Is it art, or a complex refrigerator light?

HAS a new literary art form been born? Designers and some players of ``interactive fiction'' computer games speak expansively of the medium as a gateway to the much-predicted electronic novel.

These games put players into plots and situations and puzzles -- sometimes adorned with graphics, but frequently all text -- and let them find their way around by means of typed commands. The latest generation of games uses the expanded memory power of many home computers to develop elaborate plot lines and extremely complicated worlds for players to rattle around in.

In ``A Mind Forever Voyaging,'' from the industry leader, Infocom, players find themselves in the heart of a city. Intersecting streets are lined with dozens of businesses, a park, an aquarium, churches, a city hall, slums, luxury apartments, and a shopping mall.

Players can prowl the city's streets, eat in a restaurant, read a newspaper, go to a movie, get the opinions of a city official and a church elder, ride a subway. Almost everywhere they see signs of prosperity and civic well-being. They go home at night, greet the spouse, chuck the baby under the chin, and go to bed.

As the game proceeds, players ``return'' at 10-year intervals. Things change. The society goes gray around the edges; a right-wing political-religious establishment acquires disturbing power. Unless the player can manipulate situations successfully, things unravel for everyone.

Games like ``A Mind Forever Voyaging'' represent an effort to expand the appeal of these games beyond the enthusiasts who enjoy unraveling riddles and mazes that are really elaborately conceived programming puzzles. It is an attempt to upgrade the games from those designed for standard 64K memory machines to the 128K capacity which is much more prevalent today.

This trend points to the new frontiers that designers talk about -- frontiers like compact disk players, which can be connected to microprocessors and made to accommodate games with vastly more memory space.

Even powerful home machines already on the market, like Commodore's Amiga, have designers thinking about the capacity to add new dimensions of plot and character. ``I would like to do a [huge] game one day,'' muses Ann Watson, who designed Stephen King's ``The Mist'' for Mindscape. ``An epic. Something you have to spend a year thinking about . . . with a great big vocabulary.''

In the games now on the market, though, it's hard to find substantiation for the claim that the improved games are inching toward becoming a true literary art form. But enthusiasts contend that interactive fiction offers something better than novels. ``Clearly, this is much more exciting than reading fiction,'' comments John Edwards, technical editor of Byte magazine, ``because you really are a part of it.''

That contention is challenged by many observers who claim the games are really no more interactive than a refrigerator light, which turns on when you open the door. ``It's just a matter of little buttons inside the program,'' says Chris Crawford, who designs computer games that compete with interactive fiction, including the well-received ``Balance of Power.''

Agreement on this last point comes from an odd quarter: author-filmmaker Michael Crichton (``The Andromeda Strain,'' ``Congo,'' ``Terminal Man''), whose own interactive-fiction computer game, ``Amazon,'' is proving popular.

It took Mr. Crichton and a programmer 18 months to design ``Amazon,'' which incorporates animation, embedded arcade-style games, and standard problem-solving mysteries. He says he came out of the experience frustrated with the limitations of today's machines and with the computer game genre in general.

``To really have a multifaceted character . . . on a disk is just not possible now,'' he told the Monitor, adding that in spite of ``a lot of loose talk,'' true interactive fiction has not arrived. And he seriously doubts that it will: ``I would not like to say that it will never happen . . . but my experience leads me to think that it may well be quite a bit more difficult . . . and theoretically unattainable.''

This problem doesn't seem to bother most game designers. They see the field as an alternative to board games, not a new frontier for novels. As one designer puts it: ``We are creating mass-market entertainment here, not `Moby Dick.' ''

Technology back in 1977 and seeing the game ``Adventure'' come over ARPANET, the computer network connecting universities doing research for the Defense Department. ``No work got done at all for weeks at MIT, when it first came out,'' recalls Mr. Lebling, who was then doing programming chores at the university. In the halls and cafeterias, he says, conversation gravitated around questions like ``How do you get past the green snake?'' -- a puzzle in ``Adventure.''

Lebling and five other MIT researcher-programmers went on to design a much more complex game called ``Zork'' on the university's mainframe computer, a game that helped give birth to a small industry whose products put computer owners into the middle of a plot or a dungeon or a fantasy kingdom and challenge them to find their way out.

Lebling is Infocom's most prolific game writer. Wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a slightly bemused expression, he says he got into his trade as ``a way of dissipating energy.'' Now he has six games to his credit, each of them taking six months to a year to write and design. Among these games are Infocom's most popular -- ``Zork I'' and ``Zork II,'' ``Enchanter,'' and ``Spellbreaker.''

Across the hall from Lebling sits Steve Moratsky, the tall, shy designer of Infocom's humor games, noted for their bizarre characters who speak in cryptic riddles, as well as its most ambitious and serious game to date, ``A Mind Forever Voyaging,'' which took upward of a year to plot out.

Like most Infocom games, this one is built on a programming scheme resembling a giant tree with hundreds of branches. The task of the designer is to lay out this network of paths and build a scenario that beckons players to follow it. Players either have to think like the Steve Moratskys of this world or be willing to learn to think that way.

``Anything we do,'' Mr. Moratsky says, ``requires a certain amount of time investment [from a player]. It really takes the willpower to spend a few hours at it, if you are going to get any further than the last time.''

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