Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Interactive - The Vanishing

Interactive is open, so now I can talk about it. Without giving too many clues and hints, I'd like to write a bit about the project, give my thoughts about the creation process and the underlying structure.


When you arrive, you arrive in a replica of the Second Life Help Island, almost the first place any noobie arrives after the tutorial (that is, if they aren't an alt). You are given an opportunity to choose your shape and gender just like in the tutorial. You are also given some nice freebie clothes to begin your adventure. Continuing down the path, you are introduced to the storyline... and then you encounter my Maze.

The Maze

I have had many comments on this structure, so I will explain not only about the Maze itself, but about the meaning behind it.

When you approach the Maze, you see several things: the "sculpture" of translucent columns on the roof, the opening of the Maze featuring the very platform you just stepped off of and a series of footprints.

The Maze was designed as a microcosm of the Second Life experience, particularly that of a noobie. It's hard to cam around in. The "artwork" on the rising columns are photos from SL itself, the most common first exposure to this world: Freebies... Free Lindens... Free Sex...

Kinda dull isn't it? It's supposed to be. Because at first login, SL looks bland, dated, boring; it's difficult to use the cam, lousy textures... we all know this. But we fool ourselves into forgetting it.

The decor on the walls and floor should be a huge clue: stylized computer circuits and motherboards. The artwork is what you encountered countless times when first finding your way around SL. You see "Dating" and "Shopping" and "Dance Party!" and "Camping" and... all the dull, stupid, surface-level AOL-chatroom type junk that makes the casual sampler say, "ooo this is fun for like, two days ok i'm outta here gotta go play WoW." In the words of one avatar, "I've played a lot of games, so when I first logged on I was like what is this BS?"

Here's the words of one reviewer -

"People just don't have that kind of patience in SL. 99% of the time, "art lovers" are looking to be entertained and also to experience fantastic visuals, so when presented with an obstacle at the very beginning of a sim-wide show, and unless they know you and don't want to disappoint you, they are just going to TP out, or fly past it or..."

or LOG OFF AND GO PLAY WOW. Yep. And that is the heart of the matter we are addressing in Interactive.

[btw - First day opening: 120 unique visitors - Average time of stay: 2 hours - Longest time of stay: 5 hrs - Minimal time of visit: 70 minutes - Repeats: 62 separate avatars. Most positive feedback: from the mother of an autistic child who was ecstatic over the "game." Most negative feedback: "I am going to have to come back several times; there is so much to explore here!" (from many avatars)]

The Environment

I was helping to create and creating in the grandmothers of Second Life in 1996-1999 [ Alphaworld and Black Sun, among others] and come from a huge RP and gaming background. The VR worlds sprang from this background, so don't be so fast to discount it. When interest flagged in virtual worlds, it was the game community that held the line and was most instrumental in the progress of 3D virtual spaces and environments. And through the game worlds and the role-playing community the concept of a living world, a digital universe, was expanded and knitted together and grown. If you don't believe this, you don't know the history of digital worlds.

The first worlds were extremely interactive, as are many game worlds. They were not passive worlds. Everything was new. What most people think of as "SL" stuff was present 13 years ago: changing visuals on "prim surfaces," audio sounds linked to spaces and objects, even primitive video feeds; web page links were quite common; the entire space was loaded with tie-ins and cross-referencing and information transmission. This was the promise of VR (virtual reality); not to mimic some terrestrial billboard or gallery presentation but to transcend it, using the strengths and peculiarities of this new medium. After all, the strength and uniqueness of the network is in its' cross-connections and routing.

Remember, this is not a physical world where you might be surrounded by randomness and accidental object left by the passage of years or 10,000 people - every single element you see on a computer monitor has been deliberately crafted and placed. There are no "insignificant" elements. Objects and textures have been painstakingly placed, either to assist the storyline, provide sensual feedback, confirmation, stimulation or atmosphere. The making and positioning of them has taken many hours of work.

So when you encounter something in such a digital reality, the first thing you need to do is the exact same thing you do when visiting a new city or environment: pay attention! Look around! (er, that is if mutant alien beings or zombies aren't shooting at you).

Back To The Maze

At the very beginning of the Maze is a series of footprints. Hmmm. If this was a mystery (and we tell you it is at the very beginning), such footprints would be a glaring, nay, hackneyed and obvious clue. Since this is Second Life, and in SL many things react to you, you'd probably want to CLICK THEM.

Or, if you didn't, and you went through the Maze with only surface attention, impatient to get through it and get to something else without regarding the Maze as a work of art, to be pondered and thought about... you'd exit at the rear by the (relatively simple) pathway. At that point, if you were actively engaged in the artwork, you'd notice that the footprints changed color. You'd probably investigate them for sure at that point. You might find something quite helpful also.

At another point in the Maze, you can go down a hallway that has a transparent wall in it, which shows you a space beyond the wall, with a rather pointed sign on the wall, almost a "hey silly!" clue to remind you of where you are... and what you are doing. Both audio and chat feedback (along with the ever-helpful Mysterious Footprints) will give you some hints, but it is your own willingness to engage yourself which will help you out best (this is a rather good approach to use with any artwork).

