With 'Tom Clancy SSN,' the 'Hunt for Red October' author goes interactive

Ask Tom Clancy why he decided to climb aboard a submarine-combat CD-ROM game, and he offers a typically jingoistic explanation. ”It’s a new world to conquer,” says the author of The Hunt for Red October and other hugely successful techno-thrillers that (according to the notoriously cantankerous novelist) have been imperfectly translated to the big screen. Unlike movies, ”you get to set the parameters” on CD-ROM, Clancy says. ”I don’t know how to do the ones and zeroes, but the whole process went very smoothly.”

The result is Tom Clancy SSN, a joint venture of Simon & Schuster Interactive, Virtus Corp. (producer of Clancy’s favorite PC game, the military simulation The Colony), and Clancy Interactive, a company the writer formed last year to translate his concepts into multimedia products. SSN‘s plot sounds straight out of a Clancy best-seller: The Chinese have invaded the oil-rich Spratly Islands near Vietnam and it’s up to you, as a nuke sub commander, to kick Commie butt and prevent World War III. The simulation practically drips verisimilitude (Clancy enlisted the technical expertise of Douglas Littlejohns, a former British Royal Navy commander). ”The idea was to get away from the usual presentation of knobs, dials, and levers,” says Littlejohns. ”If you drive the submarine right, you get there. If you don’t, you die.”

CNN wonks, take note: SSN (also the title of a paperback tie-in) includes a 30-minute video segment in which Clancy, Littlejohns, and London Times Washington bureau chief James Adams discuss the strategic issues raised by the game. The conversation was shot in — of all places — the Congressional Nuclear Attack Bunker in White Sulphur Springs, Va. ”Here’s a real surprise,” Clancy says. ”It has indoor golf and three tennis courts. It was declassified about three years ago, and they’re still trying to figure out what to do with it.” Hey, Tom — them’s fightin’ words.