Around the turn of the millennium, Tivola Publishing released a series of three German-developed Myst-style first-person adventure games with educational aspirations, each focusing on a different science. The most celebrated of the three, and the one with by far the highest production values, is Chemicus. Andrew Plotkin’s review of Chemicus got me curious about it, and by extension, the other two, Physicus and Bioscopia.
Physicus and Bioscopia are both blatant Director games, Made in Macromedia and not too proud to show it, like many of their generation of cheap Myst imitators. All three games follow the basic model of wandering around a strange and deserted environment, poking at things with your cursor and solving puzzles that open up new areas — the puzzles, in these particular games, being to a large extent (but not entirely!) tests of your knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, which is also available through a sort of narrated and animated textbook within the game (sometimes a little shaky in its English translation). Physicus was much shorter and easier than Chemicus, basically a one-sitting game. I can’t really speak to the length of Bioscopia, though, because I haven’t finished it yet. I stopped playing fairly early on, finding it far less interesting than either of its brethren.
This isn’t because the curriculum was less interesting. It’s because it was less well-integrated into the gameplay. Chemicus worked as well as it did because it used practical chemistry to solve adventure-game puzzles — for example, freeing a golden object embedded in a block of silver by immersing it in nitric acid. Physicus was more like a bunch of concretized word problems: there were lots of machines that needed just one or two things adjusted, like the right weight to balance a lever, or the right amount of power through an induction coil. It was more contrived than the situational puzzles in Chemicus, but it was still based on interacting with the environment as an environment. Bioscopia, from what I’ve seen so far, mainly just tries to teach biology by occasionally quizzing you in various ways. There are puzzles about manipulating the environment, using objects on other objects and whatnot, but these puzzles have absolutely nothing to do with biology. They’re mostly about manipulating machines, prominently including robots — were the authors aware of the irony here? And some of the machines require you to demonstrate biological knowledge, but they could just as well be asking you about art history or Doctor Who trivia.
I suppose it shows something about the way the three subjects are taught in school. Chemistry and physics are presented as techniques, and techniques are things that can be applied in a simulated world. But biology is presented mainly as a collection of facts. It’s impossible to perform science of that sort.
Perhaps it’s best to not even think of Bioscopia as educational and just approach it as a game. We’ll see how well that works. But right now, I don’t think it works very well that way either.