Lost in Cyberspace
Starship Titanic
© 1998 by H.B. Koplowitz

"I'd rather sleep between the cheeks of a yak's buttocks." So saith Marsinta Drewbish, the cheeky check-in robot, or DeskBot, on the "Starship Titanic," which is both the setting for and name of a stylish new CD-ROM game.

Marsinta's pronouncement comes in response to a player's repeated request for a room upgrade on the dysfunctional intergalactic space liner. In this instance, the player is also the creator of "Starship Titanic," Douglas Adams, who also happens to be the author of the wacky 1979 sci-fi humor classic, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." And he's grunting with satisfaction that he is able to show a reporter one of the, ahem, finer points of his new game.

In what may be a first, the 46-year-old British author is on an international publicity tour for a CD-ROM game. Of course, few CD-ROM game creators are as well-known as Adams, who made his quirky series of "Hitchhiker" books into one of the first text-based computer games, as well as a British radio and TV series, stage play, record, tape, beach towel, and, if all goes well, feature length film in the summer of 2000.

In 1996, Adams co-founded The Digital Village <www.tdv.com>, a London-based multi-media publishing company to develop his ideas into computer games, TV shows, movies and a website. So as Adams launches "Starship Titanic" on the company's maiden voyage into the marketplace, more is at stake than the success of a CD-ROM title.

Published by Simon & Schuster Interactive, the $48 immersion adventure game has been described as Monty Python meets "Myst." Indeed, Python's Terry Jones plays a major role as the voice of a deranged on-board parrot, and John Cleese does an uncredited cameo voice-over as a time bomb. Adams lends his voice to Succ-U-Bus, a grumpy pneumatic tube that transports game objects.

The opening sequence is a fly-by of the grand space liner, which looks like a cross between the ocean liner Titanic and the iceberg that hit it, and seems to be a send-up of James Cameron's movie. But Adams stressed there is no tie-in, noting that when he began working on the game over two years ago, the buzz on the movie was that "there was a disaster brewing there."

The game begins with "the ship where nothing can go wrong" crashing into your house, and you being beckoned aboard by Fentible, one of the vessel's cantankerous robots. Morphing the great ocean liners of the past, the Ritz, the Chrysler Building and Tutankhamen's tomb, with Venice, Italy, thrown in, Oscar-award-winning designers Oscar Chichoni and Isabel Molina created a luxurious starship rendered in sleek art deco lines, plus gondolas.

Like "Myst," you are immersed in a virtual world where you must navigate through a maze of obstacles and solve tricky puzzles to reach your goal. And like "Myst," you spend a lot of time not knowing what your goal is, which gets frustrating. What makes the game different from "Myst," or any other CD-ROM game, is the degree to which you can interact with the characters.

"When 'Myst' came out, it was a beautiful realization of a landscape," Adams said. "The only thing that was missing was a real personal involvement. I wanted to create an environment game with characters you could converse with." 

To do that, they had to invent a new interactive language engine, called SpookiTalk, which can recognize typed words by players and speak a response. Each character has a distinct personality and varying moods, from obnoxious to obsequious, which is where the Monty Python comparison comes in. These are robots with attitudes.

Adams said that he and two other writers created 10,000 lines of dialog, some of them clues, but mostly gag lines on some 100 subjects including plants, animals, places, brand names, sports, famous people, films, songs, and, of course, quotes from his "Hitchhiker's" and "Dirk Gently" novels. They'll reply to anything you ask them, although "yak's buttocks" is about as risque as they get.

Of course, "Starship Titanic" also has a website <www.starshiptitanic.com>, which is set up like the website for Starlight Travel, a fictional company that built the ship and is its exclusive travel agency.

The game requires a 100 MHz Pentium computer, Windows 95 and 160 megabytes of hard disk space. That "Starship Titanic" is not yet available for Mac users is a sensitive spot for Adams, who himself uses an Apple. "To play my own game I have to borrow a friend's computer," he noted.

Even as he is hustling his CD-ROM game, Adams is working on a script for a film version of "Hitchhiker," to be directed by Jay Roach ("Austin Powers"). Terry Jones has written a novel based on "Starship Titanic," and Adams says he's overdue for writing another book. The Digital Village's latest project is an entertainment and information website with games, information services, and an opinionated guide to the Web, the real world and beyond.

"The long-term aim is to build an information service, called 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,' that like the book is highly attitudinal," Adams said.

"Starship Titanic" is beautifully rendered, smart, entertaining and innovative. Still, it may have been more fun to create than to play. Few players will have the patience to coax all 12,000 phrases of dialog out of the characters, and some may never win the game. Then again, if you are a fan of Adams' books, you know that getting there is half the fun, and above all, "DON'T PANIC!"

(Douglas Adams died suddenly following a heart attack on May 11, 2001.)

© 1998 By H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.