Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Interactive Art

It's been said that video games are a lesser art form than movies, books, or others because they are interactive.  If the user is allowed to shape the experience, this somehow means that it is less pure than a film, where the artist shows you what they want to show you, when they want to, and directs your attention precisely.  Of course, I think this is bollocks.  And the popular web comic xkcd has given me a wonderful example of why.

The comic is titled "Click And Drag", and it begins with a character holding onto a balloon flying through the air, saying:

"From the stories / I expected the world to be sad / And it was / And I expected it to be wonderful. / It was. / I just didn't expect it to be so BIG."

The final panel shows the balloon flyer to be a small part of a large landscape.  In truth the landscape is many many many times larger, and you can only see it by clicking and dragging the final panel to see more of the picture.  Xkcd is fond of this sort of user punking, and I rolled my eyes at it when I realized what was going on.  But then I started exploring.

The picture wasn't just larger than the viewable area, it was astronomically larger.  As I scrolled, scrolled, and scrolled it just kept going.  Little gags pepper the image, consisting of the standard xkcd stick figures, separated by what felt like miles of landscape.  Some were hilarious, other touching, but I knew there was no way in hell I would be able to see them all.

At several points I'd reach a branch.  I would see what looked like a little mine shaft cut into a hill, looking like it reached deep into the earth.  Yet the hills that it cut into continued on into the distance.  I knew that if I went into that pit to explore, I would likely never find that hill again.  What sights would I miss?  It took so long to scan through the enormous image that my choices had a consequence, not for the characters in the picture, but for me.

For something as low tech as an oversized image in a javascript (yes, I did try hacking it to see the whole thing at once), this struck me as awfully profound, and the opening dialog of the strip carried much greater meaning than I had anticipated.  Interactive art can be just as effective as non-interactive art, and in very unique ways.

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