Monday, November 28, 2011

Response to "Toc"

From my "Future of English Studies" course.  Toc is a new-media literature project.  Here's the website.  Despite my critique below, it is worth taking a look at.

As a piece of writing, Toc has its virtues. As a piece of electronic media, it's a disaster.

Disclaimer: I'm a gamer. I have been since I was young. I grew up on Civilization II, Front Page Sports Baseball, and Doom. As important to me in college as the "Great Books" and the discussions that went with them was the purchase of my first real computer, and the weekend (and wee-morning) hours I poured into Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights (1 and 2), and countless other strategy and RPG titles. It is true that video games often do not contain great - or even good - writing, and that their stories, when they have any, are largely derivative. What they do well, however, is interface.

Toc suffers because it is "interactive" without the interaction actually amounting to anything. Sure, there's a certain randomness (and, the authors would likely argue, timelessness) to the order in which you encounter the various fragments of the story, based upon what you click when, but the fragments are sufficiently free standing that the order hardly matters. Instead, the interaction implies the game world - you have to click precisely on the little blue, green, and red lines to get the appropriate media to operate - without embracing it. The experience of the reader remains mostly passive.

A passive reader experience is fine, of course, but in this case it's the "mostly" that's the problem. The experience isn't passive, but what interaction there is either is too limiting, too frustrating, or both. The lack of controls on the videos (mostly they cannot be paused or rewinded) is a UI disaster. Clicking on the little lines is finicky. The "lens" through which the textual parts of the story is read looks bland, at best. The mix of beautiful hand-drawn images and cool 3D effects in the videos with poor and outdated CGI is jarring.

In all, the authors of Toc, it seems to me, couldn't decide whether they were making this story for readers or for users. They embraced technology as a medium without embracing the design principles that go with it. Sure, the video game industry has its faults, but design is not one of them. Sure, UI people don't have all the answers as to how we can best interact with computers, but they have some good ideas. Sure, modern digital distribution of software of all kinds raises copyright questions, but the archaic "insert CD to install" - without even an autorun function! - places Toc several years behind the times (as does its lack of a patch for the few but noticeable bugs).

Worst of all, Toc is doomed by its lack of flexibility. Though ostensibly friendly with both major operating systems, it requires Apple's Quicktime, which has a tenuous and unhappy relationship with Windows. Toc does not run in Linux (I tried), and I suspect it will struggle once the current generation of its dependent technologies has passed (that is, once we're on to OS 11, Windows 8, and Quicktime Whatever). Even if it can run, it will certainly feel outdated (as it already does). This is true for most digital media, of course, but it is particularly ironic here. For a work so sensitive to time and its illusions, Toc is perhaps more vulnerable to time's passage than most works of art and literature.

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