scramble around the apartment locating 10 random words from your list in as short a time as possible.

Check out these screenshots I took from my own game.

  
Andrew Cross in his messy apartment.
At least he eats healthy!

Created by Three Flip Studios, the game currently offers versions in Mandarin, Bulgarian, Swedish, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Latin, German, Korean, Japanese and English. Each language must be purchased separately and costs $10 USD. Certainly not a prohibitive cost, but somewhat annoying if you’re interested in studying multiple languages.

I chose French as I’ve recently begun studying the language, and figured it was a reasonably simple (for me!) new language with which to assess this product.

Parts of it look great!

Influent boasts a beautiful interface and generic (for gamers anyway) WASD controls can be learned fairly quickly by just about anyone who possesses a left hand. It functions primarily as the most elaborate, sexy flashcard application you’ve ever laid eyes on with a small element of artificial immersion.

I’ve included a few screen shots from my own game to show you what I mean.

But sexy isn’t really what you’re looking for in a language learning tool, is it? You want practical features:

Influent’s audio translations are fantastic for listening and pronunciation. Every time you find an item,you are also given the option to learn about verbs and adjectives that pertain to that item.

For example, when I pick up a book – le livre – it gives me not only the ability to add that word to my deck, but also to add the words intéressant (interesting) and lire (to read).

But one of the coolest features in my opinion is that you can learn multiple dialects of the same language – at least the French version offers this feature so I imagine other languages with significant regional variants do as well.

When I begin a new game with French selected it gives me the ability to choose between European French or Canadian French. While perhaps not an essential difference to the beginning learner, this functionality is impressive and handy for the more discerning language student.

It gets better though. You can also set the game’s base language to any other of the offered languages. You may have noticed in my screen shots that my game is actually set to Russian rather than English. This is an awesome feature for learners of multiple languages or learners for whom English may not be their first, or strongest language.

Learning a new, third language through your intermediate or advanced second language is a fantastic way to not only reinforce your more developed ones but also teach you something new when you’re able to see your latest project from a different point of view.

It’s also nice to see support for a few of the less commonly represented languages like Bulgarian and Swedish, and I’m looking forward to seeing which others they may add in the future.

The game is available on Steam, an awesome free PC gaming store and dashboard platform that offers most of the biggest PC and Mac titles and is a must have for any serious gamer. This also means that Influent is subject to Steam’s frequent sales which can knock it down in price to as little or $2 or $3 from time to time.

Hard to argue with that.

But of course, there are some pretty serious downsides.

First and foremost, you can only really learn so effectively by running around an apartment pointing out objects and trying to memorize them. Sadly I don’t find this particular method of memorization especially effective. I prefer mnemonic learning as I find I not only acquire – but better retain – new vocabulary.

There are only 400 words per language in Influent. That’s it. Not very impressive really when you compare it to free tools that offer hundreds, if not thousands more.

In addition, many – if not most – of the words are not the sort that a beginning learner really has much use for. As a new French learner, I’m mostly interested in learning how to tie words together into sentences. I’m interested in survival phrases and basic terminology that will set me on the path towards more advanced vocabulary and grammar later.

Knowing the French words for meatloaf, matches and coat hanger is not especially high on my list of priorities. While it’s true that you can mostly ignore the things you don’t care about, eventually you’ll have to tackle them if you want to progress through the game.

Players will undoubtedly end up wasting a considerable amount of their precious time running around Andrew’s house trying to find an item that they know the word for but simply can’t locate. Perhaps hide and go-seek is your thing, but personally when I sit down to study languages I like to make progress in the limited time that I am so often left with. I don’t have time to be looking under the sofa for la jouet or digging through cupboards to find the basil.

Probably not of consequence to everyone – but if you’re sensitive to motion sickness, this game might really not be a good fit for you. On occasion first person oriented games make me start to feel nauseous and Influent is one such game. I was only able to play for so long before I had to quit. This isn’t really Influent’s shortcoming, but it could be an issue if you find yourself susceptible to such issues.

Last but certainly not least; Influent doesn’t give you any experience stringing words together into sentences or any opportunity to speak the language yourself. Brought down to bare-bones the game is little more than a (fairly small) vocabulary booster with a pretty face.

Check out the launch trailer to get a better idea of the game play and story line.




And the verdict is…

My feelings are quite lukewarm on this product, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it. Though I wouldn’t necessarily shun it either.

If you’re a big fan of indy games and a huge fan of glorified flashcard apps, you might want to give it the time of day. It certainly won’t hurt your progress and it won’t burn a hole in your wallet.

But from everything I’ve seen – and I’ve logged a few hours in game now – the retention rate is low, the overall learning experience somewhat ineffective and there’s very little game-like incentive to keep you motivated to play on. I’ve never walked away from a session feeling as though I really learned anything more than a handful of words I could have gobbled up in seconds with Memrise.

I just wanted to vomit from the motion sickness.

Serious language learners are unlikely to be satisfied with this product as it just doesn’t really offer anything especially unique except a really pretty, fake learning environment and soothing elevator music.

So, have you checked out Influent? What was your impression? Leave a comment with your thoughts or questions!

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  • Chris Broholm

    Thank you for confirming the fears and doubts I had about this concept. In my opinion you can’t call something that is essentially “click on an object to get a word” a game. Language learning games have to contain story and game-elements to improve retention, otherwise you might just “learn” by opening a dictionary and starting from A. I think your success will be similar.

  • Hi Chris,

    While I agree with you that the method is somewhat ineffective, I disagree on the definition of a game. I think it does fit the bill. Despite any language learning shortcomings there is still an element of play.

    The game has something called “time attack” lessons, in which you’re basically just timed to see how many words you can collect. I mean it’s not Call of Duty or Halo or anything, but it does still kind of have a point – even if it’s not an especially fun one.

    There is a story line, and I suppose a progression – though it’s as boring as sin.

    I think you end up progressing beyond Andrew’s apartment, but I’m not sure how. Perhaps you have to “master” all of the words, or a percentage of them. That much wasn’t readily clear – which is another game flaw if you ask me.

    In any case, the story may develop beyond what I was able to outline, but for the several hours that I’ve attempted to put into it I haven’t even come close to either figuring out how to leave the apartment or to successfully memorizing the words.

    Thanks for reading and for your comments, as always!

  • Chris Broholm

    According to other sources the appartment is the game, so I would still hesitate to recommend this to anyone (even if it were free) it doesn’t seem particularly fun and you’d probably retain much more by using the time on Memrise, which is arguably more of a game than this 😛

  • Really? That’s quite disappointing. I suppose the “400 words” include the variations for many of the basic items? There certainly aren’t 400 items in Andrew’s apartment.

    Influent just lost a star. 🙁