Network: The Starship Titanic? Its only mission is to make you think
Tuesday 18 November 1997
There are some writers who take pride in their technophobia, who pen their manuscripts in longhand and send them by post to their publisher. Douglas Adams is the opposite. The author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy cannot resist technology. Surrounds himself with the stuff. Why? Partly because he is in thrall to the magic of gadgetry and partly because when technology does not work it gives him great material for his work.
Which brings us to Starship Titanic, the project Adams is finishing at present. As befits the technology-obsessed author, this is not a book but a peculiarly literate computer game. And at its heart is a glittering piece of machinery which, well, does not work.
The Starship Titanic itself is touted as the most advanced cosmic craft ever built, not just technologically miraculous but luxurious beyond passengers' wildest dreams. Predictably, the Titanic crashes on its maiden voyage - right into the player's sitting-room. And that is where the game-play begins. The task is to get aboard, move up the passenger hierarchy from third class to first and unravel the conspiracy behind the disaster.
Player motivation is provided by "one of the most powerful forces known to man" - the desire for a free upgrade. Adams found inspiration for this key element of the game when he was asked to fly to Australia for a promotional event and agreed, provided he could go first class (not as avaricious as it sounds - Adams is 6ft 4ins tall and so does not exactly fit into an economy-class seat). He was sent standard tickets but was told an upgrade had been arranged. On arrival at the airport he found it had not. The attendant's response to his pleas was a withering "Oh yeah, and whose budget will that come out of?"
The Starship Titanic is filled with appalling characters like that. All except one (a parrot, in fact) are robots who display that familiar Adamsian mixture of bureaucratic incompetence and British rudeness. There is the dreaded liftbot who drones on about the war, the Maitre D bot who is charm itself until contradicted, and even a talking bomb who becomes furious when he loses count. Of course, the comedy invested in these characters only comes to light when the player interacts with them. And that is where the game comes into its own.
Starship Titanic dares to revive a text tradition which reigned before 3D graphics transformed the adventure genre in the Nineties. Adams is convinced nothing can beat text for real immersion in the action.
"There's a sense that, because of graphics, games have retreated into point-and-click and a sense of engagement has been lost. I wanted to rescue that through character. So we invented a language engine through which the bots can communicate with the player and each other."
Of course, Starship Titanic is still a great looking game. And besides the comedy there is a huge number of puzzles. Among the more novel is a music room in which various loops play backwards, in the wrong key or other confusion and have to be rearranged to form a coherent, harmonised tune.
The soundtrack for the game was provided by Wix, a musician friend Adams knew from school and lost touch with until he saw him playing in the band at a Paul McCartney concert. Other "name" collaborators in Starship Titanic are Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, and Philip Pope, an actor and musician who wrote the theme music for Have I Got News For You.
Despite his skill as a writer - and his contacts - Adams is ultimately responsible for all aspects of Starship Titanic. That is because the visual concept and the actual programming were done by his own new media company, The Digital Village, which employs 25 designers, technicians and writers.
Digital Village is close to Adams's heart. He has been an energetic flag- waver for "new media" since 1985, when he collaborated on Infocom's computer game version of Hitchhiker's Guide. The fact that it sold 350,000 copies must have made Adams grip the flag even more enthusiastically. But the idea of exploring new forms of communication is more compelling to the writer than the cash.
So it follows that Adams has little time for the doom-mongers who condemn new media for heralding the decline of the printed page. "Those who bemoan the death of print culture are the 20th century equivalents of those who feared its arrival all those centuries ago. Then, they believed the coming of print heralded the end of story-telling. Now, they think it's going to do the same thing."
Adams's belief is that the interaction involved in new media is returning people to ancient forms of entertainment. He suggests that before print all story- telling - on stage or round the camp fire - was interactive in the sense the audience shouted questions and suggestions to the story- teller.
"The only reason we need to call new media interactive at all is to differentiate it from print, which isn't!"
To add to the entertainment stew, Adams believes we are on the verge of a "post post-literate" era anyway - thanks to the Internet. "Just when people were beginning to accept that graphics and video could replace text along came the Web and e-mail and suddenly we're all typing again."
Starship Titanic, pounds 49.99, is available on PC CD-Rom from Zablac.
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