ALBANY AUTHOR PUTS COMPUTER USER INSIDE MYSTERY
Helen S. Edelman Special to The Times Union
Publication Date: May 21, 1987  Page: C1  Section: LIVING TODAY  Edition: SIX STAR 
*Great plot, but the characters had no sense of humor.

*Good dialogue, but a book should never end that way. *Believable personalities, but they could have been in a more complicated situation.

Nearly every reader becomes an armchair author rewriting scene by scene as they unfold, knowing just how it could have been done better.

And Peter Golden makes it all possible.

Author of five books of "interactive fiction," the Albany resident transfers text to personal computer screen and gives control over the action to readers.

It all began in 1984 in California when the magazine journalist was invited to lecture computer programmers about literature.

"I talked about structure in novels. I was a computerphobe like all writers, but the problem of where things go and why in the structure of literature is similar to the programmer's problem of how to structure things for a computer intelligence. We dealt with information and deductive reasoning."

The two-week stint extended to two years and Golden's exchange with "the computer freaks" translated into programming proficiency for him.

Under contract to Bantam - and commuting to New York at least once a month to speak with publishers - the State University at Albany graduate created a computer disk piece of fiction called "Another Bow," a Sherlock Holmes mystery set aboard the S.S. Destiny.

Sailing from England to the United States in 1919, the ship carries an impressive fictional roster of celebrity passengers, Thomas Edison, Picasso, Henry Ford, Lord Waldorf Astor, Harry Houdini, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Holmes and John Watson among them. The dangerous cargo aboard is a bomb and the reader has limited time to save the ship from explosion by steering plot and characters through a virtually infinite number of possibilities to the one and only "correct conclusion," Golden explains.

That's where the fun comes in. The reader and the novel become acquainted as the storyline demands audience input. When someone is found dead with a note pinned to his chest, the reader determines what Holmes and Watson will do with the note.

Suggestions to the computer result in corresponding reactions: "Put the note in a pocket," yields "Let's get some sleep," implying the note will be read later; "Read the note," is followed by an enigmatic poem, extending the mystery; and "Eat the note," earns, "Have you lost your mind, Holmes?" which Golden admits "is the standard answer to any inappropriate response."

The game works by a process Goldern refers to as "parsing."

Key words trigger the retrieval of particular storylines Golden wrote "in anticipation of every question and answer I could think of."

The computer transforms declarative sentences into interrogatories, giving the reader the opportunity for "conversation" with it. Most importantly, says Golden, the reader has "the illusion of free will. A novelist uses literary devices to make a reader feel that the action in a book is occurring while it is being read, when, in fact, the last page is pre- written. The computer gives the reader the sense of actually changing what's gong on, when in fact, there is nothing arbitrary about the text."

"Another Bow" was a Waldenbooks best-seller for many weeks but Golden, 30, refuses to reveal what his profits were. He smiles a lot, though and notes: "It more than pays the rent."

Actually composing interactive fiction is only a fraction of the work. In preparation, Golden digested about 1,200 pages of Sherlock Holmes and "at least that much critical material" on Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so he could replicate the famous style authentically "in adding to the Holmes Canon."

There was additional research on the era of the novel. Frequent citations of Doyle's works and references to historic landmarks of that day lend Golden's prose enhanced legitimacy "as literature," he says, observing that before him, most interactive computer fiction was dreamed up by "professional computer jocks, amateur writers. I was one of the first professional writers, amateur computer jocks, to add to the genre. The difference is qualitative."

Sensitive to the curiosity of a reader who puts "Another Bow" on the home screen, Golden insured that "theoretically, a reader can save the game and go back through, testing every possible response.

To subdue the excessively manipulative or impatient, the book simulates speech interruptions when the reader attempts program changes where Golden didn't plan them, and rejects some synonyms as commands, for example preferring "talk" to "speak."

Golden's program is verbally armed for the ridiculous, the sublime and even the profane. "Many readers get frustrated or angry during the game and type in curses. They're stunned when the program resonds tersely, scolding for foul language."

One distinction between computer and print books is that "computers keep track of real time," says Golden. "If you're reading and want to put a book down and cook dinner, you can pick it up at the same time hours later and nothing has changed, but with the computer, if you do something stupid you might lose an hour or a day - and all the while the bomb is ticking away somewhere."

Golden is ambivalent about whether to author more computer books. Despite its financial rewards the venture "isn't private enough, it's a joint thing, like movie work." Golden, whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, Capital Region magazine and New York Alive, is losing interested in "mimicking human intelligence with smoke, mirrors and magic."

Besides, Golden says his books are for "obsessive-complusive people who play them for hours at a time."

He confesses he can't bring himself to play one to the end.
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Create Date:May 21, 1987
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Publication Date: May 21, 1987
 
Byline:Helen S. Edelman Special to The Times Union
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Publication:THE TIMES-UNION
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Headline:ALBANY AUTHOR PUTS COMPUTER USER INSIDE MYSTERY
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