Monday, March 06, 2006

The Lie of Interactivity

Do you remember, back in the early days of the internet, when people thought that animated GIFs were a really neat idea? Suddenly every web page you visited was covered in a fairy dust sprinkling of spinning, twirling, morphing, glowing, pulsing, shifting images. Whole company names would be made out of asynchronously spinning letters because managers who thought it was a cool gimmick told the tech people to do it. This, of course, was a terribly bad idea. Firstly, because everyone in those days was on dial-up and web pages like that took a goddamn age to load, but also because it was, simply put, bad design. It took a couple of years before cooler heads prevailed and good design was finally defined.

We are in another of these “isn't that neat” phases with interactivity now. Welcome to the internet circa 2006. Interactivity has been made easy by 10 years worth of tools being designed to provide just that. You have your choices, from simple DHTML, to JavaScript, to AJAX (and all the web applications popping up like weeds on all sides of the cyber-boulevard), to the magic of Flash. Interactivity has been made easy because so much time has been spent on making it easy to produce. If you want it, you can have it. No questions asked.

The lie we have been told is that Interactivity is Enough.

The lie has been around as long as computers. Even before we made things that played back, we knew that we could. We knew that there was an infinite potential for the computer to respond to input. Engineers and programmers could make the machine jump and react to the user. There would be interactivity, and it would be good. It was really the thing that sold the computer, the internet; the idea that we could have a system that responded to us.

But really, interactivity is a very flat idea. As defined by, interactivity is “the extent to which a computer program and human being may have a dialog.” So, you push a button, the computer beeps – that's interactive. You move your mouse, an animation plays – that's interactive. Interactivity is simple to achieve, but it fails to cover what I am looking for most often. It's also not enough for game to simply achieve interactivity.

I think that this little rant has come off the rails. I got linked to a new webcomic last night. Now, I like webcomics. I read a fair number of them. I find them interesting. They are a wonderful source of story and funny, passion and art. I like finding new ones. They are also an off-shoot of the more familiar pen-and-paper comics, but with the freedom to explore all that the interconnected medium offers. Like interactivity.

This webcomic tells a story using images and dialog. Right now the story is a simple one of a bird and his freedom. The comic explores the boundaries of interactivity by allowing the user to play with the last panel of the comic. But it fails to enhance the story at all, because interactivity is not enough. It is not enough that, in the latest installment (the permanent link might one day be here), you can control the descent of the bird. You should be able to do something that makes controlling the bird worthwhile. If the outcome is always the same, then there is no point. The interactive gimmick is a waste of time.

Now, this is a webcomic and not a game. But if we want to really start telling stories in a medium that interactivity is such a part of, and buzz word in, then we have to learn that interactivity is not enough. Allowing the user some control only to shove a pre-determined narrative down his throat without allowing for at least some sense of effect (upon the outcome, or the world, or the characters) is a pointless exercise. It is not enough, and it should not be acceptable for us.

But the lie has become so all-pervasive that a medium that is all about the story, and stretching the boundaries of storytelling, has fallen into it.


  1. I think I know how you feel. The whole reason I started I am a Rocket Builder was to play around with what I see as wasted potential in webcomics a a medium.

    People coming to the site through a link to a specific bit of it often don't know that the interactive stuff is part of a
    larger experiment.

    Experiment is the word here, and it is a newish experiment so there isn't as much to see yet as I would like there to be. The interactive part of IAARB is inspired by a flash site I used to check out when I was learning actionscript. He would post little experiments in flash, trying to see where it could be taken. Not always the most cutting edge, just a bit of a doodle and then a bit more.

    The idea is that I'm playing and experimenting. How does interactivity fit into a comic without taking away the comicness of it? Pretty much every interactive comic that I've seen really just lets the user control when panels are revealed or when a special animation or doodad is shown. I wanted to try in every installment a different way of engaging the reader without giving up the fixed nature of the story.

