In the mid 90’s there was a mini-boom for pop-music CD-ROMs. Unlike early titles from Voyager, which tended towards intellectual examinations of classical symphonies, these were moody, artistic, experiences. Strongly influenced by Myst, they let users move through virtual worlds, try to solve puzzles, and unlock special content. Their narratives may have been frustrating and unclear, but it was great to see artists experimenting with the medium.
It’s easy to forget how slow computers were in these days. And because CD-ROMs had a lot of lag, there was a wait when switching from scene to scene. As a result, designers usually emphasized visual richness over dynamics and interactivity. Scenes were often elaborately rendered 3D environments — something that was still pretty exciting at the time. And into these scenes small elements of dynamic content, such as videos or interactive elements, would be placed. The results were interfaces in which users could pan/scroll around and have moments of focused interaction. Remixing songs became a regular feature.
There were some beautiful titles. Peter Gabriel’s Real World Multimedia group did a couple beautiful CD-ROMs — Xplora1 (1994) and Eve (1996) — with surprisingly rich photography and artwork. And The Residents’ Freak Show (1995) was an eerie, vaguely disturbing, experience. With a little modernization, these would feel at home on the iPad.
Unfortunately the boom turned to bust. Titles were expensive to develop, and there was a sameness to many of them that resulted in audience fatigue with the format. Plus technology was changing rapidly — labels were experimenting with Enhanced CD formats and the web was emerging as a viable alternative. But it was fun while it lasted.