Depending on your point of view, the arrival this week of a major courtroom murder drama for CD-ROM might seem either a great stroke of marketing prowess or crass commercialization.
The truth is, it's neither. "In the 1st Degree," from Broderbund Software, has been in development for more than two years and it's a coincidence that the product is hitting the shelves the very week a murder trial is so very much on our minds.
"In the 1st Degree" is a game, but it's far more serious in tone than the overwhelming majority of CD-ROM entertainments, and it's likely to appeal to an older crowd than the "Mortal Kombat" set.
The setup is that a murder has occurred at a contemporary art gallery in San Francisco. The victim is the gallery owner and the suspect is one of the establishment's main artists.
You view everything on the CD-ROM from the point of view of prosecuting attorney G. Sterling Granger. You look at videotaped interviews with the suspect, the suspect's girlfriend, the victim's wife and a dimwitted gallery employee. Also available for your viewing are several documents, including police reports, pictures and personal letters.
After reviewing these materials, you set off to interview people you might be calling to the stand. You are given a choice as to what topics to ask them about, and for each topic, you can choose from several questions.
If you ask the wrong question of one of these potential witnesses, he or she might clam up before you are able to get the information you need. Some of these characters respond well to a gentle, sympathetic approach, so for them you should choose softball, friendly questions. Others need to be aggressively challenged.
With all the interviews completed, you go to trial.
"In the 1st Degree," available for Windows (the Mac version will come later) at a price of about $45, is not a whodunit. Early on in the game, the artist confesses to the shooting, but claims it was in self-defense. Your goal, as Granger, is to prove to a jury through the materials you have amassed, your opening statement and the questioning of witnesses on the stand that the killing was premeditated, and therefore first-degree murder.
The game is not an easy one. You have to handle each witness almost perfectly to get the murder one conviction. Failing that, the artist can be found guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter, or he can even be acquitted.
It seems almost impossible to get the ultimate conviction on the first try, which means that you have to go back and play the game repeatedly, attempting each time to get more out of each witness.
But is the game worth repeated play?
The performances (especially by Maureen McVerry, who plays the police inspector) are very much a cut above those found on the usual CD-ROM video clips. The structure of the game is unique and the project attempts to tell a story in a way that can only be accomplished on a CD-ROM.
The trouble is, it's not a whole lot of fun, or even very engrossing, especially for multiple play. While identifying a murder has long proven to be--whether in literature, on stage or in the movies--a process with great potential for entertainment, manipulating the materials on hand to put together a case seems in comparison dry and academic.
And because all three witnesses are difficult, somewhat volatile personalities, just about the only way to succeed in handling them just right is by trial and error--I do that enough on a computer trying to figure out the subtleties of Windows.
Then again, maybe I didn't want to play "In the 1st Degree" repeatedly because repetitiousness was so much a part of the trial we all just went through.
After playing the CD-ROM for a while, I turned on television and saw an episode of "Murder One." It was readily apparent why this quality series has garnered critical raves and solid ratings. But I was not in the mood to watch much of it either.
Courtroom and entertainment are two words that are not going to comfortably fit together for some time to come.
* Cyburbia's Internet address is David.Colker@latimes.com.