Bits from my personal collection – EcoQuest – Educational Environmentalism

We are now more than ever aware of the human impact on our beautiful but fragile blue planet. With an ever-increasing number of people to sustain, and more and more getting a higher standard of living, the impact to fulfill our needs is having severe implications on our environment both locally and globally. Individuals as companies have throughout the years been institutionalizing measures to cut down on the impact on our surroundings, that being recycling, changing to greener energy, or simply cleaning up after ourselves. Today one of the most talked-about issues is the plastic in our oceans and what it does not only to the animals who live there but also the consequences it has on the food chain and ecosystems. While many companies today have social corporate responsibility policies in place, policies that fundamentally makes the companies conscious of the impact they are leaving on all aspect of society, including the environmental impact, we all still have a long way to go.

In 1990 it was the 20th anniversary of International Earth Day, a recurring annual event to demonstrate support for environmental protection. The event gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and the media coverage was extensive with a multi-million dollar budget. The coverage reached around the globe and brought more awareness to the facing issues than ever before.

Sierra On-Line, the biggest game developer at the time, was well aware of its environmental impact. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the company had started using recycled paper for all office usage, experimented with recycled paper for some of its products, like boxes, manuals, etc… and even tried out with recycled floppy disks.
Co-founder Ken Williams had from a very early stage been an advocate for educational software and with the educational software market becoming the fastest-growing segment of the software industry in the early ’90s, the timing was perfect for Sierra to do an educational title tapping into the growing interest and focus on our environment.

In 1991 game designer Gano Haine and her team started pitching ideas for the new educational game. Haine, a former teacher, had worked at a children’s summer camp where they, every Wednesday, would go to a beautiful beach where the kids would enjoy the sand and water. The following season, the same beach would be covered in litter and the water filled with human sewage. The experience would become the determining factor for the topic and the team decided to develop a game that would teach kids the value of preserving Earth’s most valuable resource, the oceans.

Haine was assigned Jane Jensen as co-designer, both women had been hired by Sierra around the same time and cemented the company’s policy and willingness to hire female workers, in a time when the game business was almost completely male-dominated. Haine and Jensen were not new to games, both were gamers and loved adventures and by utilizing the interface and general gameplay from what other Sierra adventure titles employed, they managed to assemble an adventure with an educational environmental twist. The game was made with a focus on accessibility allowing for a more streamlined and less frustrating experience, with no dead-ends, unreasonable puzzles, or sudden deaths.

Haine and Jensen created young protagonist Adam whose father, an ecologist, spends his life traveling around the globe dealing with various environmental issues. Adam tags along, while lonely he finds his friends among the animals living in the places they visit.
Adam gets recruited by one of his human-like animal friends, a dolphin named Delphineus, to search for Cetus, the great sperm whale whom all of the other undersea creatures look to for guidance, but now has gone missing.
Haine and Jensen worked with the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, California, to get the science right, and Sierra agreed to donate a portion of the profits to the organization.

EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus would employ the same fully mouse-driven interface, the fifth installment in Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest series had introduced only a year earlier. The first version of the game was released in 1991, on floppies supporting beautiful 256 color VGA graphics.

EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus was released on floppies in 1991. It was later re-released in 1992 with full voice-acting, which also included a Sierra Discovery Series release

EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus was re-released in 1992 on CD-ROM with full voice-acting. The rerelease would also include a release in the Sierra Discovery Series.

The CD-ROM rerelease from 1992 came with full voice-acting and fitted the game extremely well and made it even more suitable for the younger audience it targeted

EcoQuest spawned the 1993 sequel Lost Secret of the Rainforest. Jane Jensen was on to new adventures, literally speaking, as she had started working on what would become the first installment in the Gabriel Knight series. With Haine missing out on her co-writer to assist with the story, plot, and character development, Lost Secret of the Rainforest lost a bit of charm and soul the first title had carried with it. The game played considerably more into the likes of other classic Sierra point-and-click adventures of the time and while its educational elements helped drive the story they were somewhat toned down from the first title.

Lost in the Rainforest was released in 1993 in the Sierra Discovery Series and didn’t feature the EcoQuest label

Lost Secret of the Rainforest feels bigger in scope but loses out on some of the charm and special feel the first title had. Unfortunately, it was released without full voice

While Sierra was well aware of some of the environmental and sustainability challenges before EcoQuest, the research and development the title spawned led to a bigger focus on the subject internally in the company.
The Sierra Discovery Series only had a short lifespan of 2 years, from 1991 to 1993. Sierra managed to releases 12 rather great and interesting titles in the series, most unfortunately never saw much commercial success and seems to be mostly forgotten nowadays – I haven’t seen any digital versions for modern systems – hopefully, this will change since all of the titles and their subject matter is just as topical today as they were when released.

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