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.
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 Dictionary.com, 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.