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SineRider Wants You To Love Maths, And Scares Me

Just Cos

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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