MrLipid's Closet of the Odd
The Journey to Wild Divine

Review by MrLipid
March 2007

Dedication

On November 22, 2003, Jen posted the following message:

"I know not everybody celebrates Christmas, so I will make this a generic 'what game do you really wish someone would give you out of the blue' thread.

"Me? Journey to the Wild Divine. For the sole reason that it's too much dineros for a pig in a poke."

Jen, this one's for you.

Intro

I have long maintained that interactive electronic entertainment, whatever the platform, functions, regardless of the intention of those building the software, as a teaching machine. Players supply an input; the game universe responds. Players supply another input; it doesn't respond. We, as players, are taught, input by input, how the universe before us works. It doesn't feel like being taught because we feel we're in charge and we get a happy jolt whenever what we predicted would happen, based on past inputs and responses, happens. We live for that jolt: that moment when the pieces fall into place, when the dots connect, when the universe we've been providing with inputs responds in a way we've been quietly taught to expect.

Viewed as teaching machines that provide responses to inputs, both installments of The Journey to Wild Divine (The Passage and Wisdom Quest) look and sound, at first glance, pretty much like every other adventure set in some vaguely Mystoid world. Navigation, as in most such games, is handled with the mouse. As for everything else, well, that's what makes the Wild Divine offerings unique. Instead of using a keyboard or a Wiimote or a gamepad or a touchscreen to accept player input, Wild Divine I and II use fingertip sensors on the index, middle, and ring fingers to monitor skin conductivity and heart rhythm variability. The hand with the sensors remains still while the physical state of the player drives events on the screen. Thus, unlike any other adventure game, The Passage and Wisdom Quest consist of challenges that can only be overcome by the conscious manipulation by the player of his or her physical state. This is the skill these teaching machines teach. The oddest quality about learning this skill—controlling items on the screen without moving—is that it doesn't seem odd at all.

In a November 2003 article in Wired, Brian Lam described the uniqueness of The Journey to Wild Divine: The Passage by asking readers to meditate on this: You are the controller. After experiencing both The Passage and Wisdom Quest, I think it would be more accurate to say: You are the puzzle. Solving the challenges in The Passage and Wisdom Quest would be trivial with a mouse because they are not about what needs to be done but whether the player has sufficient focus to do what needs to be done. Success requires players to develop an understanding of the variability of their energy levels and a grasp of techniques to regulate those levels. Players are solving themselves. The modest puzzles on the screen are just there to provide a measure of how the solution is going.

Qualms

As someone who grew up among pragmatic farm folk on the prairies of the midwestern United States, I found myself wincing, flinching, and cringing at the look and tone of the Wild Divine website, the Wild Divine packaging, and the Wild Divine products themselves. Everything about all of it felt way too much like a flashback to the heyday of headshops, Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, renaissance fairs, the Age of Aquarius, crystals, dreamcatchers, and whatever the New Age was supposed to be. At the same time, as an amateur medical historian, I found the idea of bringing the technology of biofeedback to a general audience by wrapping it in the trappings of an adventure game appealing. The first step in my journey was clear: I had to allow my curiosity to override my impulse to recoil if I hoped to experience the effects of guided biofeedback. Giving in to my curiosity turned out to be the biggest step of the journey.

What's in the Box?

I don't usually do commentary on how products are packaged, but The Journey to Wild Divine: The Passage is not a usual product.

The packaging of The Passage does everything it can to assure buyers that the $159.95 MSRP is appropriate. The box is covered with lush images of game scenes, endorsements from Deepak Chopra, M.D., and a promise that you, as a buyer, can expect to "Discover the power of your inner magic with easy-to-use biofeedback technology."

Lift the lid and you'll find ... another lid, also covered with imagery and copy, promising a "truly inner active experience" courtesy of biofeedback sensors. Open the inner lid (which is unaccountably blank on its backside) and you'll find a vacuum-formed clear plastic cover that fits snugly over a vacuum-formed black plastic tray covered with faux black velvet. The faux velvet tray securely holds the biofeedback unit, PC and Mac game CDs, a Soul Flight music CD from the Wild Divine Band, a bonus CD featuring an interview with Deepak Chopra, M.D., a user's manual, and a spiral-bound Companion Guide for The Passage.

