The Austin Chronicle

The Wild, Wired West

CD-ROMs Make Virtual History

November 10, 1995, Screens

by Jesse Sublett

Not since the inven- tion of barbed wire has technology flashed across the American frontier with such terrible brilliance. This time, the technology is CD-ROM, and the frontier is more of an imagined place than a real one. So much the better: Instead of fencing in our imagination, a virtual manifest destiny has the potential of turning our computer monitors into stagecoach windows on the past. The frontier has emerged on a new frontier, and although the paradigm has shifted, the sun still sets in the West. And that's enough sagebrush-meets-silicon metaphors to start off this western multimedia round-up. Try booting up these:

Produced by Dallas-based Archimedia, The Alamo: Victory or Death (Windows & Mac, $59.95) is a two-disc edutainment program that takes its title from Commander William Barrett Travis' February 24, 1836 letter calling for "the people of Texas and all Americans in the World" to come to the aid of the besieged mission of San Antonio, where a rag-tag band of less than 200 men made their ill-fated last stand against Santa Anna's army. For the baby-boomer with a Davy Crockett coonskin cap or lunch box in his past, this game will strike a deep chord. But don't expect the electronic equivalent of defending a sandhill Alamo or Doom with muzzle-loaders. This is history, not a game, and how you remember this Alamo depends largely on what you expected to get out of it.

The Alamo is easy to navigate and its content is fascinating and well-written. The interface does a serviceable job of bringing to life battle logistics, the mood of the time, Texas' multicultural foundation, and a lot of things they didn't tell you about in school. The presentation of The Alamo: Victory or Death reveals one of the great advantages of CD-ROM. Traditional books, movies, or documentaries inevitably rely upon a tried-and-true storytelling model, in which the viewer or reader is expected to identify with one particular character or set of characters. Freed from the constraints of those formats, the interface for The Alamo continually asks you to browse through the opposite point of view. You can hear the Texan side of the story or the Mexican side. And it's not just battles and powerful longhaired men -- it's the missions, the Tejanos, the clothes people wore, the music they listened to. Voice actors include Dan Rather, Sissy Spacek, and Linda Gray. Some are better than others. The neatest thing about The Alamo is the 3-D virtual tour of the compound. For once I actually grasped the feeling of futility a small army might feel trying to defend such a large and rambling fortress. That said, I must say that aspect is really the only thing about this CD-ROM that exceeded or even met my expectations. Sound effects and music are sparse. The graphics are okay but not exactly dazzling. If only the Tejanos could have postponed the revolution until photography had been perfected! The narration could also use more humor, more of an edge, more personality.

But if only because there's nothing else out there quite like it, The Alamo: Victory or Death is going to be a cornerstone of any multimedia Texana collection -- at least until something better comes along.

The CD-ROM version of Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography by Dan L. Thrapp (Windows, University of Nebraska Press, $150) is a godsend to anyone who writes about American frontier history, and a nifty present for any cyber cowboy. I've worn out the text version of this four-volume classic, published, like the CD-ROM, by the University of Nebraska Press. The worst thing that can be said is that it's only available for PC platforms, and the next worst thing is that the interface is somewhat old-fashioned. But the damn thing does the job it's supposed to do: get you to the information you ask for. Dan Thrapp, who died last year, was a fine historian who had good taste in choosing his sources and subjects and displayed some humor and wit in his treatment of them.

This is what I call a biscuit: 5,600 articles on important frontier figures, with 270 photos. The alpha list starts with "Aaron, Sam, Arizona pioneer" and ends with "Zutacapan, Acoma Pueblo chief." Try the chronological order of "Special Listings," starting with "Liotot, the surgeon and assassin (d. 1687)." A member of La Salle's expedition, Liotot performed the first leg amputation recorded in Texas. The patient died, however, and Liotot later murdered La Salle's nephew and at least three others.

You can also search by term or phrase, with Boolean terms. "Gunfighter," which produces 95 matches; "cowboy," for 245 matches; or "scalphunters," for 5 matches. Of course it's not all blood, bullets, and horses. Under the category of "Writers, Editors, Publishers, Historians, etc.," there are 355 listings; under "Military Figures," 1,005; and "Jesuit Missionaries and Priests," 105. If you need more than that, go to the library and pump the parking meter full of quarters because you're gonna be there a long, long time.

There are a lot of other western biographies, histories, and reference books I'd like to see on CD-ROM. It would be great to have all Charlie Siringo's books, J. Marvin Hunter's The Trail Drivers of Texas, all the great works by Walter Prescott Webb, J. Frank Dobie, Howard L. Lamar, Tom Lea, and Bill Goetzmann. That's just for starters. I could easily list 100. One book, however, that has no place on such a list is The Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen and Outlaws by Jay Robert Nash (Windows & Mac, ZCI Publishing $14.95). But here it is, and the only people who would buy this stinker are nuts like me and people who don't know any better. I know, it sounds promising: over 600 profiles on western lawmen and outlaws (counting, I presume, those who were both) with hypertext links, over 800 photos (many of which won't load from my disc), a glossary, and a "continuous multimedia overture."

