There’s a tier of games below even the guilty pleasure of mine that is FMV adventure games, and that is the dread beast “edutainment” – wastes of time and plastic that ruin everything they touch by trying to make sensible subjects “Hip with the kidz” yet also fail to offer the thrills and spills of a game as intense as… ooh, Sim Brick? Yeah. The good news is this 1996 Saturn/Playstation release Lifescape is different, using footage from the NHK ’94-’95 documentary series “生命 40億年はるかな旅” to create an informative and lightly interactive journey across nothing less than the very beginnings of life on Earth all the way through to early human-likes. Thanks to this extensive TV influence the information given’s pitched around that general “family viewing” level with a perfectly normal narrator rather than those rash-inducing “for kids” releases that try to dress up basic maths exercises as “Exciting fun for preschoolers!”. As such while it’s fair to say the material here isn’t going to help anyone pass an exam (unlike a certain cartoon song) there’s still a real opportunity to learn a thing or two about prehistoric earth and the creatures that inhabited it.
This learning begins before the disc’s gone anywhere near a console, as what would normally be the manual is really more of a complimentary educational booklet in this instance, and this unexpectedly meaty reading material is peppered with trivia on primeval life – there’s even a fold-out graph charting the course of life on Earth through the ages – as well as offering some expanded background information on the scientific points the interactive games are trying to make. As if to emphasise the intended and perhaps game-averse target audience for Lifescape, the booklet is divided up into chapters that mirror the subjects in the “game” in the order they’re encountered, with every section repeating the controls for the TV clip portions in case users either forgot or are simply unused to flipping through a manual to find the section on controls. As if this wasn’t enough Lifescape also includes another, thinner, booklet with a few questions from the general public about early life and evolution (and answers).
The software itself (I really shouldn’t say “game”, as it isn’t one) is spread across two discs, neatly divided into “Aquasphere” – early aquatic life from microscopic bacteria through to jellyfish and oceanic vertebrates – and “Landsphere” – later dinosaurs, forests, and more complex mammals. Both discs are completely independent of each other and there’s no requirement to view the topics covered in order even within a single “sphere”, although as all of the information’s organised chronologically it does make sense to start at the beginning of the Aquasphere disc and work all the way through.
Both discs are presented as an interactive museum: Rather than picking topics from a dry drop-down menu players are taken on a monorail ride around a pair of extraordinary museums whose design practically screams “Nineties multimedia disc” in the best possible way. The monorail stops at each location (subject), and at this point the user has the option to get off and view the exhibit or carry on to the next one. Most of the movement is done from a first-person point of view, even going so far as to take the time to virtually “walk” up stairs or turn around and head back to the monorail platform. It’s objectively a waste of time (and can be skipped by a quick stab of the B button if anyone has strong objections to all of the excessive camerawork) but it really does help to convey that “On a trip to the dinosaur museum” feeling they were clearly aiming for. I say clearly because every themed area is divided up along usual museum lines: There’s the impressive visual (in this case, a short looping FMV of something relevant, such as a large dinosaur next to a car to show scale), the interactive thing you get to poke and prod for a minute or two before moving on, and then the serious information for the people who actually hoped to learn something from the visit.
The interactive portions are a varied bunch, demonstrating everything from the fight for survival in Cambrian seas to pooping mice (illustrating the importance of small mammals in spreading seeds) to a turtle, seagull, or dolphin’s-eye view of an enormous Barosaurus. There’s not much (or in some cases, anything) to learn from these segments but like the parts in a museum where button presses light things up or visitors can touch a worn fuzzy patch of material that’s allegedly an approximation of mammoth fur, just having that little moment of personal input can help keep people engaged and open to new information for far longer than if they’d been efficiently force-fed raw facts for a solid hour.
The serious TV-culled movies clips are of high quality for the era, almost filling the screen and not looking overly grainy – all the more impressive considering this isn’t an MPEG video card-enhanced title. The clips an offer barely last a minute each but they’re all complimented by a short card about the subject and any coloured text within them can be selected, taking users to a short extra entry to expand upon that specific term or species. The brevity of these FMVs turns out to be something of a point in Lifescape’s favour: Nobody’s going to get caught out with half an hour’s worth of video on a subject they were only mildly interested in, and the constant movement between videos, cards, and any further reading keeps the person holding the controller in charge of what they see, encouraging education through personal curiosity rather than enforced learning.
Lifescape may not be the usual for anyone: Not for the people making it, nor the people using it. But in never feels like anything less than an earnest and high quality project, even when the whole world already “knows” all educational games are supposed to be irredeemable rubbish. There’s clearly a desire here to pass on worthwhile knowledge of the included subjects and also use the chosen medium in a meaningful way and I know I’m not supposed to say this but honestly, Lifescape works. The short clips, simple games, and the open-ended ability to check out as much or as little as desired make Lifescape a stimulating if lightweight guide through prehistoric times. It is of course not a game – good or otherwise – and never will be, but all of the negative baggage attached to “edutainment” is unwarranted here. Once I’d finished Lifescape I actually went and looked some things up online: nobody can honestly ask much more of educational tool than to spark someone’s curiosity, and when viewed on its own terms Lifescape can only be considered a resounding success.