Turn the box over—the clear plastic cover, not to mention the inner and outer lids, will keep everything from falling out—and you'll find even more imagery and copy, including an explanation for how biofeedback works. Promised biofeedback benefits include reduced stress and anxiety, increased relaxation and energy, enhanced creativity and focus, restored balance of mind and body, and improved mental and physical performance. All this for a mere $159.95. While that's steep by game standards, it's not at all unusual for biofeedback gear. And it's cheap when compared to the cost of most console and launch title bundles, especially when players of The Passage will likely revisit particular challenges over and over to refine their breathing and meditation techniques.

Yesterday's QuickTime Blues

The Passage and Wisdom Quest are, like all games that rely on QuickTime and Macromedia, hostage to the vintage of the technology with which they were built. The system requirements on the box state The Passage works with QuickTime 6 (or higher). The website says QuickTime 6.3 or higher. If you're running Windows, you'll find that higher means 6.5 and not a point release more. Fortunately, 6.5 happens to be the version of QuickTime that ships on the installation disks for The Passage. Seems there is a fundamental problem with how Macromedia Projector 9.0 interacts with QuickTime 7.x; a problem that makes the audio in the QuickTime movies unintelligible. Hard for mentors to guide seekers if the seekers can't understand where they are being directed to go.

Though the installation procedure checks for the presence of QuickTime, it appears to assume that everything is fine if the version of QuickTime present is 6.5 or higher. The first clue that things are not fine comes when Sophia, the guide in the tutorial for The Passage, opens her mouth and gives the impression of lip-syncing to an AM radio broadcast riddled with heavy static.

For those running Windows who have QuickTime 7.x installed, there is only one fix for the audio problem in The Passage and Wisdom Quest: drop back to QuickTime 6.5. Of course, dropping back to 6.5 means giving up, temporarily, all of Apple's iTunes goodies. It seems a transcendent irony that one's journey to serenity through technology begins with the installation of an older version of QuickTime.

Vista?

Anyone running 2000 or XP should have no trouble running both The Passage and Wisdom Quest. While The Passage will run on 98SE and ME, Wisdom Quest won't. As for Vista, well, that's not clear yet. Folks at the Wild Divine Project claim to have had success running both on Vista, but there have been hints of some problems. Proceed with caution.

Finally Underway ...

So what happens once you've installed The Passage's two disks full of data, made sure you're running QuickTime 6.5, hooked up the "LightStone" interface to your PC or Mac, plugged the three "Magic Ring" sensors into the "LightStone," put the "Magic Rings" on the index, middle, and ring fingers of your left hand (assuming you are going to be using your right hand to control the mouse), and clicked on the desktop icon to start your journey?

First, you'll have to register your copy of The Passage. It's a painless process that can either be done through the Wild Divine website or with a call to technical support. The registration process generates a number that links the serial number of your LightStone to the serial number of your software. Enter your activation code and you're golden. And put your CDs away. They are no longer needed (yay!) once The Passage is installed.

The Passage begins with a movie about creation and your place in it. Seems you're a gardener. When the movie ends, you'll be dropped off at the main menu. The main menu is worth a closer look.

Along with the usual New Game, Load Game, Save Game, Return to Game, About, and Quit buttons, there are also How to Play, System, and FAQ buttons. (There is no Options button because The Passage only plays at 800×600. The only audio control is the one on your speakers. Nor is there a your-name-here blank because The Passage doesn't keep track of who's playing. Finally, there is no difficulty adjustment. One either overcomes a challenge or one doesn't.)

The How to Play button takes the mystery out of the interface. Good thing, because the interface is, at first glance, pretty mysterious. The System button shows the player what the Magic Ring sensors are picking up in terms of heart rhythm and skin conductivity. The FAQ, which shows up in the Readme.txt in most games, allows players with questions to find answers without leaving the game. As for quitting the game, be advised that the game will allow you to quit without saving. There is no warning that you are about to lose all of your progress. Then again, progress is such a Western idea.

