It is never too early to think about Christmas. The year's biggest preview of coming attractions for the multimedia industry is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, held last month in Los Angeles.
On the evidence of two days of mind-numbing demonstrations, it seems only a matter of moments until some Newton Minow of our time tars multimedia with a phrase as catchy and appropriate as the "vast wasteland" he hung on television.
The much-touted new game machines are faster than the old ones and more "realistic," which means they are still a far cry from real. But most games still come in just four numbing categories: shoot 'em up, kick 'em down, scroll and jump and simulated sports.
The latest fad is computer-rendered environments you can wander around in, usually in the hope of killing enemies. But since the programming methods and tools for creating these virtual worlds have become commonplace, you can expect to see them in a variety of other settings. By far the most inappropriate virtual-world interface was grafted onto a biographical encyclopedia. Want to read up on Margaret Thatcher? Fly over a virtual Europe, zoom in on No. 10 Downing Street and click on the door.
"Repurposing," the industry term for kidnapping material from another medium and wrestling it onto CD-ROM, is everywhere. Only rarely does direct comparison make the disk seem better, but it is almost always more expensive. For example, at least two field guides scheduled for fall release add useful amenities like .. recordings of bird songs to the book's silent contents. But only the seriously addicted or addled are likely to tote an eight-pound multimedia computer to the field in search of the vermilion flycatcher.
As marketing increasingly rules the marketplace, the number of titles that do not trade on some famous name, whether of book, movie, star or consumer product, becomes smaller and smaller. More than one booth at the show focused on the licensing of name brands so that multimedia titles can carry a trademark people have already heard of.
Fortunately, a few producers continue to buck these trends. The most innovative titles I have seen lately are in a series called Science Sleuths from Videodiscovery Inc., (800) 548-3472. Volume I is available now for about $40. Volume II, at the same price, has been completed for release in September.
There have been interactive mysteries before, but these manage to be engaging without bringing murder into the mix. Something unusual is going on: a strange blob has washed up on the beach, lawn mowers are exploding, or people are coming back sick from a picnic. Your job is to figure out what is really happening and what to do about it.
To do so, you must sift through evidence supplied on the screen: videos, newspaper clippings and other documents, not all of them relevant or truthful. You must also examine physical evidence with "tools" that range from tape measure, magnifying glass and sledgehammer to mass spectrograph and gas chromatograph. In this virtual world, you can try experiments that might be messy in the real one, like measuring the volume of someone's head by plopping it into a graduated cylinder.
A glossary and science encyclopedia are available for reference. Each mystery (there are two on every disk) is presented at six increasingly challenging levels, each with a different solution. As you progress to higher levels, you must ponder more and more information.
No clock is running. Thoroughness, thoughtfulness and logic count; speed does not. As you examine the evidence, you copy your findings into a "notebook" for ready reference and to show the Chief Sleuth that you have done your homework. Until you have examined a sizable portion of the evidence, she will not even deign to listen to your conclusions.
Humor is everywhere. The writers deftly parody writing styles from advertisement to local drama notice. Unreliable narrators venture their ill-considered opinions; one expert-sounding gastroenterologist, you discover from a newspaper clipping, has been exposed as a shameless impostor. The idea that not all information is relevant or should be taken as gospel truth is a particularly useful lesson in the era of the misinformation highway.
At higher levels, subtle discrimination becomes important. In one case of a post-picnic outbreak of disease in Volume II, the evidence may at first seem to point to giardia. But a quick look at the encyclopedia makes it clear that giardia's ill effects have a longer incubation period. Back to the evidence.
Science Sleuths creates a surprisingly believable world with quirks reminiscent of the old Second City Television's Melonville. It includes citizens like professional women, people of color, natives of other countries and even older folks with paunches, who rarely seem to turn up in other multimedia titles. This may be because Videodiscovery has been honing its skills on interactive videodiscs in the educational market for more than 10 years.
There are some rough edges here. The probe tool goes unexplained. The pen-and-paper icon that lets you copy material into your notebook sometimes transfers only extraneous information. The saved-game feature should be far more automatic. When the Chief Sleuth grills you about your conclusions, she refuses to understand the words "yes" or "no" if you type a period after them.
The Chief sometimes radiates the condescension of someone trying to avoid condescending, especially after you have heard her uplifting, self-esteem-building reading of the same reaction for the dozenth time.
Yet Science Sleuths gives us a good glimpse of the kinds of things multimedia is best at.
The problem for parents and children will be finding unusual and pioneering titles like these amid the sea of gore and mindlessness on the Christmas shelves.