Starship trouper

Douglas Adams' new 'Titanic' game is just the tip of a multimedia iceberg. A conversation with the author of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

By Janelle Brown
Published April 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"It's not something I like to chat about, casual-like, but down in the devastation of Hadjadji, desert country of course, and sodden. Sodden. Sodden it was. Sodden, and the sinkimutts up to the top of your wops and your doings jammed -- we had Heckler & Kock & Snartigern & Eaboy & Erasthidmites & Eably's Cousin's Friend Nerick point four-five calibre wossnames, which was always prone to logging, but what we done, we waved them at the tribesmen and when they saw them they thought to themselves ... they thought, blimey, ... .45 calibre wossnames, and charged across the burning devastation and massacred us to the last man, but was we downhearted? No. It was OUR IDEA OF FUN."

To anyone familiar with the work of Douglas Adams -- and, judging by the sales for his book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," there are at least 15 million readers who are -- this kind of gibberish is a jolly good read. Twenty years after he penned the first book of the "Hitchhiker" trilogy, which envisions intergalactic travel and the meaning of life as the number 42, his bizarre science-fiction worlds are still selling strong.

But Adams has expanded far beyond books, and in his most recent incarnation he is at the helm of a modest multimedia empire called the Digital Village. And the above monologue is not from a book, but a conversation held with Nobby the LiftBot, one of the seven characters populating Adams' new game, "Starship Titanic."

An imposingly British 6-foot-5, Adams in person is decidedly more sober than his books, and prone to rumination about the future of the digital world. As he recently detailed his vision over tomato consommi: "We are moving towards a position in which all ways we communicate and inform and entertain ourselves are coming down a digital pipe. The Digital Village wants to be in that pipe -- content providers, creators and publishers. We're also happy to drive it by being in other media as well -- television or movies or whatever."

Or as the Digital Village Web site touts its future plans: "Bigger than Texas, better than Birmingham, more interactive than a friend's skin."

"Starship Titanic" is the first project to come out of that pipe. The CD-ROM, released in mid-April, comes from the school of post-"Myst" immersive environment mystery games. The premise: The Starship Titanic is the world's most luxurious intergalactic cruiser -- "the ship that cannot possibly go wrong." Of course, everything does go wrong (sound familiar?), and your task as an unwitting guest on board is to find out what happened and fix it.

What makes this game different from your average "Myst" clone, however, is a purely Adams touch: The Art Deco interior of the doomed cruiser is populated with dysfunctional bots like Nobby -- who can talk to you for hours using a proprietary language recognition system that the Digital Village affectionately named "SpookiTalk." You can hear their voices on the game's soundtrack and also read and respond on-screen via your "Personal Electronic Thing" -- or "PET."

Explains Adams, "When I was doing the 'Hitchhiker' game [a text-based game he produced in 1984], I enjoyed that kind of engagement that comes from being in a virtual conversation between player and machine. Then, when someone showed me 'Myst,' I thought, 'Well, this is terrific. This is a beautiful realization of a world.' But with graphics games, after a while you feel like something's missing. What's missing is precisely what text adventure games excelled at -- that real sense of being locked in a conversation with the software."

"With 'Starship Titanic,' I thought, 'Let's put characters in here and turn that language technology to being able to converse with a character.'"

To create those characters, Adams and two co-authors wrote 10,000 lines of dialogue, or the equivalent of 16 hours of conversation. Although the bots can reveal clues to the mystery if properly queried, they can also simply ramble for hours in semi-lucid conversation. While Nobby the Liftbot speaks in Kiplingesque prose, other bots spit out surfer slang or the mellifluous tones of a British butler.

The result is like stepping into one of Adams' novels and having a spontaneous conversation with the characters. The process of producing the game, explains Adams, was in fact just like writing a book: "You've got a character in mind, and you say, 'Well, this little thing he would say would be this, and the way he would react to the situation would be this.' You make lots and lots of those kinds of notes, and then you have to construct in the novel the situations that are going to illustrate the way they behave." In the "Starship Titanic" game, however, it's the player who constructs those situations, and the notes themselves that become the text.

While Adams envisions surreal scenarios, the three dozen employees of the Digital Village have been set up as a kind of cross-media support group. Besides the initial "Starship Titanic" game, the Digital Village has produced a book by the same name, written by Monty Python's Terry Jones. A movie based on the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is due to be released in the summer of 2000; the Digital Village will likely produce a video game to be released concurrently. At least one TV show is in the works -- a sci-fi drama called "Avatar Forest" -- and of course, yet more books and radio work. Besides the "Starship Titanic" Web site, which is currently an extension of the CD-ROM, the Digital Village will also be producing online games, retail products, "global events and soft furnishings," as its Web site puts it.

Grandiose plans for the business of a man who is essentially a novelist. But for his role in the company, Adams describes himself more as a cross-media evangelist.

"Essentially, we want to be able to have our own constituency and customers online, and the way you find them is by doing stuff in the outside world. So I do stuff in the outside world, and the Digital Village provides me with the infrastructure for doing that -- something that you don't normally have as a novelist. Suddenly if I want to do a CD-ROM, if I want to do a TV show, if I want to do a movie, I have the whole infrastructure of people I regularly know, work with and like. It gives me a power base, and I can drive traffic into what we do on the Web."

As an example of that role, he describes a series he did last year for BBC Radio. To support a five-part reading from a nonfiction book about his journeys around the world as a zoologist, the Digital Village posted a small Web site with related material. An hour after the radio announcer read off the address, the site already had 20,000 hits.

To Adams, "That was significant. Just out of nowhere, from a few little radio broadcasts, you're getting those kinds of numbers. That massively points the way at how different media can exploit and support each other."

Boiled down, the Digital Village is essentially trying to do cross-media branding: a buzzword batted around by many money-hungry multimedia companies that, like the Digital Village, figure the profits and reach of traditional media can support the elusive business plans of new media.

Adams has had haphazard success with the idea so far: "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" has already morphed from its original radio program into a book, a TV series, a game and a movie. His future plans, he says, will tie these kinds of products together more closely.

Says Adams, "Moving something from one medium to another is very interesting -- it's a lot like carrying a picture or a piece of clothing from one bit of lighting to another. Suddenly it looks very different. What interests me a bit further down the line is the way in which the different media interrelate -- you can hand things off from one to another, you can exploit each other's strengths and weaknesses."

For a content producer, the main pitfall with propagating an idea across multiple media is that the content won't fit the new platform: The linearity of a book won't work in an interactive game, and vice versa. Instead, Adam says, content producers should think of cross-referencing media as a way of driving down into the layers of a good narrative.

Adams points to his own experiences with television as an example of how this could work. Considered somewhat of a Web pundit in England, he's often called upon to talk on news programs about related issues. "You talk for about two minutes about a large, interesting subject -- it's absurd that it is so brief and short, but there isn't time to do anything more. Meanwhile, in
other layers, TV has huge amounts of time it's desperately trying to fill."

"There must be some way of trying to solve this problem," Adams hypothesizes. "If you go with a hypertextual model of television, you instantly see how you could follow any piece of information to any depth a viewer happened to be interested in. The integration of Web and TV will be a medium that allows that to happen."

As for the ubiquitous "Hitchhiker's Guide," he sees its next manifestation as the ultimate cross-media product:
Re-creating the fictional Guide to the Galaxy as an actual live service that would dispense personal advice across multiple platforms (the Web, your Palm Pilot, your television) using an artificial-intelligence engine. Certainly, it's an ambitious scenario. Then again, Adams has never had a problem coming up with ideas that are -- pardon the pun -- Titanic.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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