    In that last installment it was a game with a virtual gutter. The starting and ending images of the final panel could have been placed next to each other and told the same basic story. In between, as Scott Mc. tells us, our mind would fill in the actual fall. What if that wasn't just a quick moment in the imagination, but a game-like environment. Would that take the imagination and the life out of the transition or would it foster a new kind of connection? I actually thought it might bring some sympathy for the bird to put the reader in his shoes. Turns out it just brought out the sadism in most people. That's ok though. I thought of adding a reward for dodging the shelves but honestly the whole thing took much longer than it should have anyway and I don't think that would have added much. I would have made it a bit more polished, a bit more complete, but I'd already gotten out a good sketch of the kind of interactivity I wanted to play with.

    I guess I'm approaching these as a learning experience. The question for me isn't "Is that the perfect way to tell that bit of story", but "Ooh! What'll happen if I try this?"

    I, for some reason can't log into websnark so I would be indebted to you if you would post this for me.


  2. Oh my god, what is WRONG with you? All that was said about it on websnark was that it was fun, and enjoyable. Nobody said it was earth-shattering or interactive! Being able to redirect it in a limited way is part of the charm, the reason you don't get that is that you're so enamoured of hearing yourself talk that you don't stop to examine what's being said. Being able to /participate/ in that moment is the point, not any myth of interactivity as a buzzword.

    I think the fact that the user is NOT in control is part of the /charm/ of this comic. It simply makes the comic more tactile, more experiential. The fact that you don't really know what will happen and you're not entirely in control is part of the way you experience the story without it becoming just another flash game. You can provoke the action, but you are still a witness to it. You can open the squid's eyes but you can't really control where they go or what size or when they will close. You can move the eyes in the cages but you can't control where they will go. And you can move the bird, and participate in the smacking, but you can't save him and you can't really make his situation any worse. That's part of what /works/ here, it's not a lie or a /problem/

    The people snarking at Weds are the ones getting the wrong idea here, and it's not supported by anything actually SAID. They're just clambering all over each other to put something down without even comprehending what's being discussed.

    B-- PLEASE don't change what you're doing based on the crap that collects around webcomics discussion. I think what you're doing is absolutely charming, and I get what the intent is, just to play around and experiment. It /is/ enough by itself, and I think you're right about the wasted potential. It'd be a shame if pressure redirected anything here.

  3. Thank you, B, for your response. I'd like you to know that I read all of the available IAARB comics before making my post here. I like it. I think you have a very interesting world, and I love that you are creating four intertwined story-lines. I'll try to keep reading it. It would be easier if there was a better way to let people know of new updates (an RSS feed maybe?). I understand that it is your personal playground and experiment centre. I look forward to what you will create in the future. I also understand your reasons for simplifying your interactive panels.

    I saw your comic and it set a fire in my brain about all the things it could be, and how that applies to things I want to make.

    Now, Anonymous, I refer you to Wednesday's original post.

    Others will wax eloquent about the vast potential of interactivity in webcomics. That's their lookout. They can totally go do that. But, last night, exhausted and frustrated from playing catchup with the molasses, this was the fulfilment of experimental webcomics' potential and I was all atwitter with it.

    I believe that this is, in fact, Wednesday saying that interactivity in webcomics is completely fulfilled by IAARB. You can make something happen. And, you know what? It is. The ability to steer a bird left and right, smashing it into shelves, is as good as it gets. That is interactivity (I think I've said this, and posted a definition of the word). She is satisfied with this, it is enough for her.

    Me? I'm waxing eloquent about the vast potential that participation beyond interactivity has in webcomics, and other forms of fiction in general (such as games), because that is my lookout. I don't have anything bad to say at all about IAARB. I'm pretty sure that I didn't mention anything very specific about the comic content at all. For the record, I think that the comic has a lot of potential and a very good start. With a grand total of 12 strips (in 4 story arcs) he has already made a solid impression on me, and created a dynamic and creative world.

    This comic actually makes me excited as much as frustrated. I see stuff like this and my first reaction is elation. People are trying to make their stories dynamic. They are looking for new ways to bring the reader in and connect them to the work. There is this vast potential for tactile and synaesthetic interaction. But there is also a potential for reader participation and dynamic content. There is room to grow, should the author look for it.

