Limited interactivity as artistic hypermediacy

New media forms, such as virtual reality, often seek to maximize interactivity and, in turn, immersiveness, partially because these qualities were difficult to achieve prior to the advent of digital media; however, not all creators take this approach. Rather than try to push interactivity and immersion to their limits, artists such as Shelley Jackson and Joshua Hall explore what happens when, after the receiver of the story is given the option of interactivity, that interactivity is limited or taken away.

The reader can choose the order in which they experience the texts of “My Body — a Wunderkammer” by navigating using the hyperlinks within the texts and the body diagram; rather than providing a sense of power, however, the reader becomes acutely aware of a lack of information. Linked pages usually have some word, phrase, or idea in common, but a chronological or thematic relationship between the contents of the two pages may not be immediately obvious (for example, the ear and eyelid are related only by a passing mention of Durer). Meanwhile, the map that the reader is given seems to relate the texts arbitrarily; the conceptual map that would illuminate the underlying narrative running through all of texts is missing. In this way, Jackson’s work is highly reminiscent of interacting with someone in real life; we learn about the speaker through a series of more or less self-contained interactions and stories, which might follow after another as a result of a superficial relationship and which give glimpses of who she is but can never tell the full story. Hypermediacy, rather than immediacy/immersion, allow Jackson to make this point.

Similarly, the viewer of Hall’s Antiflânerie seems to have at least some control over where the narrative goes, but the control is strictly limited. In “Jeremy and Carter,” the viewer often has only two options: to continue the relationship with Carter, or to break it off, and if they choose to break it off, the story ends. This incompleteness emphasizes the idea that the choices that we make every day affect not only in which direction our story goes but can halt certain “plot” lines entirely. In “Clea,” Hall makes his point even more overtly; in order to reflect Clea’s helplessness, the choices that the “interactor” appears to be making actually have no effect on the progress of the story at all. The work’s limited interactivity and lack of mise-en-scène create a unique hypermediate environment through which Hall is able to explore different aspects of the human experience.

Aarseth contrasts ergodic literature, in which nontrivial effort is required to experience the narrative, with non-ergodic literature, in which “no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages” (1). This is an important distinction, and illuminates a spectrum at one end of which lie game-like text adventures, which require involved puzzle solving on the part of the reader, and the traditional novel, which requires little physical effort; yet Jackson’s and Hall’s works demonstrate that media in the middle of the spectrum can be just as distinct and interesting. The ergodicity of the two works is obviously higher than that of a novel, but is still fairly low, with little more required than moving a cursor and clicking. It is exactly that limited interactivity that makes their stories so effective. As technology improves and digital media evolve, it seems likely that level of ergodicity will become an increasingly important artistic channel.

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