May 20, 2023•561 words
The tutorial in the first mission of Terra Nil won't help you complete the first mission in one go. Maybe not even the second time around.
Some of the early choices you make will make late-game choices more difficult, or impossible. But you're unlikely to work this out in advance, and you're certainly not told what to do. You find out - in hindsight - that creating a new habitat is much more destructive than you'd planned, or that certain species can't live where you expect them to live because you positioned your buildings a certain way.
So you go back to square one, perhaps more than once - making each attempt better with the thinking you join up on your own. The game gives you the tools and the mechanics - but it's almost like it expects you to get things wrong a couple of times before the loop completes in your head.
When it does, you look at the map differently. You know that the very first decisions you make might make the very last steps easier (or harder), depending on certain factors. You know the most and least destructive way to sequence things. You look at the wasteland unfolding before you, and begin to see the endgame: this area will work for these species but only if you work on the surrounding areas in a certain way...
After a while, starting over becomes the expectation. It's okay, you think - there are so many things I don't know yet. I'll muck up again, in new ways, and get to expand the way I think about the game again. That's what starting over is for.
You can't expect to speedrun Terra Nil, in the same way in which you can't expect to speedrun fixing climate change. The skillset you learn - failing, gazing at the un-connected dots and missed chances, and expecting to learn more things from more failures - is not there in the tutorial. If you're watchful and committed, it unfolds in your head instead.
As learning designers, we're told to "scaffold" our learners' thinking - to awaken and guide their energies and resources towards choices, skills and decisions we deem "correct" or "useful". But we're also expected to create marketable, profitable products - which, in the current paradigm, means that we're expected to ship products that keep learners "engaged" and encourage "completion". This means that, too often, our scaffolding becomes insulation - and our nudges turn to hand-holding on the one and only route to the exit (via the gift shop).
Terra Nil turned its scaffolding into jump ramps. In a world where over-protective, un-inspiring, in-escapable tutorial on-ramp is the norm, the game seems to expect its players to go full-send and full-Jackass into these crucial points - then fail, recover, and consider what went wrong. If they go back up the jump, their thinking will change. If they rage-quit - hey, there's plenty of other games out there.
I spent most of the evening playing Terra Nil. This morning, I walked out to my back garden, and looked at things differently. I used to beat myself up about letting it run wild, neglecting my plants and failing to make it look "presentable" - now I know what my influence really is, and how many surprises I can still expect from this little patch of land.