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 Infocom, 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.
There are now two types of interactive stories on the market: high-resolution ones that display colorful pictures on the screen, and text-only games that show just words. Judging from recent sales, the text programs are more popular. Deadline (price: $49.95) has sold more than 75,000 copies since it was released by Infocom almost two years ago. The company's three-part fantasy adventure, Zork, is doing even better. The first episode, Zork I, is the bestselling piece of recreational computer software on the market, with sales of 250,000 copies. It is currently outpacing the home versions of such arcade hits as Zaxxon and Frogger. "Whiz-bang graphics may be easier to sell to the uninitiated, but they are being replaced by games that give a sense of realism," says Marc Blank, the 29-year-old M.I.T. alumnus who wrote Deadline and is co-author of Zork.
The key to interactive fiction is the parser, the part of the computer program that interprets the player's commands. Parsers originally accepted only one- and two-word commands ("Take sword, Kill troll"), a most frustrating limitation. In 1977, a group of M.I.T. graduates, including Blank, began working on more powerful parsers. Using programming techniques developed at the university's artificial-intelligence laboratory, they added adjectives, prepositions and compound verbs, allowing such full sentences as "Pick up the red bomb and put it in the mailbox" and "Where is the missing will?"
Their first game, Zork, was developed on one of M.I.T.'s huge mainframe computers. The next task was to squeeze the program down so that it would run on a microcomputer with one-thousandth as much processing power. Blank, who had been studying medicine when he helped write Zork, did the necessary programming while serving his internship.
With Zork and Deadline already big hits, newer and more colorful computer novels are appearing on the software bestseller lists. Stuart Galley, an Infocom programmer, has written a detective story, The Witness, in the hard-boiled style of Raymond Chandler. Infidel, by Michael Berlyn, is an archaeological adventure set in modern Egypt. Planetfall, by Steven Meretzky, is a science-fiction comedy that co-stars a robot named Floyd.
By literary standards, Infocom's stories are crude. The characters are two-dimensional, plots are forever clunking to a halt, and the writing tends to be sophomoric. Perhaps the best computer thriller to date is Suspended, also by Berlyn, a published author with several science-fiction books to his credit. With computer novels selling better than many hardcover books, it may not be long before the new genre attracts an Isaac Asimov or a Stephen King.
CAPTION: Author Berlyn and Programmer Blank team up to play Suspended
CAPTION: Two hit novels: Infocom's Deadline
mystery and Zork adventure
"You have certainly stooped to a new low, Inspector."