Still Alive? Just Checking

Before starting any session, it's a good idea to click on System to see if your skin conductivity and heart rhythm are being successfully monitored. The warmer and sweatier your fingertips, the better your chances. Or you could use an electrode gel, conductive paste, or just some hand lotion on your index and ring fingers to improve the connection. Keep your middle finger clean because the heart monitor is optical, not conductive.

The Sun Realm: New, Yet So Familiar

Once you're connected, click on New Game and get your first look at the Sun Realm. The Sun Realm, wherein both The Passage and Wisdom Quest transpire, is a lovingly realized imagining of a bright, verdant, nontechnological paradise. Lots of stairs and columns and arches and potted plants and misty valleys and quiet pools and hanging banners and soaring birds and fluffy clouds. It's a close cousin to the worlds Maxfield Parrish created in oils back in the 1920s and George Lucas subsequently recreated in pixels. Put another way, we've been here, or someplace a lot like it, before.

Moved by Stillness

Upon arrival, you'll get a tutorial from a kindly older woman named Sophia. The tutorial will give you your first opportunities to try out your biofeedback chops. You'll move a pinwheel, juggle three colored balls, levitate a sphere, and start a fire, all without lifting a finger. Once the Lady in the Woods has given you your Magic Bag, you're good to go. Helping guide you through the Sun Realm is Sophia's faithful dog, Flash, who has probably guided many a noob to enlightenment. Flash quickly manifests himself in his graphic swoosh form and maintains that form for the duration.

There are other sources of assistance throughout the game. A visit to the Temple of Awareness will earn you the advice of former Buddhist monk and famed Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog. Whenever you encounter a new challenge, he'll appear and, if you ask, fill you in on what you need to do. A visit to the Double Durga (they're dancers to the Mother Goddess Durga) earns you a pair of eyes that will offer a hint of where your energy needs to be to meet a challenge and an energy meter that will give you real time feedback on where your energy level is.

Special Events

Movement in the Sun Realm, like movement in Dog Day, involves triggering QuickTime movies that create the illusion of gently gliding from one point to another in a three-dimensional world. Once one stops, one may be offered choices of where to go next or a guide may appear with advice on how to approach a particular biofeedback event. (An "event" is how challenges are referred to in the Sun Realm.) The cursor takes the form of a golden wand, and when the wand begins giving off a soft purple haze (peace, Jimi!), clicking the cursor will activate an event. Upon completion of an event, it's time to jump back on the QuickTime express and see what shows up in the next movie.

While there are few areas in the Sun Realm that are closed at the beginning of the quest, there is an order in which some events need to be experienced. Remember, no matter how twee this place looks, there is a teaching machine lurking behind the sunny scenes that won't let you go places you are not trained to handle. It may take you to them, but it will not let you enter.

Round, Round, Get Around, I Get Around

Perhaps the biggest issue with The Passage is navigation. Simply getting from one event to the next can take a while. Make a wrong turn, and it can take quite a while. With all movement handled by QuickTime movies, an errant click can turn into a tour of areas you may have no interest in visiting. Nor does it help that the navigation is not consistent. Sometimes, clicking to the left or right will take you left or right. Sometimes, it will trigger a panning move. Other times, it will turn you completely around. Nor can one skip a transitional movie. Once it begins, there is no choice but to sit through the whole thing.

There is a map, but it's isometric and it's inert. No zip mode here. The best that players can do is find a landmark and then try to orienteer from that. There is a teleport mode, but it is limited to moving you back and forth between places you've already visited and bookmarked. And the teleport mode only works with two places at a time. Add a third and you give up one of your previous bookmarks.

The challenge of simply getting around is compounded by the fact that there is a sequence to some, though not all, events. Miss picking up your Magic Bag in the beginning and you'll soon find yourself stalled. Fail to solve the riddle of the Rainbow Rocks and you'll never meet the Lady of Compassion. And she's a very important lady. Click on some doors and you'll find yourself being transported to places you are not ready to visit; places where, once there, you'll be told you can go no further. Fortunately, you'll most likely be tossed back to the point just before you selected the Gate of Overeagerness or the Portal of Prematurity ... or whatever a door that gets you someplace too soon should be called.

What's That Sound?

Let me pose a rhetorical question.

