Into the Haze is not as hard as you think

We recently released Into the Haze, our second text adventure game for learning Chinese.

This game works like an interactive, graded reader, and it is targeted at intermediate and upper-intermediate learners of Chinese.

But when you first dive into the game, you may find all the Chinese text overwhelming, even if you already know hundreds of Chinese characters.

But all is not lost. In this post, we'll hopefully see:

  1. How the game is not as hard as it may appear.
  2. How a bit of up-front study can go a long way to making the game easier.

How hard is Into the Haze, really?

On the surface, Into the Haze seems pretty daunting. The opening few steps of the game look like a wall of text:

Wall of text screenshot

By the raw numbers, the game can also seem pretty daunting. In total, the full text of the game contains 649 distinct Chinese characters. These combine in various ways to form 922 distinct words that appear throughout the game. And in total, the full text of the whole game is more than 13,000 characters of text (though keep in mind that when making your way through a text adventure game, it's not possible to see all of the text in any given path).

But wait, it gets worse! Suppose you know about 500 characters. (Not sure how many you know? Check out our character knowledge estimation tool). Even if you know 500 characters, it's likely that the characters you know are not exactly the characters used in this game. In fact, based on a simplistic model1 of learning Chinese, if you know 500 characters, you're only likely to know 263 of the 649 (40%) characters that appear in this game.

It's now starting to look truly terrifying.

Can we take an axe to this fear?

Before you call it quits and go home, let's dive in a bit deeper, because I think you will see the picture is not so bleak.

Like the rest of WordSwing, our text games have a built-in dictionary. So whenever you don't know a word or character you can tap on it and pull it up in the dictionary. But you might be thinking, "Won't I be looking up every other word in the game?"

Well, let's see.

Of the 649 distinct characters, 230 of them appear 3 or fewer times in the game. Let's call these rare characters. And let's call the remaining 419 characters, which appear 4 or more times, common characters.

Although the rare characters comprise 35% of the distinct characters, these actually only comprise 3.4% of the text of the game, because, naturally, the common ones are used much more than rare ones.

Thus, if you only need to look up words that contain rare characters, then on average you'll be looking up 2.8% of the words. That's not so bad, is it?

But if you only know 500 characters, then you probably don't know all 419 of the common ones in the game. Rather you probably know about 263 of the characters overall and 213 of the common ones.1

This translates into needing to look up 5 words per text item, and Into the Haze has on average ~13 words per text item. So this is nearly 40% of the words!

What if there was a way to strategically learn some characters and words in preparation for the game?

If you were to learn the 50 most frequent characters in the game that you don't already know, bringing your total to 263+50 = 313, where would this put you?

Amazingly enough, this would bump you up to understanding 85% of the game, and require you to only look up 2 words on average in each text item. And remember, the average text item is 13 words long.

That seems much more doable, right?

But how can I learn an extra 50 characters?

WordSwing has a Word Lists feature that allows you to build, customize, share, and study lists of words. And there are many other tools, such as Anki and Skritter that can also help.

On WordSwing, we've created two official lists for the Into the Haze game:

Into the Haze word lists

The list labeled Part I contains 499 of the most common words in the game. And the order of the words in this list is based on their frequency in the game.

Although we've been talking about individual characters, we recommend on expanding your character knowledge by learning new character in the context of words. This list contains 428 distinct characters and has 95% overlap in characters with what we're calling common characters.

You can make your own personal copy by "forking" the list, and then you can prune it based on your knowledge ratings so that you can focus on studying just the words you don't know. With a bit of up-front study, you'll probably find the content of Into the Haze looks much familiar.

Here's a screen cast of how you can create your own personalized study list based on the game:

This screencast illustrates the following:

  1. Making a personal copy (forking) the published list of the 499 common words in Into the Haze.
  2. Using your knowledge ratings to prune the list down to just the ones you don't understand.
  3. Studying this list using the Pronunciation Recall tool, which is a good way to practice your ability to recognize the written form of Chinese words.
  4. Or, exporting the list to Anki for external flash-card study.