If you, however, pay minimal attention to where you are and to the fact that this is an art installation called "Interactive" and not a movie or a walk in some sunny virtual park with birdies tweeting merrily amidst golden (laggy) sunbeams, you will eventually find a hallway with representative works of the collaboration's artists that leads to a treasure room filled with fun interactive toys and artwork. Most importantly, you will find the first Journal, which will give you the full backstory and provide other clues for the continuation of your adventure. Since it is titled "Vol. I" you'd naturally assume there is a Vol. II...

If you elect to skip the Maze as somehow being insignificant, you can always follow the footprints that lead up a slanted door at the entrance to the roof and wander amidst the columns of light... which will then sing due to your presence. This may provide some clue to you that things possibly might not be what they seem, and it would be helpful to start thinking about what you are doing and what the point of the installation is...

The roof of the Maze also makes a moving sculpture based on the movements of people inside the Maze. Those inside the Maze cannot see the sculpture but an outside observer can. The roof also sings better when several people join in to play, reinforcing the idea that interaction and collaboration produces fun and interesting effects.

Reflections and Metaphors

You might also want to take a sharp look around after exiting the Maze by either Way before you ascend the path. The seemingly-scenic Well by FreeWee Ling should jolt your brain into considering its message of reflection and depth.

The same "wandering around" metaphor of the Maze is reflected in Ali's Forest area, although in this case Ali has opened the area up and provided you with a taste of the mystery and enchantment that is possible in SL by digging and going a little further along the road of exploration. Such exploration is an active process, not a passive viewing.

[When you first come to SL, it may take you some time of wading through DJ clubs and acres of faux-townhouses before you encounter something like "The Far Away" by AM Radio or a work by Adam Ramona, Glyph Graves, White Lebed or... Alizarin Goldflake]

Around the path, a small offshoot leads to a mysterious house. Prominently displayed on the wall over an altar/shrine, is a picture of a guru. Interacting with this guru will provide you with a glaring and major clue, as will interacting with the simple-seeming wooden block hovering outside and the hilariously-funny Twister board by FreeWee, who also helpfully provides a heavy wake-up call along the path to the forest *laughing*

If you merely view it... it might not seem so interesting, in the same way a book seems a pretty dull thing - two pasteboard covers enclosing a mass of crushed and pressed wood pulp stained with ink. Without opening the book, you have no idea what is inside: the mind-numbing and lulling bodice-ripping prose of Danielle Steel or the electrifying and stimulating mirrors of James Joyce.


Interaction up until this point has been mostly up to the traveler and many elements will react to the mere passing or proximity of the viewer, leaving deeper and more meaningful displays hidden or unremarked unless actively engaged. But past the forest and the Cabaret is a crossroads: three paths diverge. One goes high, one low, the other straight on. The traveler is confronted by the first forced choice of pathways in the installation and must choose.

This is the midway point in the adventure and a comment on Second Life and VR worlds in particular; if one is not to remain a passive consumer of stimuli, reducing the metaverse to just another television show or eye-candy billboard, one must participate in choices, and not just of what outfit to buy or what shoes to wear. Treating the metaverse in this way is a reduction and a lessening of the potential inherent in the medium. This is not a duplication of physical reality in clever pixels: the metaverse is a new universe and needs to be treated as such.


From this Crossroads, the "action" speeds up and many more opportunities are presented to the traveler to actively participate in jostling, touching, acting upon and changing the environment and thus their perception of themselves as a mere sightseer to one of an active intelligence investigating and manipulating the surrounding environment.
The metaphor of virtual reality is underscored and emphasised.

Artistides' SeaDome demands you make the effort to find a way in (and a way out) and her Musician's Chair exposes you as a Creator. FreeWee's Tower provides you with a choice that can have grave consequences and her marvelous miniature village, with Art Laxness' gigantic figures peering over the surrounding mountains while you play god to the little people show you the microcosm again - worlds within worlds. Such is the metaverse.

Almost everything in the undersea Mine will react to the presence of the traveler. Many more things will give the traveler storybook clues as to hir real situation: one may enter a picture, give permission to be loved by a giant, gain a magic storied sword, have a gumball, be Venus for a photo-op. Shakespeare floats in the depths just out of reach; the Playwright's presence is revealed. The typical questions of noobs float over your head, reminding you that you are in Second Life, not under the sea.


At the end of the ocean plain, James Bond, Man of Adventure, guards the Intake Pipe of Lollito's Factory, sucking the traveler up into the machinery of the build. At the top landing, one may still choose the tourists' life, sitting for a picnic, going fishing with a rather apologetic avatar or talking to the seals and the teddy bear... "Tra la la," as David Bowie playing Jareth in 'The Labyrinth' would say.