When a game is released with a CD of music from a band that takes its name from the company responsible for the game and that features the company's founder as lead singer, how likely is it that the music on that CD is going to memorably shed new light and give new voice to humanity's longing for the divine?

The Passage answers that question by making sparing use of the Wild Divine Band, relying instead on a peculiar mixture of orchestra, wordless choirs, incidental guitar riffs, and techno ambient of the sort heard in the original 1996 version of Safecracker. The soundtrack of The Passage needs, as one of the guides might suggest, some controlled breathing to help it align its discordant rhythms and bring harmony out of its dissonance.

Playing Through the Passage

The big question, of course, and the only question that matters is: Once the software's set up properly and the Magic Ring sensors are working and you've managed to find your way to an event, how does it feel to play a game by manipulating your skin conductance level and heart rate?

Great. That's how it feels. Just great. Where it really counts, The Passage really delivers. The core experience of biofeedback-based gaming, as realized by the Wild Divine project, is wonderful. No other game I've ever played has required such an intense level of concentration and stillness and produced such a feeling of calm and satisfaction. It is tremendously illuminating to learn how controlling one's breathing can affect one's overall sense of being. And it's hugely gratifying to watch, and feel, one's energy level change in response to what one has been taught. And because The Passage and Wisdom Quest really are teaching machines disguised as adventures, what one has learned is very portable. It's easy to take the techniques into new situations and enjoy the benefits without the assistance of the Magic Rings and LightStone training wheels.

What About Wisdom Quest?

Wisdom Quest's packaging, because it contains nothing more than the PC and Mac installation disks, the User's Manual, and the Training Manual, is considerably less grand than that for its predecessor. It's just a box. After installing Wisdom Quest's four CDs for Windows, applying the patch (available here for Windows and here for Mac), and registering online, I was eager to see what had changed. Short answer: Just about everything.

If one views The Passage as proof of concept, then Wisdom Quest is the concept both refined and, perhaps inevitably, exploited.

The refinement is immediately obvious. Everything looks better, from the sharply chiseled Main Menu to the QuickTime VR nodes that allow one to take in the full beauty of the imagined surroundings. Wisdom Quest features images and sequences that are truly inspired. There is a flight in a magical boat through a snow storm that is exquisitely realized. And in keeping with a more polished look, everything sounds better, too, thanks to a more unified soundtrack.

Players can choose from five difficulty levels and select screen resolutions ranging from 800×600 all the way to 1150×768. If a QuickTime movie is losing your attention, click and, in most cases, it disappears. Nor is navigation as trying as it was in The Passage. It is now possible to navigate using the map. One can return to anyplace one has visited with a click. In addition to the return of the "Purple Haze" to alert players of events with endings, there is now the "Orange Mist" signaling events that are just for practice.

Also immediately obvious is the perhaps inevitable exploitation of the franchise. While it's good to see Nawang Khechog again, this time he is joined by two new wise guides, both sporting M.D.s and publishing ventures: omtrepreneur Deepak Chopra shows up as Rama and diet guru Dean Ornish weighs in as the Wisdom Keeper. Ornish, in his brown robes, looks like Harry Shearer doing Merlin in a road company production of Camelot. Whether you view them as pedagogues or peddlers depends on how much value you place on what they have to offer. Nor do the offers stop with the cameos of these wellness stars.

Wisdom Quest also features product placement of Chopra's New York Times bestseller, The Book of Secrets. An extended animation sequence centering on a rendered version of Secrets left me wondering if his books are imported into the Sun Realm or if a resident pixie had picked up the local publishing rights. Fortunately, as with the transition movies, a single click can make all of the advice and the ad go away.

After the Fall

Where The Passage was built around the idea of the individual player doing a Joseph Campbell-style hero(ine) journey, Wisdom Quest is built, in the mold of Jewels of the Oracle, around the idea of recovering seven jewels that were lost when an enchanted being of being—as opposed to a being of doing—augered herself into an enchanted sea. Recover the jewels and restore balance and harmony to the Sun Realm. Under New Game Options, you can choose whether or not you want to be joined in your mission by a green-winged pixie girl who'll pop up at the end of each event. Only in the world of computers can one select "pixie girl" as an option.

