Back in 1998, when I first saw The Lair of the Marrow Monkey I was totally taken in. In an era of CD-ROMs which sequenced the user through mostly static screens, or of experimental works with seemingly random or chaotic interactions, Lair‘s merger of storytelling with focused interactivity was really special.
And then, three years later, along came Chroma (2001), which took those ideas and advanced them to new heights. The work connected the interactive experience to the unfolding narrative with a simultaneous tightness and fluidity that was remarkable.
Sadly, because they require Shockwave, the pieces are on the verge of extinction. But they’re still online if your browser supports it. If not, then there is a full set of videos showing them being used. Definitely worth checking-out!
These two beautiful pieces were created by Erik Loyer. And as I’ve been posting lately about how to incorporate interactivity into linear experiences, this seemed like an ideal time to ask him about his work. Here then is our Q&A…
Q: What was your inspiration in creating Lair? Was it an independent work?
The Lair of the Marrow Monkey had two main inspirations: a piece called Ding an Sich by Piotr Szyhalski, and experimental work done by the designer Michael Worthington at CalArts. I was working at the alternative CD-ROM games company Inscape at the time, and our art director had both Szyhalski and Worthington visit our offices to show their work. As we had been spending our days at Inscape creating these sprawling, multi-year CD-ROM projects, I was struck by, and very much attracted to, the small scale of the pieces these two designers were creating, attuned as they were to the very limited world wide web of the mid-90s. These were works one could imagine developing over the space of a few weeks or even days, and yet through strategic use of dynamic animation, sound, and simple interactivity their experiential impact was much greater than most of us had been conditioned to expect by the rhetoric of the CD-ROM age, in which bigger was always better. When Inscape collapsed in 1997, I started working on my own website in my suddenly abundant spare time, and in about two weeks put together the piece that later became the “Mnemonic Membrane” chapter of Lair.
Q: Can you talk a little about the story – and the process of authoring Lair. Did you develop the story first, or simultaneously with the programming and interactivity?
The story for Lair was assembled from various fragments—poems and other short pieces I had been writing over several years, exploring what “being digital” meant at a time when the cultural impact of computers on everyday life was expanding rapidly. For my first website, the immediate precursor to Lair, I had developed this conceit of a fictional research institute where intrepid explorers were mapping the contours of a recently discovered “natural cyberspace” called “mnemonos,” and then sharing their discoveries through interactive journal entries posted online. The story was a pretext that not only allowed me to bring together these disparate fragments and give them a reason for being in one place, but also enabled me to construct a larger story arc that put those fragments in a narrative context. I wanted to tell the story of someone who fell in love with the unique joys and capabilities digital technology, faced its obsessive underbelly, and came out of the experience still in love, but no longer blindly so. That arc was implicit in the sequencing of the pre-existing poems and monologues I selected for the site, and then I wrote some new material to help bridge certain gaps as the piece was being created.
Q: The piece unfolds with what feel like a series of interactive puzzles — or are they more like interactive toys that accompany the story? What were you hoping to achieve with them?
Each “chapter” of Lair is meant to function as a window into its authoring character’s subjectivity. Some chapters take the form of letters which the user reads in a special interface; others are more elaborate interactive pieces. I was very much smitten with the operas of John Adams, and really wanted to structure the work as a series of arias, moments in which time stops and a character unburdens themselves about what they’re thinking and feeling. That impulse also informed the titling of each chapter using the initial words of the character’s monologue, as you often see with operas. I was also very keen to avoid representational imagery in the work; I wanted to prove something about the potential of interactive media by portraying the thoughts of a character purely through dynamic abstract graphics and typography.
Q: What do you think is the piece’s most interesting aspect?
For me, Chapter 6 (the “Mnemonic Membrane”) is the most successful. In that chapter I think I figured out the correct balance between giving the user a satisfying degree of autonomy within a predefined text, while still letting that text shape the overall experience. The source text for that chapter was a 33 stanza poem I had been attempting to adapt to interactive media in various ways for five years (by that time). In a way, that poem was my school for learning how to design for the medium. By the time I produced “Mnemonic Membrane,” I had more or less exhausted what I knew how to do with the poem in an interactive format, but decided to give it one more go, this time with a radically different approach. All my past attempts had centered around revealing the poem as I had originally written it. Having gotten that impulse out of my system, I was now free to let users “remix” the poem as they saw fit using the interface that turned the poem’s themes into sources of vibration in a digital surface, which would respond by emitting related text from the poem in semi-random sequence. Each theme had a signature style of vibration, and by combining them the user could “feel” their way through the themes of the poem in completely non-linear, and yet satisfying ways. The nature of the interaction enabled users to actively engage the work by hypothesizing about what might happen if certain themes were combined, while still constraining the overall interaction within the content of the poem.
