Interactive Critical Theory

How then to approach the question of a critical theory of interactive representation? We might start by looking at early prototypes of interactivity on CD-Rom and laserdisk. It is vital here to insist upon the distinction between the multi-linear (Forking Paths) and spatio-temporal (VR) models. In a multi-linear construct the author can play with the space between linear sections - versions of what happened, or different points of view, connected within an authored network of simultaneity and sequence. What is explored here is the space between alternative sections of writing or video - the space is a properly literary or cinematic space rather than the cybernetically governed mechanical space of VR, and one can imagine this hyperliterature being opened up to an expanded literary criticism.

The author of a simulation or VR representation works with a different set of opportunities. Here it is not so much a question of writing in space but of designing a model. Although the author describes the characteristics of the model, he or she is not the author of the events that happen within the model once set in motion. Here, as I have already discussed, it is more difficult to talk of authorship at all. An as yet unformulated critical approach to the simulation will probably be informed by cybernetics, architecture and the theatre. [15]

A number of early forays into interactive media can be considered as prototypes for multi-linear writing and as pointers to a criticism of new cultural and literary/cinematic forms. These demonstrate a tension between repression and freedom, offering the reader the illusion of control within a tightly authored set of possibilities. The multi-linear model has the advantage of being based upon and incorporating an older model, that of linear writing - a model grounded at least in part within the narrative tradition, although exceeding and threatening that tradition at the same time.

In Graham Weinbrene’s interactive cinema piece Sonata, the viewer is offered control over the aspect16 of the narration - the screen is divided into four temporal regions, left for flashback, right for the present, up for an expanded present and down for filmic elements which are outside of the time of the story altogether. In Tolstoy’s original short story the narrator unburdens himself to a stranger on a train, telling how, consumed with jealousy over an imagined affair between his wife and her music teacher, he knifed his wife to death. In Weinbren’s version the viewer is able to control the flow of narration and view the events either as perfective - seen from within the time frame of the events, or imperfective - from the external vantage point of the future. [17]

Thus if you point at the right of the screen you get the murderer recounting his story in the railway carriage, and if you point at the left you get the dramatic events played out in flashback. The sequence of events represented by Weinbren stays the same, however the mode of telling can throw the spectator inside or outside of those events. By pointing up or down you can overlay the fevered imaginings of the jealous husband (a sex scene between wife and music teacher), the mouth of the wife of Tolstoy cursing her husband's misogyny, references to Freud’s The Wolf Man and the classical image of Judith with the severed head of Holofernes. The climax of the piece is an interactive wipe which the spectator controls by waving a finger at the screen - outside the music room the agitated husband paces up and down while inside the wife and teacher practise the Kreutzer Sonata unaware of the tragedy about to befall them.

The experience of viewing Sonata is both exhilarating and dislocating. Unlike a fully interactive fiction in which story events themselves are switchable, Sonata progresses inexorably from beginning to bloody end, but the route taken is profoundly different with each viewing. One showing might be as grammatically correct as a costume drama on the BBC, another as obliquely avant garde as a French art movie. The interactivity here doesn’t ‘get in the way’ as Max Whitby suggests, but provides an extra dimension within which to write and read the movie.

Claudia Frutiger, Alejandra Jiminez and Kate Reddit have recently authored in London an interactive eternal triangle in which 3 strangers, thrown together for the night in an isolated hotel, ponder which of the other two they can bear to share the only room with. The story offers the viewer the chance to control their identifications with the characters - by choosing a character’s point of view, that character becomes the protagonist around which the story organises itself. Each point of view is partial - what is concealed from each character is more important than what is revealed. The story is cyclical, complex, enigmatic and without resolution.

What these experiments reveal is a tension between gameplay and the story, between the instrumental and the narrative function. To put it simply, the more of a story it is, the less of a game, and vice versa. A reconciliation of this impasse suggests itself from a surprising quarter. The form of pornography is both narrative and game-like, referring to a sequence of fictional events and a kind of arousal game with a clearly defined outcome - sexual pleasure. The pornographic story joins the reader in a cybernetic construct - within this cyborg-text the body of the reader and the body of the text respond to each other. Pornography has been well represented in early interactive commercial products and the notion of virtual sex is the dominant popular fantasy about VR (at least among journalists).


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