Saturday, March 22, 2014

Foundations Part I: The Doctor of Brains

If I tried to list the video games that have strongly impacted my life, the first ones that came to mind would have powerful narratives, but there are a few cases in which the gameplay itself had an influence by helping to develop my mind. I'm referring to my childhood collection of “edugames.” I had many of these, but I'm going to focus on just three standouts. Why these three? Because I loved them so much that I STILL PLAY THEM NOW, even though the puzzles are more of a tease than a real exercise for my brain nowadays. In this article, I'll be featuring The Castle of Dr. Brain and its sequel, The Island of Dr. Brain1.

This is no ordinary island.
Both edugames were produced by Sierra during the “golden age” of adventure games, so they share many stylistic similarities with classics such as King's Quest V. Castle was even directed by Corey Cole, famous among fans of adventure games for his work on the Quest for Glory series and other well-known Sierra titles. However, the Dr. Brain games are played in the first-person, are more linear than a typical adventure game, and have simple plots that serve mainly as a background for the puzzles. In Castle, you're trying to apply for a job as the titular Dr. Brain's lab assistant, and it turns out that his idea of an interview is making you prove your worth by opening numerous puzzle barriers to reach the castle basement. In Island, you've been hired, and you're tasked with retrieving a special battery from Dr. Brain's island fortress … but for security reasons, you again have to deal with a bunch of puzzles in your way. The environments through which the player travels are mysterious and whimsical, and full of objects that deliver silly animations or descriptions when clicked.  Much of the castle interior and some of the island labs get a bit dark and oppressive, though. I guess Dr. Brain has to keep up that creepy mad scientist mystique, even though he's officially opposed to violence.  The graphics consist of hand-painted scenes rendered into pixelated backdrops suitable for the computer screens of the time. Since a number of people love this “retro” look and are still creating games in that style, I can say that they've aged well … and if you don't mind the mosaic-like appearance of the art, it's still very attractive.

The robot room of Dr. Brain's castle.  Which head is being honest with you??
The games are more broad than deep, providing a very basic introduction to many different fields and whetting the player's appetite for more. Both titles feature puzzles that cover pattern recognition, sequences, spatial reasoning, mathematics, simple programming, digital logic, and cryptography. Castle also includes a memory game and a bit of astronomy.  Island adds navigation, foreign languages, chemistry, genetics, music, mechanics, and art history. (Salvador Dali was probably my favorite of the featured artists; obviously, youthful me already had a taste for the weird.)  Island also comes with a neat companion book called the EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy, which provides background information helpful for solving and fully understanding many of the puzzles.

Although the Dr. Brain games only scrape the surface of each topic, I'm surprised by how useful, or at least interesting, the provided bits of information are. They constituted my first (I think – it was a long time ago) introduction to binary numbers, logic gates, ciphers, Fibonacci numbers, dominant and recessive genes, and that lovely sequential puzzle called the Tower of Hanoi. Some of the concepts gained here are things that I still use, though they've been supplemented by layers of additional depth. The games also made the knowledge that they presented fun and engaging. They fascinated and inspired me enough that I did some outside activities inspired by their puzzles – for instance, I made my own polyominoes out of paper, as suggested in the EATO.

The hardest level of the Tower of Hanoi puzzle.
I think the adventure puzzle format followed by the Dr. Brain games had a lot to do with their appeal, at least for me personally. The linear narrative gave me a sense of accomplishment; it was possible to reach the end of the game and achieve some worthy goal in the process. The exploration element provided a little thrill of discovery as I opened up each new area. And perhaps most importantly, the puzzles were varied, interesting, and thought-provoking. In Island you can accumulate a higher score by completing the puzzles over and over, but the game will never force you to do this. I don't remember games like Math Munchers with nearly as much fondness, because they were basically the same dull rote exercises I was made to do for homework, with a layer of arcade action and cartoonish animation plastered on top. I went from being bored when the Troggles (enemies) were turned off, to frustrated when they were turned on. The Dr. Brain games avoided both of these problems by including puzzles that were inherently engaging and letting me solve them at my own pace.

Both games are abandonware now, and they are easy to get running in DOSBox. So why not give them a try with your own kids? (Just be sure to mention that Pluto is not considered a planet any more.)  You can download them from Abandonia: Castle of Dr. BrainIsland of Dr. Brain. Be sure to download the game manuals also, because you will need them to solve certain puzzles. (And who doesn't want xir own EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy?)

I've got one more edugame that I want to talk about, but I'm going to save that one for another post.

Happy cogitations,

1. There are two more games in the series, The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain and The Time Warp of Dr. Brain, but I never got to play more than the demo of Lost Mind. It feels very different from the previous two games, and didn't strike me as having the same appeal. Maybe I'll have to give it and Time Warp a proper try someday.

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