Doors to the Labyrinth: Designing Interactive Frictions with Nina Menkes, Pat O'Neill, and John Rechy

Article excerpt

Interactive narrative did not begin in cyberspace. It has deep, tangled roots in an array of earlier forms--such as, theater, poetry, novel, dance, opera, radio, cinema, television, and performance art. But the new electronic media provoke us to redefine these two concepts--narrative and interactivity--their distinctive functions, pleasures, and stylistics, and their complex relations with history and subjectivity.

These were the starting premises for the Labyrinth Project, a three year research initiative on interactive narrative, which I have been directing at the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California for the past two years. This research initiative has three primary goals: (1) to expand the language, art, culture and theory of interactive narrative; (2) to produce emotionally compelling electronic fictions that combine filmic language with interactive storytelling; and (3) to help establish USC as a primary training ground for new talent in this medium and as an R&D site both for experimental artists and industry.

Our first year was devoted primarily to production: launching three electronic fictions which will eventually be combined on a single DVD anthology called Doors to the Labyrinth, awarding five grants for multimedia projects in interactive narrative to USC students, and producing a Web site [less than]www.annenberg.edu/labyrinth[greater than] designed by Jessica Irish, which presented not only work in progress from our electronic fictions but also information about events to come. Our second year was devoted to organizing and hosting Interactive Frictions: an international conference (June 4-6, 1999 at USC's Davidson Conference Center), and an installation art exhibition (June 4-18, 1999 at the USC Fisher Gallery) where our own three Labyrinth productions and student grant projects were premiered along with works by other well known interactive artists.

Doors to the Labyrinth

For our Doors to the Labyrinth project we chose to work with three world class, award winning, Los Angeles-based artists who were already well known for their experimentation in non-linear narrative but had not previously worked with electronic multimedia: independent filmmakers Nina Menkes and Pat O'Neill, and novelist John Rechy. Drawing material from a long term project already in progress, each of these artists participated in the conceptual design and production. They worked in collaboration with the Labyrinth core creative team (headed by writer-producer Marsha Kinder, art director Kristy H. A. Kang, and programmers William S. Hughes, James Tobias, and Rosemary Comella) and a supporting crew (of talented USC students from the animation, Critical Studies, and Production Divisions of the School of Cinema-Television). By providing these three artists easy access to these new technologies, we hoped to enrich not only their work in progress but also the art of CD-ROM, especially its capacity to generate emo tionally-engaging narratives. During the conceptualization stage, we held an interdisciplinary all-day workshop for each project, with artists and scholars from related fields discussing interactive narrative in general and this specific project in particular. These discussions generated both heated debate and concrete ideas, which helped us design these fictions. Although first developed as freestanding CD-ROMs and a Web site (in the case of O'Neill), these three fictions will eventually be combined on a single DVD-ROM with an innovative frame and associative links among the three worlds that function as a model of intertextual reading.

These particular artists were chosen primarily for two reasons: their works are deeply personal and emotionally compelling; and their respective styles have qualities that are well suited to these new media and possibly capable of pushing them in new directions. The decision to start with artists from prior media (novel and film) rather than cyberspace was based on a paradoxical assumption. …