[Mr Creosote] The first part of Eco Quest, which we will be discussing today, came out in the early 90s. Much later than the start of most of Sierra's 'endless' Adventure game series. Consequently, it did not turn into a long series anymore: Only two parts have ever been released. So, let's begin with the first one, subtitled 'The Search for Cetus'.
What is it about?
[Wandrell] Here you will take the role of Adam, whose father is deeply involved in preserving natural life. Both kid and father have just moved, so Adam finds himself without friends, until he meets a dolphin rescued from a net.
[Mr Creosote] Adam is characterised a bit more than your usual faceless Sierra protagonist. In the introductory scene, we learn that he has problems making friends as he is quite shy. Although there are other (human) kids playing right outside, he can't just go and join them. Instead, he seems to spend most of his time helping his father (who otherwise does not have a whole lot of time for his son) with his work. Those interests only alienate him even more from kids his own age. I found this a nice touch.
[Wandrell] But still it settles the ground for the rest of the story with a not unexpected twist. He is an introverted kid, and this introversion is the gate, as manner of speaking, to a magical world where reality and imagination mixes, which opens to him.
[Mr Creosote] That's right: He befriends "Delphineus", an injured dolphin which his father has nursed back to health. Delphineus can talk the human language. In fact, all underwater creatures can (as it turns out). They usually just don't want to talk to the ignorant humans who destroy their world.
[Wandrell] Actually, he later clarifies that only the underwater creatures from his same kingdom (actually, looks more like a city), Eluria, can talk. And this is the place the dolphin ends up taking him to, a magical place where the king, a whale named Cetus, has disappeared.
[Mr Creosote] Cetus' disappearance has lead to severe problems. He has been the community's protector. Without him, the inhabitants fall prey to a mutated, flesh-eating black manta one by one. Adam, being the nice kid that he is, agrees to help to find Cetus.
[Wandrell] Which first requires gathering the animals of Eluria, and visiting the Oracle. Actually, all this isn't too clear. Why does he need a prophecy and an oracle? Ok, he helps the inhabitants of the city and so he receives some clues as to what to do next. But he could have done that just because he is a good kid, not because the gods wished so.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, the incorporation of the prophecy was rather weak. Of course, it fits in the genre that an outsider who comes to an alien world would come there as a saviour whom the legends speak of. This is well established in similar children's stories. It just should have been more organic than it is in Eco Quest.
[Wandrell] It feels like the game is missing a section between Eluria, where to meet the animals and their problems, and the reef, where Cetus and the Flesh Eater take protagonism. These two are background characters, like the god and devil of the underwater kingdom, until suddenly you are actually searching for them.
[Mr Creosote] Agreed. The only linking factor between the three acts of the game (the meeting between Adam & Delphinus, exploring the underwater city and meeting its inhabitants and finally finding Cetus & confronting the Flesh Eater) is the creeping destruction of the world by human interference.
It's Edutainment, isn't it?
[Wandrell] The ecological theme of the game is a heavy part of it. Actually, more than an ecological theme it's a recycling theme. But it shouldn't be surprising, as this is one of these attempts to join education and entertainment into edutainment, in this case teaching kids about their responsibilities with the natural world.
[Mr Creosote] The first thing Adam has to do is assist his father in cleaning a seabird's feathers of sticky oil. Then, it turns out the underwater world suffers from the garbage humans carelessly dump into the water: Plastic appliances turn into traps for animals and poison for the ecological balance of the world. This is actually fairly realistic, as the huge plastic 'islands' swimming on our actual oceans these days impressively show. It's a typical human trait: Out of view, out of mind.
[Wandrell] Actually, a full subsystem of the game revolves about taking care of all the junk you find around. Just in the first room there is a recycling bag that you will carry around all through the game. Select the recycle icon and choose the bottle, electrical tool, plastic or whatever you see and it will be thrown into the bag. Fully clean a room and you get points, not only that, handle the junk correctly before throwing it into the bag and you will get even more points.
[Mr Creosote] I definitely applaud the intention of making a game which is not only entertaining, but also teaches some values or good behaviour. The problem I have with the execution of this idea in this game is that it quickly turns into a chore.
