Picks and Pans Main: Video

updated 03/18/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/18/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Role playing via computer

"Every time I get to this spot," a man on a rush-hour bus in Manhattan was overheard to exclaim recently, "this guy sees I'm with this other guy, so he grabs me and throws me off a cliff. Problem is, I have to talk to him, but he keeps throwing me off the cliff and I die." The man looked healthy enough. Did he just have a vivid imagination? Was he recounting the plot of a new thriller? Was he the victim of some kind of psychosis?

The answers are yes, yes and yes. The passenger was engrossed in an increasingly popular genre of imaginative, addictive computer entertainment known as interactive fiction.

Embracing elements of fantasy, mystery and science fiction, these role-playing games offer armchair heroes the chance to engage in derring-do across the microchips. The computer operator becomes the main character in a story, wearing the helm of an adventurer, the deerstalker cap of a sleuth or the space helmet of an interplanetary traveler. As the player navigates the twists and turns of a bewildering plot, the itchy trigger finger that wins shoot-'em-up video games doesn't help. What a player needs is a cartographer's feel for direction, a puzzler's wits, lots of patience and occasionally even a slightly warped sense of humor.

Role-playing games don't have a lot of whiz-bang graphics. They consist primarily of prose text, which appears as if a scroll were unrolling across the monitor screen. The player communicates with the game by typing plain English into the keyboard. Typically, the computer gives a description of the character's immediate surroundings, then asks the player what to do next. If you're standing at a fork in a road, you may want to type "GO NORTHEAST" to take the right fork. If you're told you are in a room full of interesting objects, you may want to ask about them, and take any useful or valuable items with you. In some games you can chat with characters you meet, unless they're monsters out to feast on you. Curiosity is indispensable, but it can also doom you. Never mind: A benevolent god reigns over the interactive universe; if you die, you can always start the game over.

The premiere publisher of interactive fiction is Infocom, based in Cambridge, Mass. Founded by a group of MIT computer scientists in 1979, Infocom built its reputation on the success of its pioneering Zork game, a Dungeons and Dragons type adventure. In Zork ($39.95), you play the part of a freebooter questing through the Great Underground Empire, a labyrinthine dungeon concealing treasure, traps and trolls, among other surprises. Zork I and its sequels, Zork II and III, have ridden high on the software best-seller lists since they appeared.

In Enchanter ($39.95), the player is an apprentice sorcerer, dispatched to do battle with the Evil Warlock. Trying to find a path through the bad guy's dark stronghold, the player ferrets out hidden magic spells, writing them in a book for use at the right time. Getting to the final confrontation requires much trial and error, including, more likely than not, a few fatal mistakes. But since anything is possible with computer magic, the story need not end until triumph is achieved.

Although a few sessions with an Infocom game soon teach you some standard tricks (your sword glows when you're near danger in Zork, for instance), each game offers its own particular characteristics. As the lowly Ensign 7th Class aboard the doomed starship Feinstein in Planetfall ($39.95), the player harrowingly escapes the exploding vessel to land on a decaying planet with a lost high-tech civilization. You divine that your mission may be to save the planet. But to do that you'll need the assistance of Floyd, a small robot who's not easy to find. Meanwhile, you may get eaten by a grue. What's a grue? Wouldn't you like to know, but the game isn't telling until it's much too late.

With their already puzzling plots, murder mysteries also provide an ideal frame for interactive fiction. Instead of trying to second-guess Agatha Christie, however, the player gets to be the gumshoe. Infocom's first two forays into this territory, Deadline ($49.95) and The Witness ($39.95), were big hits, and the company just added Suspect to the series. Besides the floppy disks holding the programs, these games come with a collection of props—newspaper clippings, police files—to get you started. In Suspect, the player is a journalist who has received an invitation to the annual Halloween party thrown by Veronica Ashcroft at her rambling Maryland estate. You mingle with the guests, asking indiscreet questions. ("Michael, tell me about Mr. Ostmann," you ask. "Ostmann would love to buy the farm but we turned him down," the game answers.) Then one of the other guests is found murdered—and you're the prime suspect. Working against time, the player has to gather clues to prove the identity of the real murderer. Meanwhile, the other characters seem to have wills of their own, and may try to foil the investigation.

The programming behind Infocom products has become steadily more sophisticated, lending a bemusing quality to the game's responses. They can surprise frustrated players with hilarious retorts to expletives typed into the keyboard. (In Planetfall, if you tell the computer "Go to Hell," it replies, "Such language from an enzyme in the stellar patrol!") The "parsers," as the parts of the program that interpret the player's typed-in commands are known, nevertheless have their limits. Their vocabularies, though surprisingly large, aren't boundless, and they rely on a simple declaratory syntax. In other words, the games won't understand everything you try to tell them. If you're a neophyte, you may not understand everything the games try to tell you, either. (Infocom publishes a series of pamphlets full of hints for those who get stuck.)

Whether interactive fiction will one day achieve literary subculture status remains to be seen. The programs' prose has a utilitarian quality, though Infocom recently enlisted British author Douglas Adams to convert his sci-fi spoof, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ($39.95), into interactive form.

In any case, there's a refreshing side to interactive fiction: It lets you use your imagination, instead of your reflexes, and stimulates you to build pictures in your mind, instead of leaving them in flat dimensions on the screen. (Infocom programs are available for most home computers.)

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