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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

BY TRACEY E. SCHELMETIC
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions


[May 16, 2001]

So Long And Thanks For All The Laughs

The world of multimedia entertainment lost a hero last Friday, May 11th. Douglas Adams, author of the wonderfully bizarre, comedy/sci-fi cult novel Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy and its ensuing sequels, died of a heart attack at age 49. To those of you unfamiliar with the multi-talented and multimedia-focused British writer, this column may not hold much interest for you. If you're someone who can't count past 42 without smiling* and always knows where your towel is**, you're probably as sad as I am this week. Myself, my friends and millions of other fans feel as if we've been eaten and spit out by the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.

In addition to the Hitchhiker's Guide series (which he described as "an increasingly inaccurately named five-part trilogy"), Adams also authored Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and a non-fiction work called Last Chance To See in which he detailed his travels across the world to witness some of the most endangered animals on the planet. In recent years, he formed a group called the Digital Village. Bestowing upon himself the title of "chief fantasist," Adams and the company took as their mission the development of computer-based "comedy science-fiction adventure games." According to his obituary in the London Times, Douglas Adams was one of the first British authors to request that his works be published in electronic format and was an early proponent of e-mail for business communication (back before most of us had even heard of e-mail).

Adams' best digital venture took the form of an interactive CD-ROM entitled Starship Titanic. The game, which walked away with many awards in its virtual pockets after its 1998 introduction, has breathtakingly beautiful, state-of-the-art graphics and a natural language parser to enhance its interactivity. When Adams was too busy with the development of the game to write the accompanying novel, he tapped friend and Monty Python alumni Terry Jones to author it. Jones agreed, provided he could write the book in the nude.

The story behind the game, which is published by Simon & Schuster, is as follows. At the distant center of the galaxy, an advanced civilization embarks on launching the most beautiful, advanced and "indestructible" spaceship ever built: the Starship Titanic. The most talented and lauded galactic architect, Leovinus, designed the ship and waited patiently for it to be built. Shortly before its maiden voyage, Leovinus realizes that the ship's builders have cut corners in a disturbing manner, resulting in the potential for some relatively surreal malfunctioning of many of the ships' advanced systems. The intergalactic cruiser, launched on its doomed maiden voyage, is bound for a crash collision with the planet Earth.

The game version begins with the ship crashing into your living room. You are then invited to climb aboard, at which time you must embark on a quest, accompanied by your own Personal Electronic Thing (PET), to figure out what has gone awry with the luxury spaceliner and correct the situation before you drift through a black hole or into a nearby star. The player can wander through the decks (using a click-through cursor), looking for clues, solving puzzles and typing questions to the ship's satisfyingly deranged robots via the natural language parser, receiving answers drawn from the database of 16 hours' worth of voice recordings programmed to answer questions and offer clues. Your quest is also aided by a demented parrot voiced by Terry Jones.

Initially, you are assigned a third-class cabin, but in science fiction/fantasy gaming, as in real life, one of your ultimate quests is to seek a free upgrade, initially to second-class, and then to a first-class stateroom. As you ascend through the levels of luxury cabin accommodations, more and more clues become available to you, allowing you to once and for all figure out where the builders of the ship went wrong. During the course of your twisted quest, you aim to discover the fault within the ship's logs and navigational systems, while occasionally trying to score the best table in the ship's French restaurant, despite the snooty robotic waiter. (Here's a cluethe more often you smack the waiter on his backside, the better your chances of getting a good table.)

In most games, a dead end is a disappointing waste of five minutes. In Starship Titanic, it is an opportunity to encounter beautiful little tidbits of Adams' brand of humor. The natural language responses are programmed to be irreverent and rewarding even in situations in which the robot guides don't "understand" the question (rather than just asking that the player to rephrase the question.)

The graphics are beautiful, and the award-winning designers of the ship's interior were inspired to replicate the canals of Venice, the Ritz hotel, the Chrysler Building and Tutankhamen's tomb, all rendered digitally. Reviews at the time of the game's release compared it favorably with Myst. I'll confessI've never liked Myst. I always got bored within about 20 minutesit may have been something to do with the fact that it took itself too seriously and relied solely on graphics and those soporific ocean-splashing sounds. Being too serious, however, is never an accusation anyone has ever been able to level against the brilliant, departed Douglas Adams. As a skilled writer and unsurpassed wordsmith, he made Starship Titanic as much about written and verbal humor as about digital visual interaction.

I've always looked forward to the day when high-quality fiction went online to became interactive and virtual-reality enhanced. I had always assumed Douglas Adams would lead the party. He will be missed, and we, his fans, are panicking.

Readers wishing to join the author in a round of senses-dulling Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters may contact her at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

* Deep Thought, the most advanced computer ever built, was asked to determine the answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything. The answer, as it turns out, is 42.

** A truly together person always knows where his or her towel is, as a towel is the most massively useful item in the universe.


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