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Learning English with adventure games

by Tomasz P. Szynalski
screenshot from 'Grim Fandango'
Grim Fandango — possibly the greatest adventure game of all time.

What is an adventure game?

An adventure game is a kind of computer game which is similar to a movie. There is always a story and the main character (usually a person, such as a detective or a pirate). The difference is that you don’t just watch — instead, you control the main character. You use your mouse or keyboard, and your character moves around in the game world, looks at things, picks them up, uses them, and talks to other characters. Your character also talks to you. For example, when you tell him to look at something, he will tell you what he sees. You can then use this information to decide what to do next.

Why adventure games are good for your English

Your main goal as an English learner should be to see and hear lots of English sentences (get lots of input). This gives you the ability to produce similar sentences yourself. Of all videogames, adventure games provide the most input because they are based on dialogue. Your character talks to himself, talks to you and talks to other characters. In an adventure game, your progress depends completely on understanding the dialogue.

In most adventure games, you can hear what the characters are saying and read it at the same time. This means that you hear the pronunciation and see the spelling at the same time. As a result, the sentences stick in your head more strongly.

Playing adventure games gives you benefits similar to watching movies with subtitles:

  • You program your brain with good English. Adventure games provide mostly informal, conversational input, which is very useful for producing your own sentences.
  • You improve your understanding of spoken English (listening comprehension).
  • You learn the correct pronunciation of English words and sounds.
  • You learn the correct spelling of English words.
  • You increase your motivation. When you play an adventure game, you are in a situation where knowing English makes you feel good. It’s simple. If you can understand the dialogue, you know what is going on in the game. This helps you solve the puzzles and understand the humor. You have fun. You teach your brain that “English = pleasure”, and your motivation increases!

How to use adventure games

When you’re playing an adventure game, you learn some English even if you don’t want to. But of course you can learn even more if you try.

One useful technique when playing an adventure game is very simple: use a dictionary. Pause the game frequently and look up new English words in a good dictionary for learners. You will understand more of the game, and of course you will learn some English vocabulary.

If you are really motivated to learn English, you can write down all the new words. Later, you can add these words to your SRS collection so that you will remember them forever. This is what I did when I was learning English in high school.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, pause the game frequently and try to repeat English sentences as well as you can. This is a great pronunciation exercise, and it’s much more interesting than exercises in textbooks. Adventure games are a good choice for this because the pronunciation in those games is usually clearer than the pronunciation in movies.

If you are especially interested in improving your understanding of spoken English, you can play the game without subtitles. In order to play, you will have to understand spoken language. At first, you will surely have problems, but you will become better and better. Notice that when using this technique, it will be difficult to look up words in a dictionary, because you will not see the words on the screen — you will only hear them.

Recommended games

Which adventure game should you play? I used to have a simple answer: any game from LucasArts. LucasArts adventure games have an intelligent story (more intelligent than most Hollywood movies), excellent humor, beautiful graphics, stirring music, and voices of talented actors. They do something amazing: they suck you in and make you feel a part of another world. When I was 13, I would shiver from excitement whenever I would solve a puzzle in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, often after two days of trying. In high school, I remember I had tears in my eyes after I reached the end of Grim Fandango.

Unfortunately, LucasArts published its last original adventure (Escape from Monkey Island) in 2001, and its last great adventure (Grim Fandango) in 1998. Adventure games have lost popularity. Today, there are fewer games based on dialogue, and more games based on running around and shooting. And most of the LucasArts classics like Day of the Tentacle or Full Throttle look absolutely horrible on today’s big LCD screens.

So what should you do? Here are some options:

    screenshot from 'The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition'
    The opening scene from The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition.
  • The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition (trailer | official site) — In 2009, LucasArts surprised everyone by releasing a remake of The Secret of Monkey Island, the cult classic that started the Monkey Island series. All the graphics have been drawn again in high resolution, the wonderful music has been re-recorded, and voice actors have been hired to record the dialogue. It is amazing how faithful the remake is to the original. Every object on the screen and every piece of music are exactly where they were in 1991. In fact, at any point in the game, you can press F10 to switch to the “classic” version with 256-color, low-resolution graphics.

    For those who haven’t heard about this game, The Secret of Monkey Island is set in the Caribbean. You are a young lad with a funny name, whose dream is to become a pirate. As you work towards your goal, you become part of a much bigger story which involves the island’s beautiful governor and an evil pirate who fell in love with her. The plot is a brilliant mix of unexpected events, quirky humor, and mystery. The game costs only €9 on Steam and you can also play it on the Xbox and the iPhone. What are you waiting for?

