Oh, the humanity. More seriously, this is quite a fun experiment which Master Denby lobbed at me. The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab have made a pair of games. In terms of actual mechanics, they're identical. But one - Woosh - uses purely abstract art and the other - Waker - uses a narrative story, with cut-scenes, voice-overs and an art style which supports its theme. From examining how the responses to the games differ "Researchers will study whether either the narrative or abstract form of the game is more effective in promoting student engagement with, and understanding of, the physics topics". Which, as far as high concepts go, is a fun one - and it helps that both games are neat little platform puzzlers, and worth playing. Of course it also got me thinking...
Well, the initial thought was "Surely they've screwed up the experiment by announcing the experiment". Since this isn't blind - each of the games feature the explaination of the concept beneath - you're approaching the games thinking about what's there or not. The responses are going to have that in mind. In fact, this sort of thing is much more the approach someone making games-for-arts-sake would take. Except GAMBIT aren't those sort of people. To quote from their site...
The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab is a five-year research initiative that addresses important challenges faced by the global digital game research community and industry, with a core focus on identifying and solving research problems using a multi-disciplinary approach that can be applied by Singapore's digital game industry. The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab focuses on building collaborations between Singapore institutions of higher learning and several MIT departments to accomplish both research and development.
In other words, not exactly pure arty bods. In which case, you have to presume they've done it like this for pure PR purposes. Releasing the games like this gets coverage from - well - people like us.
(It's worth noting that they can certainly have their cake and eat it, by using the game with specified smaller control groups, as well as this more general release)
My responses to the game...
Well, I think it illustrates two points which the I don't believe they were trying to make:
1) Abstract isn't that abstract. The ability for us to force our lives - our narratives - into inanimate objects, especially when we're in control, is an interesting facet about humanity (Cross-ref: The Companion Cube - though that has a lot of narativist tricks forced on it to tart it up). Playing the game, even the abstract shapes took on a life of their own. In fact, the pulsing, spikey things which kill you early on actually have far more personality than the more narrative game's equivalent.
2) Narrative isn't just narrative. It's about execution thereof. The game starts with a long voice-over, explaining what's going on... which I immediately cut short by running off the screen. That single action - easily done, because the game is telling you to walk to the right - removes a big chunk of the contextual advantages of the narrative game. While they're trying to compare two approaches, it's entirely possible the real underlying cause would be "our narrative skills were sub-par". Equally, an example in a single genre like this I don't think has wider implications. As an actual experiment aimed to improve game design, it's arguable whether it can actually teach anything, because its lessons are solely based around an individual game. I'd reject the idea there was any kind of core principle they were revealed which could be put into general use.
In other words, as an experiment, conceptually flawed. As a game, both are pretty sweet. Science's loss is our gain.