Matching wits with `electronic novels'

THE games people play. Gail Comer sits in her Westchester, N.Y., home, in front of a Commodore 64 computer. The text on the screen tells her she is in the Magic Room, but she keeps finding herself back in the Meadow, and the computer says the cube in her hand keeps turning to paste.

Four or five nights a week, Dr. Comer chucks the pressures of practicing medicine at Harlem Hospital and teaching at Columbia University and attempts to unravel the complexities of ``interactive fiction'' computer games.

Sometimes accompanied by illustrations and a little animation, interactive fiction games are a far cry from arcade-style shoot-'em-ups. Some of them pit players (in the role of Perry Mason) against witnesses on the stand and require them to marshal facts and arguments to sway the jury. Others send players scurrying through Ray Bradbury's imagined future world of book-burning ``firemen.'' They invite you to explore the vast space station originally conceived by Arthur C. Clarke. The great-granddaddy of interactive fiction, Zork, plunges players into an underground world of tunnels, waterfalls, and trolls.

The name ``interactive fiction'' has been disputed by some critics, who see these games as nothing more than modular programs; but that hasn't stopped an army of enthusiasts from swelling the ranks of interactive-fiction manufacturers by demonstrating a deep and lasting interest in the genre.

The games, also called ``text adventures'' or ``electronic novels,'' allow players to put themselves in the role of a central figure in a story. Graphics are becoming more prevalent, but the main attraction is situational: either finding your way through a scheme of tunnels and mazes or taking charge of a story and making things happen yourself.

Miss Comer has played almost every game in the long line of products from the leading producer, Infocom. Her current challenge, ``Spellbreaker,'' is a pastiche of magic spells and practically unfathomable riddles. Her other favorites are a ``hard science'' puzzler called ``Starcross'' and ``The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,'' a daffy computer sendup of Douglas Adams's sci-fi novel.

Today, Comer and the estimated million-plus players of interactive fiction have more than 50 titles to choose from -- some are based on the works of such well-known authors as Ray Bradbury (``Fahrenheit 451''), Stephen King (``The Mist''), and Arthur C. Clarke (``Rendezvous with Rama'').

``Until 1984, there were only three major companies making these games,'' observes Shay Adams, publisher of ``Questbusters,'' a monthly newsletter aimed at interactive-fiction buffs. ``In the past year, big players have jumped in.''

The interactive-fiction genre has swelled to about 30 percent of the recreational software business, according to Ken Wash of the Software Publishers Association. He estimates that 20 or 30 new titles have been introduced in the past year. Despite disappointing sales for many new games, new titles continue to appear, retailing for between $30 and $50.

These complex and highly evolved games attract a subculture of players ranging from teen-age computer buffs to adult professionals like Gail Comer. One elementary school in Erving, Mass., uses the games in fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, because they require reading for comprehension, the use of logic, and close attention to detail. For the most part, however, players tend to be older, well educated, and well off (about a third of Infocom's customers are teens, and more than half are between the ages of 24 and 45). The common denominator among them is that they are willing to spend hours and hours peering into a computer screen for recreation.

But what they see in the screen is far more intellectually challenging than the arcade games that Atari flooded the market with in the early 1980s.

In ``Fahrenheit 451,'' put out by Spinnaker, players assume the role of Bradbury's hero, Guy Montag, and wander along Fifth Avenue in New York City (see accompanying story). By typing in such commands as ``South'' or ``North,'' they explore a 17-block stretch on both sides of the street, including a magazine store, the Plaza Hotel, a hospital, subways, and numerous businesses. They encounter members of an underground dedicated to overthrowing a government that has outlawed books. Direct quotations from such works as Lewis Carroll's ``The Jabberwocky'' and Alexander Pope's ``Essay on Man'' must be used to get clues from these rebels so as to crack the code of the game. The object is to rescue Montag's true love and broadcast the content of thousands of books around the world.

``You are reacting to my . . . love of reading and libraries'' when you play this game, Mr. Bradbury told the Monitor.

One of the drawbacks for players, however, is the frequently frustrating task of getting a computer to respond to English-language commands. To veteran players like Comer, this process is part of the fun of beating the game. They don't mind the fact that computer games are, in the words of one game designer, ``just big, hairy computer programs.'' But manufacturers have been working toward designing games that come closer to resembling simple English-language narratives.

The heart of the problem lies in designing a better ``parser.'' The parser is a software mechanism that sorts the words a player types into verbs and objects, then triggers a response from the program. Parsers in personal-computer games are primitive by mainframe-computer standards. But, using more advanced parsers, manufacturers have been able to add plot and characters to games that require full-sentence commands.

Companies like Bantam Books and Penguin Software boast parsers that recognize as many as 2,000 words. Such games as Bantam's ``Sherlock Holmes in `Another Bow,' '' may still challenge the average player to come up with machine-readable commands, but they are far ahead of the two-word parsers that ran the first games.

Still, game designers -- and many players -- are frustrated by the limited technology at their disposal; and both have their eyes on future technologies and inspired programmer-writers, as a road into more-versatile games.

Next: Can the games live up to their promise? Journey through Ray Bradbury's futuristic New York City Starting from a clearing in a park and leading to encounters with strange characters who demand obscure literary quotes, the interactive fiction game ``Fahrenheit 451'' tells you your situation. Then you tell it what you want to do (for instance, EXAMINE LEAVES in the top photo).

This dialogue between you and the computer leads you even further along Fifth Avenue, into subways, past hotels. Not all games have graphics or come from real novels. But each one puts players in the central role of a fictional world.

You're standing at the edge of a rope bridge swaying over a canyon, and your trusty parrot sidekick refuses to cross with you. No matter what you try, there's just no way to go forward. Not to worry. Just call Abby. She'll tell you to take out your gun and show it to Paco the parrot -- and then he'll gladly come along.

Somewhere between 130 and 250 people a week pick up the telephone and dial Abby Toplitsky with just this kind of question. That's an average of almost 40 people a day seeking help to escape a baffling trap in one of Spinnaker Software's Tellarium line of interactive fiction games for personal computer users.

The suspension bridge in author-filmmaker Michael Crichton's ``Amazon'' happens to be the most called-about problem. But there are many more. In the same game, for instance, how does one find the key to the gold lock? (Hint: It's in the smelly room, but you have to look for it.) How do you get the Fireman's ID in ``Fahrenheit 451''? How do you open the glass case to get the tarot cards in ``Nine Princes in Amber''?

``Most people say they feel so stupid calling the company and asking questions like this,'' Ms. Toplitsky says. ``Most of them are adults, after all.''

Abby has played almost all the games she answers questions about. For the others, she has sheets of possible questions and answers. But the more recent generation of interactive games have so many possible scenarios that she has to reason her way through to a solution.

She is supposed to have a staff working with her, but turnover in the game-answering line is high; an office temporary helps Toplitsky answer phones and calls out the tough questions to her. When Abby is stumped, she refers to the notebooks of step-by-step solutions she developed when playing the games. But most of the time that isn't necessary.

``It's all stored in my memory,'' she says.

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