Now and then you see a film or hear a record that is so fresh that you want to go back to it. This CD-Rom is like that.
It's about the great buffalo-hunting American Indian tribes and the schooldays of Thomas Blue Eagle, the son of a chief. You enter the family teepee and explore. There's a book that tells the boy's story, there are things to draw with and photographs and newspapers to see. Wherever you go, you're immersed in atmosphere and a freshness which is rare in this medium. This CD-Rom has heap big style.
When you click on the ledger-book - the boy's schoolbook - six tales unfold with pages illustrated in naive, childish drawings. Music and sounds play as you watch stories. In one, enemy braves attack the boy's tribe and take lives as well as a medicine pouch. In another, Blue Eagle is stabbed trying to get the pouch back and smokes a peace pipe with his former enemy. In yet another, the boy is separated from his family and flown home by the eagles. The magic of these stories comes over well: the pictures animate in a charming, simple way that is spot on.
You can join the boy's father when he visits the US government school, where Blue Eagle is renamed Thomas and learns the white man's ways. Clicking on the gym activates a slide-show that explains the games - such as baseball and lacrosse - they played; click on the school house and you hear that the Indians were taught everything but their own language.
The father's unhappiness with this socialisation is evident and understandable: the children have their long hair cut and are made to parade and wear a uniform. The father's feelings about his son's education are obviously worth discussion.
A bag - the parfleche bag - holds some unusual story-making tools. Here you can assemble your story by choosing from the sentences on the screen. No reading skill is needed: Thomas speaks the words you choose and then illustrates them on the screen. You then choose more sentences until finally you can colour in the pictures. There is nothing as crass as a paint program - you get native colours and brushes. If your pen dwells on the parchment the ink darkens on the spot. It's just a passing point, but it's neat and sweet.
Nearby is the Hide Painter, another painting tool, but this time you paint with picture elements - buffalo, horses and people. There are lots of these to assemble, move around, and shrink or enlarge on the screen. There are burning houses and war-dancing braves - click on them and they come to life, complete with sounds. It's another spooky feature. So too is the Winter Count ceremonial robe, whose symbols tell the tribe's history alongside newspaper headlines of the time.
Finding all this is not easy without the accompanying booklet. Children will be happy to experiment and find their way through - they'll discover that a feather means "exit", fire means "help" and sun means "clear the page". But there are limits to intuition - so without the book, they'll miss important "double-click" and "press shift and click" tricks that animate the characters.
And just as those young braves got a culture shock at school, you'll find yourself thrown into a strange culture with an unfamiliar vocabulary that contains words and phrases such as packhorse stone, parfleche bag, and ledgerbook. It's clever, I guess, but too clever to be helpful.
That aside, even the youngest can handle this title, as it is very visual. The booklet lists appropriate ideas - like using this as a way to learn about indigenous peoples, or how their history was recorded. There's also classroom mileage for art, language and a discussion of the blur between fact and fantasy.
As usual, you will have to do the work here. What you will not have to do is get an expert to install this on a Windows 95 computer: it is an auto-play CD-Rom that kicks itself into action. For once, a small promise that computers will one day stop talking with forked tongue.