You've read the novel, now play the game

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Actually, Tom Clancy wants you to play `Politika' and then buy the novel. Ian Grayson talks to the best-selling author about his efforts to establish a new art form by blending fiction and computer gaming.

Throughout history, storytellers have always had a special role - using words to conjure up new worlds full of adventure, danger and excitement.

With the advent of print, storytelling moved from an oral to a written art and the storyteller's power grew. As radio, film and television developed, it was the storyteller who determined what happened - who lived, who died and who got the girl.

But now, one of the world's most successful authors of popular fiction wants all that to change. He wants the reader to become involved in the storytelling process, to decide what happens, and to whom.

Tom Clancy, author of titles such as The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, sees computer games as the storytelling medium of the future.

"Fundamentally, what we are trying to do is create a new art form," says Clancy. "It's a different way to tell stories. Instead of just telling them to people as you do if you're a playwright or author, we present the reader with stories in which he can participate."

Clancy has just released a computer game, Politika, with an accompanying novel of the same name. It's a product of a new company, Red Storm Entertainment, that he established to explore the potential of the gaming medium.

Launched on the 80th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Politika is set in that country just after the sudden death of President Boris Yeltsin. Players can choose to pit their skills either against their computer or, via the Internet, against others. Using new gaming techniques, Politika allows up to eight players representing various Russian factions to compete and collaborate to stockpile enough money, power and resources to win control of the country.

The game is based on IBM's Java-based software technology, code-named InVerse. InVerse is suited to online gaming as it can host a variety of interactive, multi-user forums ranging from simple chat rooms to virtual communities. According to IBM, it "fosters collaboration over the Internet by providing a versatile communications interface".

"It's a whole new kind of game that is very interactive and conversational," says Clancy. "I really don't think anyone had fielded a game quite like it before."

According to Clancy, the novel Politika was written as an accompaniment to the game, rather than the other way around. "The game came first. The purpose of the book is just to introduce people to what the game is all about. The whole point is to get people to go out and buy the game," he says.

Politika is Clancy's second foray into computer gaming. His first, Tom Clancy SSN, failed to take off. Clancy blames poor marketing for this rather than the game itself. "The company that did the marketing dropped the ball," he recalls, gruffly.

Clancy moved into the story-telling business at the age of 37 after a career in financial sales. "I decided I would rather be an author than an insurance agent and I just did it," he says. "Being a writer is easier on the brain and better on the wallet." That's something of an understatement from someone whose annual income is now estimated to be around $20m.

His first novel, The Hunt for Red October, dealt with a Russian submarine captain who defects to the US. It quickly entered the bestseller lists and Clancy followed it with a number of others, some of which have since been made into movies.

For Clancy, the move to the new medium of computer gaming has not required any change in his approach to story construction.

"You start off with a basic premise and then pursue it. But instead of just telling the reader everything that happens, you set up a mechanism by which he can see what is happening and affect the story himself," he explains.

Despite embracing the Internet as a new storytelling medium, Clancy admits to not spending much time online. "That's probably very disappointing as I am supposed to be the king of hi-tech, but there you go."

As for game playing, Clancy doesn't see any point in checking out the products of other developers. "I would rather design them than play them," he says. "That may sound a little odd but the creation is the fun part for me - I always try to be an original thinker."

He also leaves the technical side of game creation to his team of developers and programmers, preferring instead to work at the ideas level. "I don't do the ones and zeros - I have people who do that for me. What I do is try and keep everything pointed in the right direction. I have the advantage of having some very smart kids working for me."

That said, Clancy is sufficiently technically aware to believe that the conversation gaming engine that forms the heart of the new work is a format with a big future.

"It's a lot more satisfying to defeat another human mind than it is just to knock off someone's software," he said. "So all the stuff we are doing is going to be interactive - it's more of a challenge that way."

So what of the future? Does Clancy foresee the day when he will no longer be writing books but rather dedicating his time to computer games?

"I am still an author," he states emphatically. "I'm working on another novel now." He's not giving any details away.

For someone who has based much of his work to date on political and military intrigue, it would seem reasonable to think Clancy may be disappointed that the days of global superpowers seem to be over.

"Am I supposed to be disappointed that the world is closer to being fully at peace than it has ever been at any time in history?" he asks. "I think it's a good thing, and if it costs me a bit of money that's a price I am willing to pay. There is still enough stuff out there for me to write about."

`Politika', pounds 39.99, Windows and Mac, from Mindscape (01664 481563).