The pope of Discworld

Million-selling comic author, Terry Pratchett, declined to move his fantasy world to celluloid. Instead he's gone interactive. Rupert Goodwins met him
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The Independent Culture
terry pratchett, creator of universes, carnivorous plant cultivator and regular resident in the stratospheric end of the bestseller lists, is late. He who has made Death ride a horse called Binky is as much at the mercy of London traffic as any other mortal.

We're here to talk about Discworld, the new computer game based on the fantasy world of the same name. That world has spawned 17 books and a following of millions; science-fiction bookshops have models of Pratchett characters alongside those of the Starship Enterprise, there are plays and musicals and even a rock concept album celebrating his wizards, witches and librarians. That world is Pratchett's; this one is less firmly governed and has finally disgorged him into the hotel room accompanied by an electric crackle from his mobile telephone.

"Curmudgeon mode off," he declares as he sets down the still-smouldering cellphone and smiles impishly. We get to the Discworld game eventually, but via discussions of the fantasy/SF genre and its fans. With its strong tradition of author-supported conventions and fanzines there's always been more symbiosis between writer and reader here than in most other literary areas. Pratchett takes it a step further: not only does he write two or more books a year and tour more often than any rock group, he soaks up spare time cruising the Internet and talking electronically to people on alt.fan.pratchett. This global discussion area can generate hundreds of messages a day, and he admits it can easily turn into "an event horizon that absorbs all my spare time".

How does he cope with the awestruck netheads? "I get some e-mail just saying, `Are you really Terry Pratchett?'; I used to reply sensibly but now I tend to wind them up. `God no, I'm fed up with being mixed up with him. The man can't even write."

"And the net is growing up. It has to - at the moment, it's as if everyone's got a nuke in their back yard. You can spam [flood with unwanted messages] the whole net from your bedroom. All that side of things has to be sorted out - it's like a relationship. We've had the falling in love bit, now we need to make the marriage work."

On the similarly hot topics of interactive multimedia and the predicted death of the book, Pratchett is quite sure. "There's not much hope for interactive novels, because you can't keep the narrative thread if the reader has to keep making decisions. Also, people treat computers differently: there's still an implied infallibility in words on a computer screen. You need a sense of irony for computers, especially for the Internet. It's not for nothing that new markets for Discworld, like America at the moment, have computer people as the first fans. You need an underlying sense of the ridiculousness of reality for both."

Perhaps there was a little too much of that in the original design for the Discworld game. Pratchett's role in its gestation was that of "Official bastard. Shouting at people. Papal infallibility. I provided some ideas, but also said whether theirs were consistent with the Discworld. The designers were fans, but I had to curb their enthusiasm. I also had them remove all the sheep jokes - you know what Australians are like."

Sheep jokes?

"Well... try explaining to a group of American evangelists about sheep."

Regular readers will recognise characters in the game from all over the Discworld series although the plot, like many of the gags, is new. There's as much text in the game as in half a novel, and if a picture's worth a thousand words the total would probably keep the series afloat until the turn of the century. There are a lot of beautifully produced graphics, making it a pleasure to wander through the magically mean streets of Ankh-Morpork.

The voice-overs are splendid, with Eric Idle, Jon Pertwee and Tony Robinson setting just the right tone. Yet the game is strained in a way that the books never are; it is at heart the same adventure game that's been haunting computers for 20 years. Move around, hit a problem, find a solution and then move around again. Place all this in a large landscape and the moving around bit tends to swamp the rest; still, there are plenty of options and a rich seam of daftness underlies everything. And yes, there's pukka Pratchett in there. Alongside some well-hidden sheep references: when it comes to farm animals and Australians, the Pope himself rages in vain. Released today on PC (£44.99) and PC CD-Rom (£49.99)

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