A possible strategy

If you find yourself feeling that the fraction of unfamiliar words in the game is overwhelming, perhaps something like the following strategy will be helpful.

  1. Prepare a pruned word list as I illustrated in the screencast.
  2. Choose a way to begin familiarizing yourself the most common of these words. Our Pronunciation Recall activity is one option. Anki is another good option or maybe Skritter if you know how to import your words there.
  3. After spending a bit of time learning some words, try playing the game again. Does it feel any easier or more familiar?
  4. Continue to alternate between studying words and playing the game.

Here are two important points:

We recommend you don't try and learn all the words in your word list before playing the game. After all, the point of the game is to practice Chinese. Instead, just familiarize yourself with some of the words and use the game to practice them.

And:

In very short order you'll probably be a pro at navigating the game, and the subset of Chinese used in the game will feel like second nature. This is the magic of learning through games.

By focusing on the vocabulary of the game and practicing it through the game, you will quickly be able to read what is arguably more difficult text at a higher level than were you not to narrow the scope of your efforts. You can read more about narrow reading on Hacking Chinese.

tl;dr

By strategically focusing on familiarizing yourself with the most important vocabulary of the game, and practicing these words by playing, you'll quickly master the small subset of Chinese used in the game. This will happen almost magically through play.

And soon the world of Into the Haze will feel like home, albeit a post-apocalyptic Chinese version of home.

1. This calculation assumes that each time you encounter a character, there is some small probability, p, that you learn that characters. As you encounter more written Chinese, you see common characters more than rare ones, and the probability of not knowing a character you've seen k times follows a geometric distribution. prob(not known) = (1-p)k. And thus the probability you've learned a character is prob(known) = 1 - (1-p)k.

Into the Haze

At long last, our next text adventure game, Into the Haze is here!

Can you survive the poisonous haze and rescue your brother?

Into the Haze is an interactive graded reader that takes place in some post-apocalyptic Chinese city. Your brother has gone missing, and you need to make your way into the city, survive the poisonous haze, and rescue your brother.

Into the Haze cover art

Try it out!
(You'll need to be signed up, which is free.)

How do I play?

Our text adventure games are interactive stories. You're presented with a sentence or two about where you are and you advance through the game by making choices, so read carefully and choose wisely!

The main narrative of the game is presented in the style of a conversation (think a messaging app) with the most recent message at the bottom. Below the conversation box, you will see a question and one or more choices. To move forward in the game you select one of these choices by tapping on the numbered button. If a scene or action results in more than one message, you won't initially see the next choice. Instead the messages will be displayed one at a time so you have time to notice and read each one. You can press the down arrow icon to show each subsequent message, until the choices display below.

Here's what the game interface looks like:

Into the Haze cover art

What's new in Into the Haze?

In addition to an entirely new setting, story, and characters, Into the Haze also introduces some new game mechanics, as compared to our first text adventure game, Escape. We think these new game mechanics make this game more fun to play, and more fun to keep replaying.

Also, Into the Haze is about twice as long as Escape. And although we tried hard to keep it at the same difficulty level, with the longer length comes some additional characters (649 instead of 422). But don't let this worry you! Even if many of these Chinese characters are new to you, they will be second nature by the time you manage to fully explore the world of Into the Haze.

Resources

Into the Haze features some resources that you accumulate and use throughout the game. The most important resource is Air (空气). The city you must explore is covered in a poisonous haze, and you must wear a gas mask and breath only the air you bring with you. As you move around the city, you consume air and so you must find an efficient route so you can complete your mission without running out of air. You will also find opportunities to gain air throughout the game.

Other resources include your health, health kits, and various other items, such as a guns and gas masks.

Randomness

There are two sources of randomness that make playing Into the Haze less predictable:

  1. Random outcomes. Sometimes the outcome of an action you take will depend on the roll of a die. This introduces a bit of luck into the game. And although you can often avoid such random outcomes, to do particularly well in the game, you'll need to take risks and test your luck.

  2. Random encounters. Some scenes of the game occur at random times. These scenes will test how well you can deal with unexpected situations as you carry out your mission.

