**Review copy provided by the publisher**
while True: Learn()—yes, that’s its full name, not a typo in the title—has an excellent premise, combining the desire many of us have to understand machine learning and AI before the robots kill us all, and wanting to understand all the noises our pets make. While True Learn doesn’t quite live up to its fascinating premise and could have done with more time in Early Access. However, developer Luden.io has already proven responsive to customer feedback and, in six months to a year, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see While True Learn living up to its cool concept.
While True Learn is centered around a struggling programmer who can’t figure out why his code isn’t working. He takes a short break, during which time his cat fixes the problem with the code. The programmer decides to create a program that will help him understand his cat which is definitely the next logical step instead of just becoming a better programmer. You start off designing basic cat facial recognition software and gradually work your way up to interpreting all those random purring noises they make when they aren’t licking themselves.
If that all sounds horrendously intimidating, then fret not, the missions are nearly always straight forward puzzles with a number of possible solutions plus an optimal outcome that will get you a gold medal. Each puzzle starts with inputs on the left-hand side and desired outputs on the right. Using nodes, you must get the inputs into the right output boxes, sometimes with 100% accuracy, but not always. You essentially create decision trees. The nodes have fairly basic operations, such as identifying colors or shapes or splitting server load, however the puzzles can still get complicated, especially if you minimize server cost and maximize profit.
Each time a new node is introduced, you’re told how it functions in the game and given a few paragraphs about how it was discovered and used in real life. Progression through the story is linked to the development of these nodes from the 1930s through to the present day. I certainly appreciated the attempt to teach my ignorant self the basics of programming, but I don’t think I learned a lot of practical information due to the limited nature of the missions. Recurrent neural networks and perceptrons sound confusing as hell in theory. In the game, you just connect them up and they do their job with little effort on your part.
The main story path is especially guilty of making you perform the obvious. It’s little more than a series of tutorials with barely any difficulty curve to speak of so in theory you could blitz through it in an hour or so. Even late in the game, you’re given tutorials that are almost patronizing in their simplicity when what you desperately want is further explanation of the more complicated concepts.
For example, one of the nodes I used a lot early on was called Decision Tree: Color which can split two colors. This is a foundational node that I used in most puzzles. After around four or five hours I was given the same decision tree node except for shapes instead of colors and the game insisted I complete a tutorial for it, even though I’d been using effectively the same node for a while. That time would have been better spent explaining more about how, say, ARMA nodes work. I held out hope that the end of the story would have a big challenge requiring you to put all the skills you’ve learned to the test to build the ultimate cat translation machine, but nope. It was another insanely easy puzzle that barely took any time to solve.
None of this is to say that While True Learn is easy. It certainly has its challenging moments in the optional content which lets you earn money when you’re not working on the cat translator. Clients email you with problems, such as needing to sort clothing or predict the outcome of elections. The cheaper and more efficiently you can create a software solution, the more money you’ll earn from the project. Earning gold medals in some of these assignments is incredibly tough and there were a couple where I called it quits at bronze or silver, or skipped them entirely.
I can’t complain about the lack of challenge in these assignments, but I do wish the puzzles played out slightly differently. Despite the email explanations of each assignment, you never actually need to know anything about the real-world items behind the colors or the shapes. The puzzles always start out with the inputs and required outputs. We’re given an explanation behind the inputs in these assignments so why don’t we also need to identify what the inputs and outputs should be? It would certainly be more engaging if we had to translate the client’s problem into a coding issue ourselves which we would then solve.
While True Learn’s best feature is the ability to invest in startups and work as their CTO. The quality of the software you develop for the startup directly determines how much income the startup generates and you can cash out your shares at any time. The coding for the startups is much more open-ended. Instead of being given a specific time and efficiency target, you’re allowed to go nuts and place up to fifty nodes to do whatever it takes to sustain as many users as possible while keeping server costs down. It’s an excellent idea that’s poorly implemented due to a lack of feedback.
The startup will likely generate profit initially and then start losing money with no indication as to why. I tried to improve the code by coming up with a more efficient design but it didn’t seem to make any difference. You can’t even compare your patch to the previous version to identify what changes you’re making. There’s also a hype meter for each startup and I’ve no idea how to do anything about it. There’s just nowhere near enough information.
