SineRider Wants You To Love Maths, And Scares Me

Another highlight of this year’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop was SineRider, a free game, available right now. A game I’m simply never going to be able to play. There’s a reason I got an E for my A Level maths. That reason could quite neatly be summed up as “functions”. SineRider, as the name implies, is what happens when a maths grad gets inspired by LineRider. And graphic calculators.

Now, I’m with things as far as graphic calculators go. At school I was a proud owner of a Casio FX-7700GH, with a whopping 4K of programmable memory. By hanging out with friends far cleverer than I, I learned how to do some incredibly basic programming on that machine. Nothing as complicated as Mike Smith’s noughts & crosses game he somehow programmed his to do. I remember I made a turn-based cricket sim (a passing interest one Summer that faded by Autumn) in which no matter how well you played, the random interruption of “Rain stops play” could introduce a game-over at any point. And indeed, we took advantage of its ability to draw graphs.

Which is how SineRider’s logic works. Inspired specifically by the Texas Instruments TI-86 calculator (not available until my A levels had been failed), with its showy and ludicrous 128KB of memory, Chris Walker’s game requires you to reprogram instructions for graphed lines in order to achieve goals. Goals like getting your little character to pass through a series of targets in the correct order, or manipulating the curve such that labelled boxes land on you in alphabetic order. So yes, SineRider involves having more than a rudimentary understanding of graphing functions – something that was only ever utterly alien to me.

The game has a go at teaching you. Its first level explains that “Y=-9 is the simplest type of function: a constant”. So yes, moving the value of Y down causes the line to drop, and your sledding character to fall directly downward. Good. Got that. X then adds a variable, and slopes start happening. I can feel my 17 year old unease beginning to creep back in. Everyone else in the class gets this stuff straight away. Greg’s using it to draw something amusing on his calculator. I’m wondering how I ever got the A at Maths GCSE that got me into this trouble. To solve the third puzzle you need to switch “Y=x-2” to “Y=-x-2”. The game, running in Unity’s web browser build, changes the visible graph on the fly as you type in new values, then hit Play to see the results of your tobogganists hitting your line.

I’m okay with the next bit too, moving the X value down to lower the slope. But next up it’s “Y=-x/4-1”, and while the algebraic part of my brain loves the idea, the application of it as a function causes my readout to just display a grey E. It’s now asking me to “try negating this line, squeezing it, and moving it down.” Argh, no, don’t make me, don’t make do it, the flashbacks, the horror, helicopters, explosions…

If you’re a math-mo smartipants, then I hope I’ve caused you to feel some pleasing schadenfreude. And I strongly suggest you check out SineRider. Because by golly, it gets harder. During the GDC presentation, Walker’s nonchalant explanations of how “Y=sin(t/3*((x-16)/4)^2” could solve a puzzle were causing some uneasy laughs around the room. As indeed did the challenge solved by “Y=(x/12)^2*(t+1)-abs(cos((x+2)/5))*2-4”. Sorry, spoilers.

Oh, the “t” in the above? That’s time. Yes indeed, SineRider soon has you plotting on a third z-axis of time itself. By the final puzzle, the solution Walker came up with for his own challenge is 220 characters long. No. Just no.

Walker’s intentions are nobel, and his delivery of them superb. The game, while terrifying to me, is an excellent way of letting those studying the subject explore it in a vivid and immediately responsive way. His frustration with how maths is taught, with one right answer sought, is the driving force behind this. In SineRider there are possibly infinite solutions to puzzles, with the option to refine your formulae down, improve it, although never judging it in any form. If it works, it’s a right answer. “I want people to see math how mathematicians see it,” he explained. For anyone studying maths, it seems such a perfect way to approach this area.

Me, well, I wasn’t only bad at Maths A level. In fact, it was my best grade. Now chemistry – at chemistry I was terrible. I received an N for Chemistry A level. I know, you didn’t know there were Ns. There aren’t any more. They fell somewhere between Es and Us, and stood for, “Nooooo.” And that’s despite two appearances of my graphic calculator in chemistry exams. In one, I pre-programmed it with all manner of the sorts of formulae I could never remember, knowing that my attempt at cheating would be thwarted when they routinely erased the memories on our devices before starting. They forgot. I could cheat. I still failed the paper. The second time was far better: I looked at the first few questions, knew I couldn’t even begin to answer them, so instead set about plotting coordinates into my calculator such that when run it drew a picture of a steam train on the screen, finishing in style by its drawing smoke coming out of the funnel. Sadly this achievement was not recognised by the examiners, and I failed that one too.

SineRider is free, and available to play right now, on Windows and Mac browsers. Or scroll to the bottom here and download it to play for free on Windows, Mac or Linux.