    The frustration extends from a constant disappointment. Each time I've come across something claiming to be experimental or innovative or interactive, I find that all it really means is that I can push a button and get a beep. The whole of the internet is filled with displays of interaction. It seems that all we can create are interactive dioramas. Is this bad? No. Do they have merit simply because they are interactive? No. They can have merit if they are fun, or entertaining, or creative.

    I think that there is a magic that is yet to be found if we look beyond the current boundaries set in our minds. We have been trained to see interaction as the end result when it should be seen as a means to an end. The result should always be a better story. Should B continue to create his comics anyway he feels is right? Absolutely. Keep making doodads and widgets that move and dance when you click. Would it be better if the interaction isn't the end? I certainly think so.

    I just want to get people (mostly myself) thinking about how we can use interactivity to create something participatory. Something the audience can feel a part of.

  4. It's called artful writing, jackass. Before she says the keywords you're homing in on, she says:

    Others will wax eloquent about the vast potential of interactivity in webcomics. That's their lookout. They can totally go do that.

    Acknowledging right off the bat that she is not doing that. She is NOT talking about the vast potential of interactivity in comics. She is talking about what worked for HER on one particular night, what really made her happy, as illustrated by the rest of your quote:

    But, last night, exhausted and frustrated from playing catchup with the molasses, this was the fulfilment of experimental webcomics' potential and I was all atwitter with it.

    THAT night, while she was tired, while she was feeling frazzled from dealing with frustrating things, this was absolutely the best thing experimental comics had done for her. In that context, that was the fulfilment of experimental webcomics' potential. It hit the spot. It made her happy.

    What the hell is wrong with that?

    She said, it's not a statement of this being the pinnacle of all creation. She said other people can wax on about that. But people like you PILE ON and create this false impression not only of what's been said but of how the comic has somehow failed criteria that were never applicable in the first place, and in the process discourage not just the person trying to express a personal opinion but the artist trying to do exactly what got done here-- which is a HELL of a lot more valid a pursuit than trying to be the very most cutting edge doodad to catch your attention.

    I think you flatter yourself by saying you wax eloquent at all here. I don't see that happening. I should wax on about the vast potential of eloquence and how very many ways you fall short. How there is true eloquence out there, and how this simply doesn't qualify. But I'm not a puffed up self-installed expert on eloquence trying to get "people (mostly myself) thinking" about the vast potential of eloquence. And that, by the way, seems the most honestly used quote involved in this.

  5. Hello again my anonymous troll. I'm not sure what I've done to insult you. But from the evident vehemence you have towards me, people might think I've kicked your dog. And the best part? Thanks to the anonymity of the net, I don't even have the pleasure of knowing who is attacking me. But that's ok; it is your right after all.

    So is mine to look at something and see potential for expansion.

    I get it that Wednesday found the little bird-hitting thing fun and relaxing. I get it that she is not looking for more out of it. Or webcomics in general. Or interactivity.

    I Am.

    That was why I put my thoughts on my own blog. I posted my initial reaction on Websnark, and my further musing on the topic here. I'm not even sure why you are attacking me for my opinion.

    I looked at this webcomic. My first reaction was, "Ok, neat. I can make it do stuff." My second was to explore what it was, and what it could do. I did that. Including playing with all his interactive comics, and reading the rest of the archives.

    My third reaction was, "now, what else could it do?" It is obviously able to entertain. It contains story. It is intermingling interactive and ambient elements into a traditionally static form, and to some positive effect. But what more could it do to extend the audience’s experience and make them a part of the narrative?

    My last reaction was to wonder why I so often get those three same reactions to a lot of stuff of a similar nature I've seen on the internet. I think that B. Shur would agree with me that he is not currently doing anything innovative. It's not really his goal, either. I respect the effort he is making to further his own understanding of the technologies and his art form with experimentation and practical demos. That's cool.