[Wandrell] Well, there usually is not as much junk around, and as there is no problem if you ignore it, it just is a minigame of finding it. If you want a full score, then you may have your headaches with this, as in some places finding the junk can be hard.
[Mr Creosote] The problem I have with this is that 'Edutainment', as you called it, implies that something valuable is taught in an entertaining way. Collecting most of the garbage is optional and that part is definitely not fun at all. So what is the lesson here? I'd say only to recycle garbage if it also serves an ulterior (selfish) motive in the current situation: If you need the help of a creature suffering from the garbage, recycle it. If you need extracts from a rare plant which won't grow otherwise, recycle the junk lying around to clean the soil. Otherwise, just leave it all there. Yes, this is certainly not the intended message of the game, but it is what it communicates and teaches nevertheless.
[Wandrell] No doubt that part could have been done better. But at least they get the recycling part into the plot. Setting up a protection on the boat's helixes, or signalling to clear the poisonous dump are nice points in the game.
But apart from recycling, I think they also wanted to teach kids about marine life. I'm not sure this received as much attention, though.
[Mr Creosote] The recycling aspect works as far as communicating the general idea that mankind is causing trouble for other ecosystems, that this could be avoided and that initiatives exist to change this. Humans are not evil in the story, just careless. That part is probably good enough.
As for underwater life in general, I did not get the impression the game actually wanted to teach a lot about this. The underwater world is almost completely 'humanised', i.e. the inhabitants may be fish, but they act like humans. And they even live in a human-built city!
[Wandrell] The wildlife part is mostly on the reef, where you can get info on each animal when looking at them. But you are only directly shown a pair of animals, the clownfish and an octopus. In the city, each animal is just related to a kind of problem, like the manatee and the boat (actually, I always heard this happened to the ocean sunfish, but no doubt other animals get wounded by engines).
So I don't think they managed this part too well. Also, where exactly they are supposed to be? That would help a lot on the wildlife aspect of the game.
[Mr Creosote] Judging from the architecture of the underwater city, the game would have to set in the sphere of influence of Greek culture, i.e. the north-eastern mediterranian. However, as muddled as the fantastic elements of the plot are, it is hard to say whether this is the intended impression or not.
Are we too old for this game?
[Mr Creosote] It is also a bit hard to judge whether wildlife supposed to be something they wanted to teach something about at all. I think it's a minor point at most. In any case, this very much depends on the question who the game was made for. Certainly kids about Adam's age – but how old would you take him for?
[Wandrell] Ten years old? Not more than that. Actually, I have just look on The-Source-Of-Knowledge (AKA, Wikipedia), and it says 10 years old. But can't find anywhere a reference of what age this is aimed to, I suppose they wanted it to be bought by Sierra's fans too.
[Mr Creosote] Now we'd have to guess who "Sierra's fans" were at the time. Anyway, ten-year-olds sounds about right to me. Maybe even a bit younger. Of course, your messages have to be quite clear for such a target audience and they shouldn't get muddled by having too many points. So I'd say for this target audience, it is smart to concentrate on the environmental/recycling aspect and not get into biology too much. However, even for such a young target audience, the game is too preachy in my view. Kids that age are not stupid and frankly, I fear most of them would find Adam to be a bit of a bore.
[Wandrell] For my part, I think that the simplified and more childish tone of the game has a charm compared to other Sierra games, which tend to get lost in all the references and supposedly mature and intelligent stories. Not sure if a kid would think this, probably a normal Sierra game would already be too boring for them.
[Mr Creosote] For me, this is pure cheese, kitsch, or whatever you want to call it. Adam with his large puppy eyes, all those 'cute' underwater creatures and some images, like the closeup of Adam hugging Delphineus or the closing shot of him jumping out of the water in front of the silvery full moon alternatingly made me cringe or even want to rip my eyes out!
[Wandrell] Is it just me or Delphineus looks kind of creepy on those closeups?
[Mr Creosote] It's not just you. Anyway, Adam is such a perfect do-gooder that I don't think he makes a good (meaning convincing) role-model for the audience. Again, I think they took kids for being simpler than they actually are.
So what is it you actually do in this game?
[Wandrell] Adam is quite empty, just serves as a proxy for the player, as usual on Sierra games. But that's not the only typical Sierra feature, we have the puzzles. How did you find them, were they made too simple?
