Computers: Putting Fiction on a Floppy

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Software bestsellers let players write the plot

Mrs. Robner says she loved her murdered husband, but you know she is lying. The proof is in the love note you just intercepted. Ask her about the man who wrote it, and she says she never heard of him. Confront her with his letter, and she changes her tune: "You have certainly stooped to a new low, Inspector, opening other people's mail!" Then she spills her story.

Not all mysteries these days appear in paperbacks or movies. The tale above scrolled up the screen of a personal computer. The story, titled Deadline, is part of the latest craze in home computing: programmed fiction. Machines that were used mainly for blasting aliens and calculating monthly budgets are now also churning through adventure tales and murder-mystery plots. "It's like reading a novel, only you are the protagonist," says Science-Fiction Writer Linda Bushyager. While arcade-style games like Pac Man are losing popularity, these complex programs are winning more and more fans. In Deadline, one of ten computer "novels" produced by Infocorn, a Cambridge, Mass.-based software publishing house, the player is given a casebook of evidence, a floppy disc containing the plot, and twelve hours to unravel the mystery. If the murderer is not found in the allotted time, a character named Chief Inspector Klutz takes the player off the case. The program shuts down automatically and must be replayed from the beginning. As Deadline opens, a wealthy businessman has been found dead in the library of his mansion from a mysterious drug overdose. The player, who takes the role of inspector, has been called in to investigate. He types commands into the computer, and the machine responds with descriptions of people and places and snatches of dialogue that develop the story. Suspects duck in and out of rooms; clues appear and disappear; characters lie low or kill again, depending on the player's actions. The story can unfold in literally thousands of ways. A typical investigation, including starts and restarts, can run 40 hours or longer. "It takes me three to six months to get completely through one," says Craig Pearce, 31, a building manager from Berwyn, Ill. "It's unbelievable how you can get hooked on these things."

The concept of interactive fiction is not totally new. The hit of the Czechoslovak pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal was an experimental movie that let the audience vote on the course of the action. But it took the computer, with its awesome power to store and sort text, to turn the concept into a popular art form.

The first participatory computer tale, Adventure, was created in the mid-1970s by computer researchers in Cambridge and Stanford. It involved a treasure hunt through a labyrinth of caves and dungeons and soon attracted a cult following. Miniature versions that ran on microcomputers were available in the late 1970s.

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