  • screenshot from 'Monkey Island 2: Special Edition'
  • Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge: Special Edition (trailer | official site) — This is another remake released by LucasArts a year after The Secret of Monkey Island. Having earned his pirate stripes in the first game, our hero Guybrush Threepwood is now a confident young man with a stylish beard, new clothes and a small fortune. Wanting to prove himself once again, he has come to Scabb Island in search of a legendary treasure called Big Whoop.

    Alongside Monkey 1, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, Monkey 2 was a game which gave me my most memorable gaming experiences in my teen years. There was a time when I would spend most of my free time thinking about how to solve another puzzle in the game. Those of you who have played Monkey 1, be advised: this is a much longer and harder game than its predecessor. You can buy Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge for just €10 on Steam (PC). Also available on Xbox, PS3, iPhone and iPad.

  • Tales of Monkey Island (trailer | official site) — The latest part of the Monkey Island saga is a mini-series developed by Telltale Games. There will be five chapters, one released every month. Based on the first part, I have to say that this game is not as good as the first three Monkey Island games: the graphics are less pretty (why did they do it in 3D?), the plot and characters are less original, and the humor is more sitcom-like. If you like the other Monkey Island games, you might as well give it a try — the game has some good moments.
  • screenshot from 'Sam & Max'
    Max from Sam & Max: Season One
  • Sam & Max (trailer | official site) — Telltale Games have recently released Sam & Max: Season One and Season Two — two mini-series, each containing 5-6 episodes based on the characters of Sam (a dog in a suit) and Max (a hyper-violent rabbit). The characters and the humor are identical to those in Sam & Max Hit the Road by LucasArts (1993). It was not LucasArts’ best game, but it was pretty good.

    Both games (or “series”) have cartoon-like 3-D graphics and run well on modern computers. They have spoken dialogues, and you can also turn on subtitles. One problem is that Sam and Max talk in a very unusual, colorful style, using a lot of words that are difficult even for native speakers. They say things like: “surely the local lawbreakers must be missing our esoteric brand of personalized justice”. The language is definitely not for beginners.

  • screenshot from 'Curse of Monkey Island'
    Curse of Monkey Island. Talking to Murray, the “all-powerful demonic skull”...
  • The three most recent LucasArts games run in 640x480 resolution, which is (barely) playable on today’s computers. They all have spoken dialogues, and you can turn on subtitles. These games are:

    • Grim Fandango (trailer | intro) — according to many people, best adventure game in history. Epic story, unique world, stylish graphics, atmospheric music, great voice acting. Everything in this game is full of artistic vision.
    • Curse of Monkey Island (intro | gameplay) — very enjoyable, strong installment in the Monkey Island series.
    • Escape from Monkey Island (intro) — definitely the weakest of the Monkey Island series; try the other Monkey Island games first.

    Three pieces of advice here:

    1. On Windows XP and Vista, right-click the game’s shortcut, choose Properties, and enable “Windows 95 compatibility”.
    2. Install the latest patch available.
    3. For 3-D games (Grim Fandango, Escape from Monkey Island), turn on anti-aliasing in your video card settings to avoid jagged lines. For The Curse of Monkey Island, try running the game in ScummVM with 2x scaling. Looks surprisingly good!
  • screenshot from 'Full Throttle'
    Full Throttle. Low-resolution graphics look OK here, but terrible on a 19-inch monitor.
  • If you are crazy like me, you can run ancient LucasArts games (320x200 resolution) in the ScummVM emulator. You can try finding the CD versions of Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and The Dig. These games have versions with spoken dialogues and they are one of the best adventures by LucasArts, with excellent screenplays and great voice acting. Just watch the intro to Full Throttle on YouTube.

    I’m crazy enough to play these games full-screen (with 2x scaling) while sitting far away from my monitor. If I sit on a couch and use a mouse with a long cable, I can barely notice the huge blocky pixels :-) You might prefer playing these games on your Pocket PC or Symbian device with ScummVM. They fit perfectly even on small screens.

  • You might try looking for action-adventure games which have more dialogue than others. In games like Half-Life, BioShock, Fallout 3, Mass Effect or Deus Ex, you mostly walk around, kill enemies and collect various items, but there are also moments when you listen to other characters or audio/video recordings in the game. Such moments enable you to learn some English, although not as much as in pure adventure games.