Harder than it Looks

The events of Wisdom Quest are frequently more complex than those in The Passage. It is no longer enough to raise or lower one's energy level to pass an event. One may have to raise and lower it repeatedly within an event, a fitting requirement for advanced training. There's a glass tubing maze wherein a player must alternate high energy with low to navigate a complex path that is designed with dead ends that demand additional shifts in energy to escape. And then there is the sacred serpent event. A massive cobra guards one of the seven jewels. The jewel itself sits within a cage. Calming oneself causes the cobra to withdraw into its basket. But to retrieve the jewel, one must use the mouse to lift the cage. Since any movement, any change of focus, can affect one's energy level, it's an impressive feat to sustain the calm necessary to keep the cobra in its basket while lifting the cage and taking the jewel. Think Thief with mandated yogic breathing. While it is possible to get through each of Wisdom Quest's events once and consider the challenges fulfilled, the variability of one's energy level provides ample replay opportunities and acknowledges the title's true identity as a teaching machine rather than as a diversion.

Tours Now Departing

For those who just want to jump in and test their self-control at a specific challenge, Wisdom Quest offers a Guided Mode that allows direct access to 20 of its events. The Passage also offers direct access, either through completing all of its events or by downloading the appropriate patch (here).

Orphans of the Store

As much as marketers like to be able to say "There's nothing else like it!" they know that uniqueness can also be a curse. The folks at Wild Divine have created a two-SKU market segment and watched while only a few other brave souls have coughed up the hefty fee for the SDK and developed titles that make use of the LightStone and Magic Ring hardware. While the uniqueness of the experience helps keep the price up, every day that passes renders the software just a bit more out of date. Assuming the Wild Diviners want to keep their investment alive, they might consider what it would take to offer, as did Got Game with Bad Mojo, Redux versions of The Passage and Wisdom Quest. Then again, the market for this type of product may already be saturated. It may be that pretty much everyone who was interested in taking The Journey to Wild Divine has already taken it.

Verdict

The reason The Passage and Wisdom Quest are being placed in the Closet of the Odd is that neither one of them is actually a game. They are, instead, multimedia experiments in biofeedback-based instruction (and shameless cross-marketing) masquerading as games. I'm giving the pair of them a Thumb Up because they demonstrate just how much potential biofeedback has as a game interface. Of course, until the Wild Divine Project releases the last installment of the trilogy or someone else comes up with an alternative system, the potential will remain just that.

Let's Go Shopping!

The Journey to Wild Divine: The Passage originally sold for $159.95. It still does. The Journey to Wild Divine: Wisdom Quest originally sold for $59.95. It still does. The bundle price of the two, from Wild Divine, is $199.95. Frugal shoppers can find both titles for less. I got both for 20% off retail. Had I looked longer, I could have gotten 20% off the bundle price. Of course, I didn't know at the time that I wanted both. Still, every penny saved is a penny toward the next game. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Wild Divine Project
Publisher: Wild Divine Project
Release Date: December 2003 (The Passage); September 2005 (Wisdom Quest)

Available for: Macintosh Windows

Four Fat Chicks Links

Player Feedback

Screenshots

The Passage

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

Wisdom Quest

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

System Requirements

The Passage
1.5 GB free disk space
256 MB free available system RAM
800×600, 24-bit color display
CD-ROM drive
QuickTime 6.3 or higher
PIII 800 MHz (PC); G3/G4/G5 500 MHz (Mac)
Windows 98SE,/ME/2000/XP (PC); OSX v10.2 or later (Mac)
16 MB video card (PC)

Wisdom Quest
2.4 GB free disk space
256 MB free available system RAM
800×600, 24-bit color display
CD-ROM or DVD drive
QuickTime 6.5
PIII 800 MHz (1.25 GHz recommended) (PC); G4 or higher (Mac)
Windows 2000/XP (PC); OSX v10.2.6 or later (Mac)
16 MB video card (PC)

Where to Find It

Wild Divine Project



Links provided for informational purposes only. FFC makes no warranty with regard to any transaction entered into by any party(ies).

 
   
Copyright © Electric Eye Productions. All rights reserved.
No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.