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Top comments

  1. Awesomeclaw says:

    Reads like a 7/tan
  1. phlebas says:

    Walker’s intentions are nobel
    There is, of course, no Nobel for maths.

    • Skeletor68 says:

      He was thinking of the wrong Field.

    • jrodman says:

      On a tangent: the mathies don’t deserve one.

    • GameCat says:

      Don’t be angry to a such degree. Nobel for maths will float up sooner or later, for real, not just in some imaginary story arc.

    • RARARA says:

      Walkers’ roots are obviously not in maths; cos he got tan’d for the sins of acquiring low grades, his life will always be asymptotic to the path of mathematics.

    • KingMeltman says:

      These threads just get exponentially worse, we need a Log of the worse offenders

    • James says:

      It’s a sine that he should probably think again, but let’s give him a sec to make sure.

      • Premium User Badge

        zapatapon says:

        This game’s qualities seem manifold. It should be included in a bundle, while it’s still in its prime.

        (Come to think of it, naming the latter “the tangent bundle” would totally make my day.)

    • Premium User Badge

      Serrit says:

      I’d be partial for playing a bit of this. If I like it I might even root for it!

    • massisi says:

      I really want to play this but I’m worried it will suck me in and leave me Hausdorff from reality.

    • dvorhagen says:

      That’s e-nough already. These puns are downright unnatural…

  2. Lone Gunman says:

    I was 1 mark off a B in A-level maths. It still pisses me off to this day :p

    • Llewyn says:

      Ummm, how do you know? Do re-gradings lead to individual marks being reported?

      • massisi says:

        You used to get marks for each module (not sure how it works now there aren’t modules though)

  3. CookPassBabtridge says:

    As the British schooling system of my era trained me to seek academic success as a proxy for the approval of stern authority figures, as opposed to actually encouraging a genuine love of learning, I feel both Pavlovianly compelled to download this game and show how clever I am, alongside an overbearing sense of pointlessness and ennui that can only be countered with some more Bitsa Wispa chocolate chunks and a glass of Baileys.

    * weeps *

    • Llewyn says:

      I’ve not often heard the British education system accused of training people to seek academic success as such. I have a lot of sympathy for John’s failed transition from GCSE to ‘A’ maths, having gone through it a couple of years before him. I was fortunate that my school insisted on pushing us through GCSE a year early, leaving a year for ‘AO’ additional maths; without that there’s no way I’d have got to grips with ‘A’ quick enough to get an A in it.

      STEP was an entirely different, thoroughly horrifying, experience though…

      • Llewyn says:

        PS: Been quite enjoying SineRider, but I’d like a skip button. There’s a lot of repetition of levels, which is great until you’ve got it, then you want to move on.

        • CookPassBabtridge says:

          I should maybe have said The British Grammar School system, for I was one of the last elitist bastard 11 year olds to pass a mandatory verbal reasoning exam, which marked me out for the very worst school uniform you can inflict on a child.

      • massisi says:

        STEP was great :P

  4. Awesomeclaw says:

    Reads like a 7/tan

  5. Tinarg says:

    Thank you for posting this, this is absolutely amazing!

  6. ansionnach says:

    Wrote a game to demonstrate integration in college about thirteen years ago. You had to change the equation (and thus the area under the curve, which acted as a barrier) so you could pass and complete the area. Left it a bit late and ended up writing it all in a single sitting of 48 hours. By the time I got to bed (after cycling the seven miles into college to hand it in on floppy disk) I’d been up for 54 hours. Never again!

    What I did was okay for a first attempt, but this looks very impressive!

  7. bad guy says:

    Top notch.
    I just refeshed my math skills, and it was fun.

  8. amateurviking says:

    Are th0se XKCD characters riding those sine waves?

    • Josh W says:

      Yeah, I think so. Fits the aesthetic of that blog pretty well too, especially with the colours.

  9. TheTourist314 says:

    That “time” bit is known as parameterization, in the mathy world.

  10. Jackablade says:

    I’ll put up with sexism and racism in my game, but I draw the line at maths.

  11. majugi says:

    It probably shouldn’t be possible to divide directly by time (since it starts at zero, causing some very strange behavior). That aside, it’s a really cool game. The wind volume corresponding to sled speed is a really nice touch and the visualizations of functions over time is neat too.

  12. jasonisme84 says:

    As a maths teacher, thank you. You’ve just planned a lesson for me.

  13. arccos says:

    Finally! The game for me!

  14. allsorts46 says:

    I tried Y=T-2/X, and Firefox stopped responding.

    • Josh W says:

      I don’t recommend trying x^t, it scrambled up in a hilarious way, only to crash on telling me I had completed the level.