No work this corny and unreliable should be called an "encyclopedia." It could still be fun if Nash's writing (he also narrates some of the text) were not so stilted and humorless. Some of the errors are simple mistakes regarding dates, names, and places; some are common misconceptions cobbled from unreliable source material, which betrays the author's sloppy research; others seem to be original. To top it all off, the interface is clunky and not pleasing to the eye. If you've gotta have it, don't pay more than 10 bucks for it. I paid $14.

Maybe games are more your cup of sarsaparilla tea. If you're looking for virtual shoot-'em-ups like Doom but set in the West -- say, a version of The Wild Bunch without the slow parts -- you might have to wait awhile. But if you enjoy the western milieu and have the patience, you'll eventually get to pin on a badge and slap leather against a killer and cheater named "The Kid" in a virtual western adventure called Dust: A Tale of the Wired West (Windows & Mac, Cyberflix, $49.95). This CD-ROM has a lot of things going for it: neat graphics, a good story line, cool sound effects, and music. The 3-D animated prologue and title sequence are really cool -- fading in during a poker game between your character, The Stranger, and The Kid. The game turns sour, guns are drawn, you hightail it, and end up walking through the digital desert to the scruffy and weird little town of Diamondback. You must navigate through the town (in first-person, subjective point of view), picking up objects you'll need for barter; talking to strangers (who appear in digital video); and getting clues about where to sleep, how to raise a stake for a hotel room, and where to find a gun. You play poker, blackjack, and a slot machine (in a saloon called "The Hard Drive") to raise money, and I have to admit I've never worked so hard to make 11 bucks in either my virtual life or otherwise. Dust is a cool game and it's worth checking out. Of course, if a virtual version of The Wild Bunch or Blood Meridian comes out, Dust may well get left in the dust.

If you've got kids in the household who have a hankering to learn about what it was like to cross the Great Plains in a covered wagon instead of a Ford Explorer, Oregon Trail II (Windows & Mac, MECC, $59.95) may be just the ticket. This is definitely an edutainment title, and the amount of "tainment" you experience will probably vary from person to person, depending on how you like to spend your time in front of a monitor. As in Dust, you navigate through the game talking to people in 3-D-rendered towns, buying and trading for the supplies you'll need before you head out on the trail. There are no big mysteries to solve, but you do have to do some careful planning, bartering, and outfitting or you'll never make it -- kinda like things really were back then. I have to confess I've never made it onto the trail, because I always end up spending all my money on whiskey and guns. Then when I click on the sign leading out of town, I'm told that I still haven't bought the animals to pull my wagon!

Oregon Trail II also comes with a video documentary about westward migration in the 19th century that's pretty good and fairly accurate. You can have different experiences when you play the game by selecting the town to jump off at, the year of your journey (between 1840 and 1860), your skill level, and your identity and background. You can refer to a handy trail guide with good historical and geographic information and record your thoughts in a diary. Just imagine if the pioneers had had laptops.

I have to admit that when the TV documentary called The Wild West aired a couple of years ago, I had a lot of quibbles with it, mostly over content and style. But the CD-ROM version of the show (Windows, Jasmine Multimedia, $45.95), proved to be a pleasant surprise. The digitized version looks and sounds just great, and the interface presents a number of multimedia options within each episode, including period music (including lyric sheets), maps, the narrative script (with an accompanying bibliography for each section viewed), a timeline, and a game (hangman, of course) to test your knowledge. I enjoyed browsing the Cowboys episode and clicking over to the piano man to hear six classic cowboy ballads, including "The Chisholm Trail" and "Streets of Laredo." You can also skip through each episode by clicking through the index. While the TV version of The Wild West was no groundbreaker, and one could still gripe about what's included in this "history," this CD shows just how adaptable some material is to this format. I also hope it's an indication that more products like it will be coming down the trail in the future.

The frontier -- wherever and whatever that is -- has always been the place where humans go to test their mettle against the elements, to experience the unknown, to rise above the mundane. Forget Manifest Destiny, we do these things not because they must be done, but for the hell of it. That's part of the appeal of these new multimedia gizmos. The reference titles certainly make my work as a writer much easier and more fun. But what I really like is the unknown factor, the notion that this is a new medium and no one knows just where it's going. I like to hear the whisper of a restless wind, the howl of a coyote, and the jingle-jangle of silver spurs coming out of my Mac. It just seems right. n

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