If one continues into the (square) Factory, s/he may sit in the Controller's Chair (echoes of "The Wizard Of Oz") and wreak havoc among the machinery. A hidden (but clearly marked) Open Sesame (fairytale) door leads to a passageway beneath the sim (surface) to an Alice In Wonderland (storybook) room. A bed in the room transports the traveler into the Dream, which reveales the Dream Master (puppetmaster) pulling the strings (the reflection of Shakespeare in the depths of the sea). The ascending stairway echoes the moving barrier walls of the Maze, but this time the prims are stable and lead not into conflicting passageways but circle the Dream Master (recalling the circular structure of the Forest and the very beginning Welcome Area) and lead upward to the final destination. The Square has become the Circle.


A magical sphere takes the traveler on a god-like ride high above the sim, tethered to a star. The sim is shown as what it truly is: a small island in a sea of emptiness; a self-contained story consisting of "chapters" and "characters" made up of "prims" which are actually made up of data - representations of code given form on a computer screen by the shifting of light on a computer monitor.

At the end of this ride, the traveler is deposited in a giant sphere (echoing FreeWee's little snowglobe in the Maze's treasure room) filled with the true treasures of Second Life (and the metaverse) - links to groups, information, artworks; people, places and activities to interact with. The End Game Sphere (gumball) is the higher reflection of the humble Maze which began the traveler's journey and also provides the final clue and resolution of our story. All is revealed - the artists themselves, the final Journal, the story structure. Our main point of engagement is made clear:

A virtual world is a world indeed, and a living world demands participation and interaction. Virtual reality is not "television in 3d" where you are a passive consumer of what is presented to you; the possibilities for significant interaction and choice are wide-open and only wait for your hand to wield a creator's brush and reveal yourself as Artist and Playwright.

"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends."

- William Shakespeare, "A Midsummer Night's Dream"



June said...

Miso, I had the best fun. And I was annoyed, delighted, frustrated, puzzled, satisfied, disoriented, hopeful, confused, surprised and cheered. Much like getting through my first month in SL LOL.

A tip of the hat to you and your colleagues for a most engaging time.

A quick note to your readers - If you can, set aside a few hours to explore and play. If you can't, you can easily return when you do have time. I actually have to go back because I see I missed some stuff. And I thought I played with everything.

June Trefoil

Miso Susanowa said...

wooho Yay June! and you are N00b No More ^_^

So glad you came... and saw the Big Picture. Your intelligence and exploratory nature was why i liked you from the beginning :)

Miso Susanowa said...

June sent me a further email with permission to post it here in the Comments section...

I wanted to keep a notecard open to record my impressions as I went through the Interactive adventure.But I decided to throw discipline out and go with the flow and enjoy it. And I did.

Here's what I was thinking.

On first landing, I freaked out when I saw the gender/skin/clothes selections. Should I skip that part? It took me a month after I first came into SL to realize that well maybe the newbie skin I was still wearing just wouldn't do. Then it took another month to find a skin only to wrestle with eyebrows.

But I figured I was grownup at that point and decided on the blue skin. Easy. Then selected and changed (right there in public!) into a Vanishing tank top. You'll notice I did not select another gender. In this case, a little bit of liberation went a long way LOL.

Now in the Maze, I had a little help from a gentle guide. I think you were helping your friend's daughter, but I took advantage of it. It was tough negotiating a few things at once - the narrow path, the changing walls, the displays on the walls, a lot of stimulation, some disorientation. In a situation like that I miss details trying to just get the overview, so I can't tell you exactly what I saw. The only thing I remember is that I was not distracted by poor texturing or building. Does that make sense? The maze was beautifully crafted, but I was in survival mode :)

This email could become a dissertation, I'll spare you that and just give you some of the high points in no particular order.

I couldn't figure out where I was from the map.

In one pathway, I saw the wooden trees made by a Polish fellow, I have those, love them.

When the piano fell on me I laughed out loud and went back for more.

Took the underwater route first and went back to the miniature village after. Blew the alphorn.

Experienced extreme annoyance at the floating bubble newbie questions. It didn't help when I tried to text chat the answers. And most frustrating when I didn't know the answer!

Played in the light beam, oh that was wonderful. I was very graceful.

Typed in Mars and some other words in the picture dome. Fun looking at what others typed. Interesting results - e.g. some Mars photos, but then some removed from Mars - sort of like having one thought that leads to another.

Tried to get into the dome on the hill. Even tried to squeeze into one on the small openings. Glad no one was looking. Figured I'll get to it later.

At the ledge with the fisher people and penguins I figured, aha, go underwater.

Found my way up and of course I didn't have the dream that I needed.

Now I can't remember how I got up to the dream factory.

On the way up, fear with the gap in the steps. I soldiered on.

Then ending was most satisfying. The newbie was me! It made perfect sense.

I need to go back because I see from your blog that I missed some things.

I think the highest compliment that I can pay is that I did not want to leave. I knew I had a goal to reach, but I was invited to linger, explore and play along the way. And I did.

Talk to you soon, MIso. I need to refresh my memory on some details and I'll be going back.