[Mr Creosote] What I liked in this respect is, again, the beginning. Sierra seems to assume this to be a 'first' game for many players, so the first actions are spelt out to the player. In the very first scene, the father tells us what to do, in the second scene (befriending the dolphin), the steps are also there, but at least the list is 'hidden' at first. This is a good way of introducing the way the game logic and the interface work together.
[Wandrell] But then the next puzzle is opening your way through the ship's litter. I don't think that part is clear. You have a way of removing part of that waste, but it feels like they are introducing a feature and at the same time they expect you to know it.
[Mr Creosote] That's right, this was not handled well. On the one hand, Adam, slavishly following his father's advice to the letter, refuses to get close to the litter, because it's 'too dangerous'. But then, the solution turns out to be… getting close to the litter. Just a different part of it, which is not visually separated from the rest, though. What did you think of the puzzles in the underwater part?
[Wandrell] There were two kinds, the obvious ones and those you couldn't see the solution. I had problems with the trident because I didn't see what the other statue was doing, and getting the makeshift bouy latter on the game was hard, because I didn't know you could open the place where it was stored.
May be an effect of Sierra's staff not knowing clearly what to expect with kids, but after several puzzles with clear solutions you can get stuck just because you don't expect having a non-obvious one.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, the puzzles themselves were fairly simple. Most went for quick rewards which is appropriate, I guess. However, this makes it damn uninteresting for adult players. No challenge at all. And there seems to have been some major inflation in the area of points since the previous Sierra games: You get a lot of them, even for the simplest actions!
[Wandrell] The game is shorter, yet they wanted to keep the high points count. Maybe they didn't want any possible buyer to know the game is shorter just looking at the score. Also, a lot of these points go the the recycling thing already commented.
But I think there is a noticeable change on the puzzles way of working when comparing this to other Sierra games, which makes me like Ecoquest more: There are no absurd deaths. And let me tell you that there is one puzzle where Adam is courting death, I'm pretty sure any kid knows what "radioactive green" means.
[Mr Creosote] Death is avoided by having Adam run away automatically in some situations. Its absence is certainly appreciated. There is no excuse for the shortness, however. There is just no reason for it and it feels very anticlimactic.
Also, at first I wondered about the final battle: It's not Adam who defeats the Flesh Eater, but Cetus. Adam only helps with a bit of distraction. This is strange for a protagonist role and made me wonder what kind of crap phrophecy this turned out to be anyway. However, in the end, it fits since the protagonist is just a kid and the general tone of the game was not the outlandish 'you can do everything if you try', but to stick to given authorities, follow and support them. So the conclusion is in line with the rest of the game. It's a bit ironic that a game which – by US standards at least – takes progressive views on its central topic at the same time takes such an incredibly reactionary stance when it comes to societal issues.
[Wandrell] The reason for the shortness, I think, is clear. This was an attempt to check the waters (bad pun, I know) for kids games. But while Castle of Dr. Brain goes for complex puzzles in their own brand of edutainment, this attempts to get to the kids using the adventure as the main hook. Maybe this didn't work, as now, years after, Dr. Brain games are a long lived series, while the second EcoQuest tries to avoid that title on the name.
Still, I don't think this one was an attempt that should be forgotten, on the contrary.
Get to the point already!
[Mr Creosote] Of course, it is hard to judge this game from today's perspective. Personally, I have no nostalgia for it as I was already too old for it when it first came out. Some might say I'm being unfair and harsh towards a children's game. However, I'm a person who collects toys and still regularly watches some children's cartoons, so my 'inner child' is still very much alive. And as much as it pains me to say this, I was not impressed by Eco Quest at all. In my opinion, it underestimates the children it has been made for. Some things, like the introduction, are good enough, but on the whole, it tries to be too 'good' (moral-wise) for its own good.
[Wandrell] In my case, maybe I'm comparing it to other Sierra games too much, making it look better to me. But I can compare it to other short games like Loom, or lesser know adventure games like Return to Ringworld. May not have the mood and world of the first (that's hard to achieve), but still is a small and enjoyable game.
[Mr Creosote] In any case, as we have said a couple of times, the game is extremely short and quite easy. So trying it out to see for yourself will not put too much of a burden on your life.