The latest CD-ROM drives clip along at 32x speeds, but does it matter much if the content is a wheeze? These days, the average adventure disc is either another Myst imitation (eerie, unpeopled environment strewn with buried brainteasers) or an ''interactive movie'' (noirish mystery rife with tremulous acting and puzzles, puzzles, puzzles). Just when you'd think that talented CD-ROM producers would all be designing websites, however, along come two deeply sophisticated new titles. While one makes the most of existing standards, the other launches interactivity into the 21st century.
Fans of the convention-warping book series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy shouldn't be too surprised to learn that it's author Douglas Adams, the John Cleese of sci-fi novelists, who dreamt up the story line and dialogue for the marvelously playful, three-disc Starship Titanic, in which the universe's most luxurious intergalactic cruise ship crashes into your living room, luring you aboard to solve whimsical technical difficulties and the challenge! wangle free upgrades from steerage to first class. Adams is also responsible for introducing a major technological and structural breakthrough to adventure gaming: the ability to talk to computer characters. Thanks to SpookiTalk, Titanic's ingenious language analyzer, the animated, all-robot crew is programmed with 30,000-word vocabularies (ranging from Spice Girls to pluvian warthog) and 16 hours of recorded dialogue with which you engage via your keyboard.
In fact, the bots' wacky loquacity helps prevent the exquisite, futuristic Art Deco ambiance (created by the Oscar-winning designers of 1995's period farce Restoration) from feeling too precious. From impudent Deskbot Marsinta to blithering Liftbots, the moody automatons emit Mad Hatter-style natterings if confused and snippy comebacks if miffed. Gameplay can thus depend on, of all things, interpersonal skills: Ask the surfer dude Bellbot nicely and he'll offer hints. Act rude and he'll trade insults and complain about his creator, Adams: ''That guy has a lot to answer for around here.'' Like imbuing these characters with witty repartee and uncanny sentience.
By comparison, the plot's the surprise star of Black Dahlia : It'll take you a jaw-dropping, scarily time-sucking eight discs to crack a compelling 1940s-era string of serial killings (including the real-life murder of would-be Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short) with ties to a Nazi occult conspiracy. In the live-action person of rookie investigator Jim Pearson (played crisply by newcomer Darren Eliker), you'll scour creepy French catacombs, visit an institutionalized Dennis Hopper, and, thanks to Teri Garr as a goofy clairvoyant, enter the metaphysical beyond. Imagine formulaic film noir spiked with goodly doses of Raiders of the Lost Ark and dastardly puzzles like a cryptogram based on Germanic runes.
Where Black Dahlia falls short is in its dorky (albeit standard) interactive technology: You choose between two, maybe three actions from an awkwardly written predetermined list that has little bearing on the plot's essentially linear progression. At heart, Black Dahlia is an extremely long movie riddled with puzzle-solving intermissions a nonintuitive experience, to be sure.
How freeing it feels, on the other hand, to ''converse'' with a whole cast of deranged, sass-talking robots. So maybe they're not Leonardo DiCaprio this Titanic seems equally destined to leave the competition in its wake. A