The Island of Dr. Brain. (educational software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by David Sears
When kids work for Dr. Brian, they can't help but learn. The Island of Dr. Brian is a puzzle-packed adventure that will have them solving problems from the major schools of knowledge: science, art, language, and math. Even music and literature are entwined in this fun game of mysteries.
One of the first puzzles involves polyominoes. Like most other island teasers, this obstacle is far less intimidating than it sounds. A brief consultation with the ever-handy EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy (a weighty name for the included multipurpose tome) reveals that the challenge of the polyominoes is, essentially, to fit them together to form different shapes. Don't think your 12-year-old wants to read the explanation? Don't worry; the game is highly intuitive, making trips to the manual infrequent and unitimidating. Even if kids rarely approach it, they'll get Dr. Brian's tidbits, whether they're geometric, electronic, linguistic, or artistic. Kids will soon discover that the world makes sense from a number of different perspectives.
Players learn through a series of interactive brain teasers. Even the copy protection offers a chance for a new discovery: cartography. Designers of lessons-on-the-go adventures obviously know that the best way to teach actively involves students in problem solving, whatever the discipline. The best of these lessons also impart plenty of interesting data while sharpening problem-solving skills.
Making fine use of Sierra's now-standard point-and-click interface, The Island of Dr. Brain puts kids immediately in the thick of things--most kids won't even need the instruction manual to get started. By the time they reach more difficult entanglements, they'll understand the menu options.
At one point, kids encounter magic squares, those fiendish little number grids whose rows, columns, and diagonals add up to the same number. While players might readily place the appropriate digits in the blanks, thereby completing the square, they can also consult the EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy for helpful hints on how to build their own squares and for a taste of magic square history.
Should they use the manual, even the youngest players will wrest principles from what they read, a process not in the least passive. Besides finding jazzy dateline tidbits--the first magic square surfaced in 2200 B.C.--kids will discover the Fibonacci sequence and more number-series insider knowledge. Who expects such a holistic tutorial in the midst of a magic squares discussion?
Or how about the article concerning the Tower of Hanoi, that devilish disks-and-towers puzzle? The version in The Island of Dr. Brain involves only four disks and relatively few moves, but the supplied Brahmanic wisdom equates a more complex version of the puzzle with the nature of the universe. Anyone who reads that a 64-disk puzzle requires as many as 18,446,744,073,710,000,000 moves to complete (requiring a time investment about 30 times greater than the age of the universe) will earn a healthy respect for numbers.
Of course, the game has challenges that encompass more than mathematical gambits. Word puzzles take the form of cryptography; you add and delete spaces between letters or swap words to render garbled text into familiar quotations. And there are particularly dense word finds. When's the last time you sought out noch einmal among a dizzying grid of letters? Players might find themselves searching for not only German vocabulary words but French and Spanish ones besides. Other language challenges involve antonyms, synonyms, and homonyms; kids choose from word lists to fill in the blanks in Shakespeare's sonnets or a piece from Steinbeck, for example.
The art gallery in The Island of Dr. Brain lets kids view representative works from van Gogh, O'Keeffe, Kandinsky, Pollock, Picasso, and Dali. Players try to match paintings with the animated busts of the artists and hear brief biographies on each master. Correct matches win praise from the artists. Dali commends the successful student with "You, like me, have the mind of a paranoiac-critical genius! I say this in all sincerity." Kids might not know what he means, but it seems funny at least. Moreover, this brief exposure to great art could put ideas of museum visits in many young minds. And students fortunate enough to get a field trip to an art museum will be more comfortable and open to learning, having "met" many of the great artists already.
Physical science challenges abound on Dr. Brain's island. To gain access to the island's control room, kids must provide a counterweight for a troublesome elevator by mixing water, mercury, and alcohol together for the necessary poundage. In order to do this, they'll need to familiarize themselves with standard measures and the specific weight of a cup of each liquid. The process seems confusing at first, and it may be an opportune moment to utilize the online hint watch. Depending on the nature of the problem at hand and the number of available hints, the hint watch can provide clues or complete solutions to facets of the puzzle. However, players earn extra hints by solving puzzles without assistance.
Once the counterweight is in place, kids find themselves toe to toe with torque. Gears, teeth, and math--they're all much easier to comprehend when Dr. Brain is the teacher. Kids just follow the simple equations in the manual and choose the appropriate gears. Completely unaware that they're doing so, they learn rudimentary algebra and physics--years ahead of schedule. Later in the game, they'll design and test their own computer chips, complete with logic gates, and they'll even program a robot to round up essential electronic components.
The island of Dr. Brain invites interaction. Even the mouse-shy will soon click on every piece of vivid scenery; most of it moves, if only to grin or roll its eyes. With any major sound board, the sound-track will delight most knowledge seekers; the more expensive sound cards promise stereo sound for the most discriminating. Players may chart their progress on the Achievement Board, a full-screen bulletin board for hanging plaques--bronze, silver, or gold, depending on the gameplay difficulty setting. More competitive players might value their scores more highly than their overall success; these kids can solve puzzles up to four times to work toward a maximum score of 1000 points and a supersecret message from Dr. Brain himself. These entertaining and colorful mind expanders play well enough without any additional goals, however, and no puzzle plays the same way twice. All this adds up to an exceedingly replayable game.
An almost-perfect initial exposure to the world of science, art, language, and, in a lesser way, literature and music, The Island of Dr. Brain teaches kids the importance of cross-disciplinary study. After spending halcyon days with Dr. Brain, kids will begin to look for solutions to everyday mysteries rather than passively accepting them as a part of life. Perhaps a lucky few will go on to find the connections between these mysteries for themselves--and lead lives of wonderful contemplation as systems analysts, CIA agents, or maybe even game designers.