Q: What was the design and production process like?
Lair was actually a refinement of concepts from my very first site, which was called Institute for Investigation into the Mind of Marrow, and for which “Mnemonic Membrane” was originally developed during the summer of 1997. The form and text of Lair really started to take shape in December of that year, energized by an early 1998 submission deadline for the L.A. Freewaves festival (The Freewaves festival in 1996 had been my very first public exhibition). I did all the design, music and programming for the site myself on evenings and weekends. The biggest technical challenges involved the synchronization of animation and music in Chapter 5 and Chapter 9, techniques which ended up being much more fully developed in my next project, Chroma.
Q: Great segue! So… after Lair, you launched Chroma. How did that project come about?
Chroma is a serialized sequel to Lair that follows the characters as they continue to explore this “natural cyberspace” they’ve discovered, delving into issues of race and ethnicity in digital space. The ideas for both Lair and Chroma evolved during roughly the same period of time in the mid 90s, but I didn’t initially think of them as related projects. In fact, Chroma was originally a pitch for a CD-ROM adventure game with a completely different premise and story (though still dealing with issues of race), and was a project I unsuccessfully tried to get produced while I was working at Inscape. After the success of Lair, I had the opportunity to apply for a Rockefeller Film/Video/Multimedia Fellowship, and adapted the themes of Chroma to fit the world and characters of Lair. I was fortunate enough to receive the fellowship, and then the project began in earnest.
Q: The integration between the story and the interaction was so much tighter, fluidly evolving in-sync to the narrative. How did you develop that idea?
By the end of the production of Lair I had become very interested in an approach I called “interactive music video” — a very tightly synchronized combination of interactive motion graphics, music, and narration. Music has always been integral to my artistic practice. I’m constantly making analogies between other forms of creativity and musical composition, and always striving for musical qualities in my work. I think the fact that music is fundamentally abstract and can be enjoyed on both visceral and cerebral levels simultaneously is a big part of its appeal for me. With Chroma I felt I really wanted musical dynamics to drive the experience. Even though in some ways this resulted in less interactivity than was present in chapters of Lair, it was important to me to take this approach as far as I could.
Q: And the project’s design and production process?
The Rockefeller funding enabled me to take a more expansive approach to the design and production of Chroma than I could with Lair. I wrote the script and hired a casting director named Patrick Baca to help me secure professional voice talent, and I enlisted two colleagues of mine from Razorfish as well: Anita Lozinska as art director, and Eric Campdoras on the programming side. Overall, it was a fantastic experience and process. I did a lot of pre-production, developing interaction concepts and musical ideas for each chapter, creating an animation engine to drive the work, and refining the script. Once the voice-over recording was completed the production really took off, with Anita, Eric and I having regular meetings to develop the overall look and feel as well as specific technical implementations for the various chapters. The main development work unfolded over about two years, after which time I realized I had bitten off much more than I could chew and had to stop the project after completing about a third of the story.
Q: After these pieces, what came next? And what are you up to now? Are there threads of continuity you try to have with your work?
After Chroma, I completed a number of commissioned art projects before being hired as Co-Creative Director of the experimental online-only academic journal Vectors. Vectors has been and continues to be a wonderful interactive design playground in which I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with a range of brilliant scholars, artists and activists on some great projects. My work with the Vectors team today centers around helping to develop publishing tools for media studies scholars that will enable them to write born-digital scholarship which relies heavily on dynamic media, using rhetorical structures that are impossible to achieve in print. Continuing the musical theme that’s always been a part of my work, I see this practice as a kind of digital instrument-making.
In my personal work, I’ve become increasingly interested in adapting the visual language of comics to interactive media, combining illustration with explorations in interactive music and touch- and gesture-based interfaces to create hybrid storytelling experiences. Even though the forms of these new projects are much different than those of Lair or Chroma, for me they are the direct descendants of those experiments with narrative, music, and interactivity, with touch control having removed some of the limitations that were inherent to those pieces. My most recent work in this vein is an iPhone app called Ruben & Lullaby, and I’m currently developing a new project for the iPad.
Q: Thanks so much for your time.