The idea of interactive fiction has been developed in several of the programs in the MEP In-Service Training Pack, Language Development in the Primary School, e.g. Tracks, which creates branching stories, and Eliza, in which the computer sustains a dialogue with the user in the manner of a psycho-analyst.
In Talkback, Chandler has cleverly developed the Eliza idea so that the "conversation" can be between two computer characters with the users joining in the conversation, or between either of the computer characters and the user. The users create their "characters" by building and developing sequences of Keywords, Responses and Starters, and in so doing, manipulate language, have the chance to develop their understanding of language and discover what micros can, and cannot, do with words.
Talkback works from a Choice Page, which gives the options of creating or altering a character, loading or saving a character, dropping a character, or starting a dialogue. There are two sample characters, "Bomb" and "Astro". Having loaded these characters, the users are offered the three dialogue options mentioned above. If the conversation between two characters is selected, the users are given the option of restarting, returning to the Choice Page or joining in.
Every Talkback character is given a list of things to say called Responses. Each Response has an associated Keyword and may appear only when its Keyword matches something that another speaker has said - the program allows a maximum of 42 pairs of Keywords and Responses for each character (unless there is a 6502 Second Processor attached). Starters are the lines of dialogue with which characters start conversations and are also used when no Keyword match can be found to trigger a Response. Each character requires at least one Starter - up to four are possible - and one character's Starters should contain Keywords that the other will recognise.
The option which enables chracters to be created or altered is very well organised, and the screen instructions make the process extremely user-friendly. Acornsoft suggests that "the organisation of Keywords and Responses presents an intellectual challenge comparable to playing chess with language and can also be compared with programming."
Working out Responses is very much harder than selecting Keywords and young (and not so young!) newcomers will require a fair degree of support - remember the "shared activities" mentioned in the introduction - otherwise the input is likely to become stereotyped and the users quickly lose interest. Those who enjoy playing with words, however, will experience pleasure in developing new characters and extending their chats into complex conversations.
Talkback offers control over the speed of the dialogue. This can be printed out as well as viewed on the screen, and a short program, available in the handbook, loads a character file and produces a printout of all the character's Keywords, Responses and Starters. The handbook also offers some suggestions for characters and situations: buying a secondhand car, King Henry VIII goes to a present day marriage guidance counsellor, the head of a delegation from the Hastings Tourist Board welcomes William the Conqueror as he steps ashore!
I am in agreement with the accompanying blurb that Talkback is for those who enjoy an "intellectual challenge". If you don't feel you can cope with that just yet, try ESM's Storywriter for the BBC first. This allows you to play with words by writing branching stories, so the whole family can become involved in writing adventures and whodunnits. Happy creating!
Note: Some alterations have been made to the above review for editorial purposes.