When Sophie met Socrates

SOPHIE'S WORLD. Macmillan Interactive. Publishing(0171 881 8000). CD-Rom for Windows PCs and Apple Macintosh, Pounds 39.99. Available from good software dealers and bookshops

Coming soon to a screen near you. . . and Bridget Martyn says this on-line version of a ground breaking novel is one of the best CD-Roms to date

Every now and again you come across a work that breaks new ground. This is true of the novel, Sophie's World, the phenomenal sales of which surprised even its publishers.

Written by Norwegian teacher Jostein Gaarder, the story revolves around a labyrinthine journey which Sophie undertakes on her 15th birthday. Taking the novel as its basis, the Multimedia Corporation, with Macmillan Interactive Publishing, has transformed Sophie's World into a CD-Rom of style and sophistication.

Designed as a computer game rather than a reference tool, it involves the player directly in Sophie's search for reality and identity. With the help of videos, text and filmed dialogues between Sophie and her guide, the philosopher Alberto, we are taken through 3,000 years of Western thought.

The disc contains 20 "scenes" that illustrate philosophical concepts ranging from mythology to existentialism. A reference band, which can be accessed at any point of the game, takes us through epochs of history and highlights the lives and work of key philosophers. The 70,000-word text is clearly written in language comprehensible to anyone over 14, and the information provided is enough to flesh out a research project on, for example, religion, economics, politics or social history, aided by a bibliography for further research.

Features such as "big questions" challenge us to consider fundamental enigmas such as "Who am I?" and "Is there a Right Way to Live?" We are shown what the greatest thinkers have said and, with the help of a philosophy map, we see how their replies have shaped the world we live in.

If this disc has a downside, it is that an impatient user or busy teacher cannot access the storyline at random to prepare for a lesson. It requires an investment of several hours to solve puzzles and answer questions correctly before you can prove you have understood the philosophical concepts and may then move backwards or forwards over any part of the disc.

Bedevilled by the superficiality of the medium, we are occasionally short-changed. Thus the death of Socrates is telescoped into 23 seconds, failing to capture anything of the poignancy described by Plato.

At the end of the journey we can access files on each participant - including our own, compiled on the basis of our responses during the quest. But since we have learnt by now that "there are no facts, only interpretations" we are free to draw our own conclusions.

Sophie's World is one of the best CD-Roms so far created. I recommend it.

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