By Bob Strauss
Updated August 16, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Live-action CD-ROM games are a lot like made-for-cable movies. What could be more enjoyable, after a hard day at work, than plopping down in a chair and checking out a cheesy, minimally challenging, B-star-studded exercise in suspense? CD-ROM thrillers are popular for the same reason: You know, within certain accepted parameters, exactly what you’re gonna get.

Of course, just as there’s often a wide gap in quality between an HBO original movie and a USA Network quickie, there’s also a difference between a loopy interactive mystery like The Pandora Directive, the follow-up to 1994’s Under a Killing Moon (which starred Brian Keith and Margot Kidder), and a dreary bit of programming like The Elk Moon Murder. Once you get past the opening sequence — in which sci-fi veteran Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) recruits seedy, down-on-his-luck detective Tex Murphy (played by Chris Jones, who also happens to be chief financial officer of Access Software) to locate a missing scientist — Pandora exhibits a postapocalyptic, retro-noir charm, as Murphy’s plodding investigation ramifies from downtown San Francisco to the fabled UFO crash site in Roswell, N.M. Along the way, you encounter such familiar faces as Northern Exposure‘s Barry Corbin and former Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts, as well as such lesser-known thespians as Suzanne Barnes, who plays Murphy’s girlfriend, the world’s unlikeliest newsstand operator (I’m glad to report that ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY will still be published in the year 2043).

What sets Pandora apart from such similar games as Ripper — with which it shares an array of challenging puzzles, freedom of movement through 3-D-rendered environments, and live-action interrogations of suspects, snitches, and saucy dames — is its sense of humor. And since the game advances according to Murphy’s attitude — there are seven possible outcomes depending on whether the detective is ”thoughtful and kind,” ”neutral and naive,” or ”antagonistic and selfish” — its creators have had plenty of opportunity to goose up the dialogue.

Unlike Ripper, in which clicking on the text line ”Tell me what you know about the murder” causes the character to say ”Tell me what you know about the murder,” the prompts in Pandora are more subtle, ranging from ”Beg for clemency” to ”Taunt the miser” to ”Express gender-related confusion.” Because you never know exactly what Murphy is about to say, the game’s entertainment value, at least the first time around, is exceptionally high. And the developers throw in some neat graphic tricks, too, including three fully navigable city blocks with a shimmering skyline in the background. (There’s also a pleasing score by legendary folkie Richie Havens.)

Compared with The Pandora Directive, The Elk Moon Murder is strictly low-budget fare. Set in contemporary Santa Fe (a New Age-y locale that seems distinctly at odds with the word multimedia), this police procedural has you tackling the murder of Native American artist Anna Elk Moon. In the course of your inquiry, you get caught up in a subplot involving reservation gambling casinos and you chew the investigative fat with a succession of fairly uninteresting citizens (including L.A. Law‘s Amanda Donohoe, whose large photo on the package is inversely proportional to the size of her role). Despite its noble stab at multiculturalism and its refreshingly nonfuturistic plot, this game is as flat as a tortilla, offering as its sole attractions a neat virtual map of Santa Fe and an atmospheric soundtrack by Tim May (who played guitar on the theme to Melrose Place). Elk Moon was cocreated by Northern Exposure writer and producer Sam Egan, who’s apparently more suited to Alaska’s frozen tundra than to the vast, ethnically diverse American Southwest. The game’s tag line reads, ”Fear the desert,” but what I really fear is that CD-ROMs like this are replicating cable TV’s more arid terrain. The Pandora Directive: B+ The Elk Moon Murder: C-