Unfortunately, the lack of player feedback is an issue that permeates the entire game. When a new node is introduced, you’re given an incredibly short explanation and a tutorial that is so simple it’s effectively useless at teaching you anything about the mechanics. There’s no help section and if you need support you’re constantly referred to the dev’s discord server. To be fair, the developer is incredibly responsive on there and happy to help, but this sort of thing is far less acceptable once a game is out of early access. The required information should be in the game already.
I don’t know much about macheene lerning beyond how to spell it, so when I got stuck I assumed I was being stupid, however looking at the discord server and steam forums I saw a lot of people who clearly knew their shit—or were good at faking it—who seemed as confused as I was. Given that While True Learn is primarily a puzzle game, not a test of your programming knowledge, this is perhaps expected, but it does mean the game itself is doing a poor job explaining its own mechanics.
The lack of decent feedback and tutorials is most noticeable around the custom nodes and DLL files you can create. Custom nodes are solutions from previous puzzles that you can reuse not just to save your own time but to make the program more efficient. I’m not sure why reusing an existing code makes the program more efficient, but I’ll take it as fact from people clearly far cleverer than I am. What I don’t understand is why they are so inconsistent in the difference they make to any given program. Sometimes the same custom file will save processing time and other times it won’t.
Custom nodes are supposed to count for however many nodes are inside that custom node however once I had three nodes inside a custom node and it only counted as one. I’m tempted to say this is a bug, but with so little information available on how they work I can’t say for sure. It’s also annoying that you can’t make basic edits to custom nodes. For example, if I have a node that spits out only red squares and trashes everything else, you’d expect it to be easy enough to change this to spit out blue triangles instead and then use that in your new program. Except you can’t. Well, you can make the changes but it won’t work. Although once it did. Again, I’ve no idea if this is a bug or not, or how they are supposed to function.
DLL files are solutions that you can make yourself and then use in new programs, again providing more efficiency. Sometimes. Other times they just won’t work. I once took a program that I knew worked, copied it over into a DLL file and then tried to dump the DLL file into the program. The DLL file refused to spit out any of the inputs and I’ve no idea why. Other times they worked as intended.
Using DLL files can make a mockery of the puzzles. After all, if you’re patient enough to go and make separate DLL files for each puzzle, you should be able to get the gold medals fairly easily. It’s cool that this recreates an element of real-world programming, i.e. don’t reinvent the wheel, but it breaks the puzzles.
As does the system of hardware upgrades that you unlock as you progress. After completing the main story and going back to some of the earlier puzzles that I didn’t have golds on, I found I was able to get the gold by using the exact same set up as before but because the nodes processed information quicker now I got a better outcome. This sowed seeds of doubt for other puzzles and I started to wonder whether it was even possible to get golds before acquiring upgrades. It probably was, but I have to wonder why you would let players break the puzzles in your puzzle game.
You can also spend money on cosmetics for your tiny apartment and even decorate your cat. This all looks pretty cool, even if there isn’t a lot of space to show off the toys you bought. I guess our programmer is based in San Francisco.
While True Learn’s basic concept is fun and I see a lot of potential here. While I came out a little negative on it, I played for eight hours in one day so it must be doing something right, even if I’d like to see a few changes. First and foremost, the developer needs to work on a decent help menu, better tutorials, and player feedback so that you know where you’re going wrong. I also wouldn’t complain if the UI was cleaned up and looked less like something I should be playing on a tablet and a little more like the Zachtronics games it’s likely inspired by.
After that, I would remove the option for custom nodes and DLL files from the main puzzles entirely. Give us the nodes we need and make us solve the puzzles with those nodes. Custom nodes and DLL files should be exclusively for use in your startups, which would ideally be fleshed out a bit so that you feel like you’re truly building a business. Custom nodes would also then serve as a reward for completing the normal puzzles. The more puzzles you complete the better your startup can become.
As it stands, While True Learn doesn’t give enough opportunity for creativity to be satisfying as a tool for creating weird and whacky stuff, and as a puzzle game it practically encourages you to cheat. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle with heavy use of Google.
With that in mind, I can’t recommend While True Learn yet, however you should consider sticking it on a wishlist and seeing what happens. A lot has changed since the early access version which shows the developer isn’t scared to make changes. Give it a look at the end of the year when it might be finished.