Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Logic Quest 3D, the lost history of the edutainment FPS and a nostalgia you never had.

In 1997, before Half-Life and before Thief, someone made a mass market medieval-themed puzzle FPS with full voice acting, commandable NPCs and an integrated level editor -- "for ages 8 and up."

You're forgiven if you've never heard of Logic Quest 3D (even MobyGames hasn't) because it's actually a pretty awful game despite its incredibly forward-thinking educational intentions, even by the "you mean we get to play computer games during school?" metric.

Way back in 1983, a US government commission on education released its findings as "A Nation at Risk," which cited low test scores in accusing American public schools of failing to educate their students, which doesn't sound familiar at all. (In fact, the now-common narrative of "failing public schools" is fairly recent in the entire history of public education. For most Americans, it's all they can remember now.)

Many schools decided that the problem was the quality of teaching, that maybe we should replace the teachers with the robotic instructors from sci-fi novels -- thus, the primary school computer lab was born, populated with reasonably priced Apple IIe's and games by educational software giant MECC. Technology gave schools a quick and attractive fix for the kids' apparent penchant for failure.

That's why you may have fond memories of playing Math Blaster, Oregon Trail, Outnumbered and countless other titles developed by MECC / The Learning Company. The US government was basically training you to be a PC gamer of discriminating taste, to manage your limited computer lab time and only play the best games.

Again, Logic Quest 3D probably wasn't one of those "best" games.

Its mouse-only, "click to move" interface was like maneuvering a shopping cart coated with Crisco -- it felt a bit similar to the control scheme that Tale of Tales used in their 2009 notgame Fatale, which even they generously described as "inefficient." By 1997, many kids had already played their friend's copy of Doom or Quake with much more intuitive controls. Why struggle?

Visually, it didn't compare favorably with Doom or Quake either, a stuttering half-step above the 3D maze screensaver packaged with Windows 95. The low-fidelity architectural walkthrough engine itself wasn't the issue so much as its jarring dissonance with the lush animated cartoons of the menu screen, like a disgusting attempt at coating broccoli in chocolate. The adults were trying to trick you again!

As for the game mechanics: You threw oranges at buttons to open doors and collected "commands" to program an agonizingly slow robot to help you. Why was there a robot in a castle? Where did these oranges come from? Why play this incoherent mess when I could be shooting lasers at monsters or munching numbers?

So Logic Quest 3D was annoying, ugly and profoundly uncool -- one of the more unpopular kids in the computer lab.

Predictably, it was also the smartest one by far. The later levels were incredibly complicated; intricate networks of walls, doors and switches that reduced the mini-map to a square filled with spaghetti. Beating the game also unlocked the level editor, a cumbersome tool that would even confuse today's game developers, much less the average child about 15 years ago.

Utterly unusable.
Still, this was the rare educational game that respected a child's intelligence and their capacity for reason, paired with the controversial belief that an 8 year old child is capable of 3D level design and systems engineering. The cynical might claim that it was punished for believing it, while the most cynical might say few things in history are so far ahead of their time yet fuck up the landing so completely.

Now in 2011, Gabe Newell can say the same thing at NYU and encourage kids to make Portal levels and everyone will applaud him for his stunning insight. But back in 1997, Logic Quest 3D was tactlessly shouting it from a car window and no one was listening.

It's probably regarded as a failed experiment by the industry, assuming it's even remembered; the story of how something with quiet sensibilities for puzzle-solving has proven so fruitless and unprofitable compared against today's high-octane bloodless deathmatch action of DimensionM with its gigantic LAN parties for kids.

What can we learn from the parable of Logic Quest 3D?

(A) Educational games are about a decade behind. They've only now just realized that multiplayer FPS deathmatch games are interesting? Maybe in 8 more years, they'll come out with BiologyShock.

(B) The newly-christened "games for learning" will fail just like the edutainment software before it. Sure, we remember Oregon Trail and Math Blaster, but does that mean they improved our test scores and reversed a three-decade lack of faith in public education?

(C) Educational games need more funding and more backbone. If Logic Quest 3D got remade again, with current tools and methodologies, it would be a wild success. They just need more support and faith.

(D) The education industry has tainted the educational game industry. We should just leave it for dead. Instead, appropriate existing "regular" games like Civilization and Minecraft, and find educational uses for them, rather than trying fruitlessly to tailor and design an educational game that no one likes playing.

(E) All of the above.

(F) None of the above.