Strategies and replay

The world of Into the Haze is rather large and you have a fair amount of free reign to move around in it. We purposely don't provide a map so that you need to read carefully and explore until you discover how the places connect together. That said, it is probably very helpful to try and draw your own map. We've given each place a short name that you will find next to the map icon () in the game state area. Keep in mind that the random encounters happen in different places each time.

At the beginning of the game, you're asked a question about how you have survived. Both answers are good answers, but how you answer will affect various aspects of the rest of the game. Can you beat the game using both strategies?

Keep in mind that there's nothing wrong with failing. You can always play again. And by exploring different paths through the game you will develop a better understanding of the world, and get additional practice with your Chinese. You can always restart from a checkpoint if you lose. There are many good ways through the game, so don't stick too much to one path you happened to find that works okay.

After you have explored the game, you can challenge yourself to try and see how many points you can earn and how much text you can read by the end. And the more you play the more Chinese you'll learn.

And don't forget to try the game in audio-only mode to improve your listening comprehension ability.

Playing the full game

Into the Haze is free to demo (you can make up to 10 choices), but in order to play the full game, and have the benefit of saving your game at checkpoints along the way, you'll need to subscribe as WordSwing backer.

Currently there is a discount (62% off) until we ramp up the pace of creating text games, meaning a subscription is only $3/month.

WordSwing is entirely student-supported, and we hope you'll consider becoming a backer to help us keep WordSwing alive and flourishing.

We are no longer charging separately for audio. Both demo mode and the full game feature audio for the game content.

What's next?

Now that we've finished up Into the Haze, our plan is to develop some games aimed at less advanced students. We also hope to pick up the pace of releasing games, eventually aiming to release a new game every ~6 weeks. We also have lots more free stuff planned for WordSwing and many other improvements.

We hope you enjoy Into the Haze, and don't forget to let us know what you think.

Kevin & Olle

Ready to become a backer of WordSwing?

The purpose of WordSwing is to provide effective and limitless ways to practice Chinese. Learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor and so is our mission at WordSwing.

The road so far

For four years we have provided nearly all of our services for free. And while we strongly believe that education should be as cheap as possible (and preferably free), we do need to try and cover some of our costs if we are to survive to see out our mission. Last year we started experimenting by selling audio to complement our first text adventure game. While that helped, we need to find a more sustainable solution that isn't so oriented around the occasional release of pay-only features.

Invitation to backers

Soon we will switch over to a new strategy, allowing our students to become direct backers of WordSwing through a monthly subscription. So if you like what we're doing, and want WordSwing to continue to survive, we are asking you to consider becoming a WordSwing backer.

We see our fate tied closely to whether our students believe in us and appreciate the Chinese practice tools we are building. So although you're welcome to see this simply as a paid subscription for a service, we see it differently.

We see each subscription as a vote of confidence that we are on the right track and we see each subscriber as a stakeholder in our shared fate.

Our next text adventure game

We are nearly ready to release our second text adventure game, 迷雾中, or Into the Haze.

This game takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chinese city covered in a poisonous haze. The protagonist has to leave the relative safety of a settlement and go into the dangerous city to rescue a lost brother.

Into the Haze is more than twice as long as our first game, Escape. And it features more elaborate mechanics, such as random encounters and resource utilization.

When we release Into the Haze, we'll also be turning on the switch allowing our students to become backers. To reward our backers we'll be making our text adventure games only available in full to subscribers. Everyone will be free to play the first part of each game, but to play the full game, one will need to become a subscriber. This also holds for the Escape game. So if you aren't ready to become a subscriber you have a few weeks to continue playing the whole Escape game for free.

Anyone who has purchased the audio bundle will be grandfathered into having the whole Escape game regardless of whether they become a subscriber.

Going forward

We aim to provide a steady stream of new games and activities. Our eventual goal is to release one new game or activity every six weeks (instead of one every six months). But until we get there, we'll be offering an "Early backer discount" to all of our backers, reducing the subscription from $8/month to $3 USD/month. And if you become an early backer now, we'll let you keep your discounted rate as long as you stay a backer.

