by Carl Steadman <email@example.com>
Tetra Press's The Aquarium Atlas claims that ten to twenty percent of aquarists leave the hobby each year. Obviously, the chore of keeping a healthy aquarium - daily feedings, monthly cleanings, and regular monitoring of water quality - is beyond a large percentage of those who would like to keep tropical fish. For these people, El-Fish from Maxis may be worth a look. El-Fish is an aquarium simulation with stunningly beautiful animation and a robust set of tools for the design and building of fish and tanks. El-Fish combines ease-of-use with an advanced, specialized, 3-D modeler and renderer.
Electronic Fish -- El-Fish has three methods for generating new fish varieties: catching, evolving, and breeding. To catch fish, you drop a graphic representation of a hook onto a map. To evolve fish, you select a fish to evolve, and adjust the degree of variation of shape and color for succeeding generations. You do the same for the breeding of fish, except that you then select two ancestors, rather than one. The operations are fairly straightforward, if somewhat time-consuming: a catch takes about five seconds on my Quadra 700 to over five minutes on a Color Classic. All the options are made available through a single, consistent interface, with adequate, if terse, on-line help.
After generating the "genetics" of your fish, it's necessary to render the fish in up to 256 frames, for the realistic-looking animation. This is where the magic occurs, but it's also the time when you want a fast machine - the animation process is highly processor intensive. On my Quadra 700, generating the animation frames for a medium-size fish is a bearable 14 minutes; a Color Classic can take more than six hours.
Designing Your Aquarium -- After generating your fish, you place them in an electronic tank of your own creation. Here El-Fish gives you many of the plants, rocks, coral, and accessories you'd expect to find at your local pet shop. Objects can be placed along x, y, and z axes, so your fish can swim both behind and in front of objects, completing the illusion. Some objects are animated, such as the treasure chest toy, which opens and closes, and, of course, the cat's paw which swoops down into the tank. You can also import PICT files.
The tank can be bounded by a standard Macintosh window, or an oval or rectangular frame; however, in all tank shapes, the fish can swim off the edges of the aquarium, which I find conceptually confusing, since, in my all-glass aquarium, the fish can't do likewise. Each tank can also have a style of computer-generated music associated with it, although the music is on the cheesy side, which abruptly contrasts with the beauty of the animation. Unfortunately, El-Fish lacks a low burbling sound, or even the bubbling sound of After Dark's Fish module, which might have added to the realism of the simulation.
The Maxis Ideology -- Although a Maxis product (El-Fish was created by Animatek), El-Fish isn't a member of Maxis's Sim-series, and the software fails to conform to the ideological assumptions I've seen in other Sim-series products. Because of its limited scope (simulating an aquarium, rather than a city or planet), the narrative space for inserting the Maxis world-view within El-Fish is limited. The Maxis ideology, that societies are teleological in nature, and, as such, can be managed technocratically, whatever the ends to be achieved (whether that be, for example, the conquest of another society [insect or human], or the Arthur C. Clarkian vision of the abandonment of this planet for another) isn't entirely absent. Barred from a software context which lends itself to such narrative ends, Maxis instead places its world-view within the pages of the El-Fish manual.
The El-Fish manual's preface, "A Fish History of Life," says that after fish evolve from complex molecules, they chose to no longer face the mortality of earthly existence, and, as a result, set into process the evolution of subsequent life forms, until humans are created and eventually succeed in fashioning a virtual environment for fish, absent of death. This basic Maxis tenet - that all problems or desires can find a technological solution - is superfluous in the non-interactive modeling environment of El-Fish, and fits awkwardly with the contemplative simplicity of the rest of the package.
Simulating a Simulation -- For many, real aquariums are themselves simulations of other environments. I have a freshwater community tank which only includes elements from a particular geographic location, while others may attempt to simulate a particular biotope. Unfortunately, although El-Fish contains a number of plant types, plants aren't named, and there's no provision for a naming system. And although El-Fish allows the writing of fish data to an ASCII-format "Roe" file, it's disappointing there's no documented Roe description language - that is, a method to design fish to better simulate actual species.
El-Fish rates low on playability, although a real aquarium would compare even less favorably. Since it's likely you'll quickly set up a tank that you're happy with - in part because El-Fish makes it easy to do so - after a short time, you'll probably only want to launch the program to view your creation. Unlike a screen saver, however, this isn't an automatic process. Unfortunately, the 3.5 MB minimum memory partition and the 8 MB recommended partition makes this impractical on most systems. It's easy to imagine El-Fish sitting unused on your hard drive after a while and eventually being deleted for the 10 MB or so of space.
Compared to a real aquarium, which can easily run over a $100 for a basic setup, it's possible that El-Fish, at a $59.95 suggested retail (and selling for about half that), might be a bargain, but when you consider the memory requirements, and the always-on availability of a real aquarium (although I have my electronic aquarium in a window next to my word processing document, the animation for my electronic fish isn't smooth running in the background), the price difference becomes more difficult to quantify. And although there's a certain novelty in having an aquarium on your Macintosh, you might also want to consider Andy Ihnatko's Macquarium, which converts a Macintosh with a Classic form factor into a two-gallon aquarium for under $30, not including the Mac shell (Andy's instructions are a great read, if nothing else).
On the other hand, an electronic aquarium never needs to be cleaned, and electronic fish never go belly up. But along with the reduction of responsibility comes the loss of stewardship, which, in my mind, is a large part of being an aquarist. In addition, the tasks of stewardship take you away from the computer for at least a few minutes each day, which is never a bad thing and is part of what having a hobby is all about.
Maxis -- 800/336-2947 -- 510/254-8700 -- 510/253-3736 (fax)