    I just think that too many people see interaction as enough. You do, anonymous, or you would be more interested in the potential that I am a Rocket Builder has as a medium to communicate deeper participative story, than in its current state of being.

    Do I think anybody is doing anything wrong, thinking anything they shouldn't, or in any way out of place? Only you and your abuse of my opinion.

  6. Thanks for posting at websnark for me! I don't know what's up with the log-in thing.

    Mr. Anon
    I appreciate the defense, but in the end all the dude was guilty of was overzealouness. I'm not offended because, well... it is the internets. Both of you guys are saying worthwhile things and, I hope, any animosity is coming from the tone of the discussion rather than the real content.

    Duncan- "Interactivity could be so much more interesting than it has been in ANY webcomic"

    Anon- "Be respectful of other's work and discussions"

    Maybe I'm mis-reading, but I'll bet we can all agree that these are valid and true things.

  7. I'm reading "The Art Of Interactive Design" by ol' man Crawford, and his defintion of interactivity entails a process by which two actors take turns listening, thinking and speaking. A webcoming then, listens in terms of its links, speaks in terms of its content, but only thinks in terms of direct links and maybe a few loops. Therefore, a webcomic is only weakly interactive. Crawford points out that interactity isn't a boolean have-it-or-don't thing, but a graded value. Hence the gimmick factor of making it just interactive enough to be called so, without actually doing anything.

    I'm all for writers stretching the boundaries of their medium with interactivity, but I think a better way to do that is with a stronger platform than a few DHTML links.

  8. Pff, if I were a troll I wouldn't be discussing things on a rational level, just telling you that you were gay and all that. Not to mention, I'd be jumping all over myself trying to make it about people noticing me, but it's not about who I am or about attacking you, it's about principle, so I'm not going to rise to the bait. The fact that I find some of your assertions frustrating to the point of jackassery does not automatically make me a troll. Pardon me if I find it irritating, taking a quote that specifically says /other/ people are tasked with waxing on about potential and using that quote to claim the narrator is doing so. That kind of stark self-contradiction is irritating to me.

    It's not your opinions being abused here, it's your assertions-- and if you want to know why the hostility, take a look at the name you chose for the html here for crying out loud. Who lied? Nobody. The page didn't lie, it only said it was /sorta/ interactive. Wednesday didn't say it was innovative, she said it hit the spot for her in that moment, that in that situation this was the best thing experimental comics had done for her. The only one lying here was you, or simply getting it wrong, because you went off on a rant about how people failed at things they were never offering in the first place.

    You want to know why I was hostile, it's because you attacked people for not doing something /you/ want done, as if it's the duty of all creators out there to do what /you/ want and nobody's allowed to do what /they/ feel like doing with their experiments because it doesn't live up to /your/ expectations. You complain about a narrative being shoved down your throat, when you shove your predetermined idea of what's pointless or not down ours, how does that work?

    It's not about what's enough or not for me, or for you, or for anyone, it's about appreciating a thing for what it is rather than encouraging people to put it down or chuck it in the garbage just because it doesn't share your aims. I don't fault you for wanting comics that let you determine their outcome. If the comic was good I'd probably enjoy that as well. I fault you for asserting that because the interactivity is used as an enhancement rather than as a determining factor in the story, the whole thing is pointless and should not be acceptable. That, quite frankly, ticks me off.

    Don't act like you just posted this on your little corner and the mean ol' troll came after you. You advertised the posting on websnark hoping to get links in here, and you happened to get one that disagreed with you rather than patting you on the back. You went off on a rant, you say so yourself mid-rant, and you blamed two people-- weds in the comments rather than the main rant-- I happen to like a great deal, for disappointing you by not giving you what /you/ want while writing off what they really brought to the table.

    It's OK for you to say that somebody else's work should be unacceptable, but it's not OK for somebody to find your work unacceptable? How do you figure that?

    Anyhow, if you're going to play the troll card there's no point discussing, didn't realize you could dish out criticism but you couldn't deal with anybody disagreeing with it.