WordSwing is a labor of love, and it will never by highly profitable. Nonetheless, we hope it will survive and we hope that you hope it will survive too. And the best way to make that happen is to become an Early Backer of WordSwing.

We'll let you know more about becoming an early backer when we release Into the Haze.

Introducing Quiz Tournaments

Ready for a little friendly competition?

An essential part of successfully learning a language is staying motivated. And what better way to motivate yourself than stoking a bit of your competitive instinct?

Today we're introducing Quiz Tournaments.

How does it work?

A Quiz Tournament is a few rounds of short, multiple-choice reading comprehension questions. Each question is a race against the clock. You and your opponent will each be asked the same set of questions and you are tasked with trying to answer each question before the clock runs out. After you respond to each question you can study the content at your leisure before moving on to the next question.

A typical question looks like this:

You are tasked with reading the Chinese sentence and selecting the best answer among the four or five choices given. Only one answer is correct. The timer at the right shows how much time you have left to answer.

Initially, you don't have tap-through access to WordSwing's built-in dictionary. But after you have answered or the time ran out, you can use the dictionary and other drill-down tools to study anything in the prompt or answers that is unfamiliar.

Each tournament consists of a few rounds of questions. Here is what a partially completed tournament looks like:

Your progress is shown on the left, while your opponent's progress is shown on the right. Each subsequent round becomes unlocked when both you and your opponent have completed the previous round.

You will have 5 days to complete each round. If you fail to complete a round in that time, then the tournament will expire, and you will forfeit the win to your opponent.

Quiz Tournaments are asynchronous, meaning that you and your opponent can answer the questions at different times, whenever is convenient.

To begin a new tournament, you can either build a new tournament and invite someone to play or you can request a random opponent:

If you choose "Random opponent" then you will be automatically matched with an opponent and the sizing of the tournament will also be automatically determined. In practice, the random opponent will just be the next person to also select "Random opponent" or a student who has just done so and is awaiting an opponent.

If you choose to build a new tournament, you will be able to select how many rounds you want and how many questions per round:

There are three ways to select an opponent:

  1. Invite someone you know by email.
  2. Select an existing student from WordSwing.
  3. Start over and choose a random opponent.

If you choose either of the first two methods, your opponent will be emailed an invitation asking if he or she wants to accept or decline the tournament.

You will be able to see a list of invitations that you require your attention, such as this:

These will either be invitations that you sent that have been rejected, and you can select a new opponent, or invitations someone else has sent you.

There will also be a list of your current Quiz Tournaments:

These are ongoing Quiz Tournaments or ones that you have completed or that have expired. Tournaments that you can play now with either have a "Start" button (if they are new) or a "Continue" button. Tournaments that are complete or for which you're waiting for the next round to be unlocked, will have a "View" button. Expired tournaments are also shown. Tap on the button to go to any of these tournaments.

Who is this for?

The current set of questions are designed for intermediate to upper-intermediate students of Chinese. But if this game proves popular then we'll build out more categories of questions, offering both easier reading comprehension questions as well as questions about the Chinese language (asked in English), among other categories.

At present, there are only a couple hundred questions, and so as you play, you'll start to see some questions a second or third time. So even if these questions are quite challenging given your current Chinese level, with some playing, you'll soon be able to get many answers correct.

Getting started

To get started, select Quiz Tournaments, from the Select page (or just jump directly there).

This activity is opt-in, so that you don't receive unwanted invitations and so that the opponents you choose among are more likely to be engaged. By the way, initially the activity was opt-out, while we were testing it over the last few weeks, but we decided making it opt-in will result in a better experience. So if you haven't yet enabled it, you'll get asked if you want to do so:

Then, if you haven't chosen a handle (nickname) for yourself on WordSwing, you'll need to choose one in order to participate in Quiz Tournaments. This is so that your opponent can recognize you during rematches and subsequent tournaments:

Ready to give it a try?

Go play

We hope you enjoy, and don't forget to let us know what you think or report any problems.

Have fun!

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