The Madness of Roland

This CD for Macintosh, created by Greg Roach, is billed as "The world’s first interactive multimedia novel." When you launch it, you are presented with a nicely implemented turn-style screen presenting the seven chapters into which the story is divided. Clicking on the chapter icon takes you to the turn-style screen for that chapter. Each chapter contains several subchapters, each presenting an event from one character’s point of view. In some cases, the characters describe the same event; in most, the characters relate completely different experiences each of which advances the story. Clicking on the icon for a subchapter activates that subchapter.

Each subchapter is a sequence of leaves (or "frames" in other terminologies). Each leaf presents some text. To put it crudely, you navigate through this structure and read the text.

Ah, but that crude explanation does not communicate the depth of this product. In the first place, the prose is far and away superior to the dreck we so often encounter in other computer entertainment products. Roach can write English that soars. His verbal imagery drips with passion and ripples with power. I must protest, however, at his obsession with describing people’s teeth.

In the second place, the prose is narrated by actors. What’s important here is that the actors did a good job. Their vocal characterizations come through quite clearly. I was often impatient, my reading being so much faster than their narration, but it was so entertaining that I tarried to hear it.

In the third place, Roach included a variety of embellishments. Each subchapter as a sun icon and a moon icon; clicking on these presents you with additional material (poetry, video clips) that are not directly related to the story, but add something to the experience. Also, some of the words in the text are bold-faced in standard hypertext style; clicking on them yields appositive text that enhances the prose. In a few cases, clicking on the bold-faced text triggers some additional imagery.

The whole tone and style of this product is very artsy. Even though there are swords and there is sorcery, this is not your typical swords and sorcery epic. There isn’t anything adolescent about this product. Sorry, folks, no bulging breasts, no cute animations of swordfights or wizards’ lighting bolts. Yes, there is plenty of fighting, plenty of sex, and plenty of sorcery but it’s in the text, and thus is done far more intriguingly than your typical juvenile computer game. One other thing: the sex is not voyeuristic 14-year-old ogling/giggling pap. These people fuck.

The sound is another area that game designers could learn from. The artistic standards of the sound and music are very high. Please understand, though, the distinction between technical excellence and artistic excellence. There are many products on the market that can boast of technical excellence, but are utter crap in the artistic dimension. If I hear one more exciting/snappy/action-packed tune on my computer, I think I’ll puke. It was impressive to hear music and sound that was intended to generate a wider variety of emotional responses than mere excitement. There was music, from gentle airs to fanfares to pounding drums. There were deep rumblings and subterranean murmurs, dark groans and light background chatter. The cumulative effect made the work of our industry look utterly juvenile. This guy knows sound.

Another thing I like about this design was its deliberate exploitation of the limitations of the medium. Most designers fight the medium in an idiotic techie-macho attempt to prove that they can get more pixels, in more colors, moving around on the screen than anybody else. They use the most garish palette they can to demonstrate the number of colors they’ve got on the screen. Roach didn’t do this. He deliberately used darker tones in his movie clips, forcing the eye to struggle with the image, to impute information that was only suggested but never explicitly revealed.

The down side
You didn’t think that I’d offer uncritical praise of this product, did you? You didn’t think I’d let Roach off the hook without at least some acidic observations, did you? As a matter of fact, I do have just one tiny criticism of The Madness of Roland:

It ain’t interactive.

No way. No how. Not even close.

Let us examine what the user does. Consider, for starters, the navigational system that allows you to experience any portion of the story. Isn’t this interactive?

Nope. I can do that with a book. The navigational procedure is called "flipping pages". The ability to flip pages doesn’t make a product interactive.

Next come the digressive embellishments, the little "click here to see more" tidbits scattered throughout the product. These are not interactive, either; they’re nothing more than footnotes tacked on to the basic design, but they’re worse than a book’s footnotes, because you have to work to get them.

In the entire product, I can recall exactly two sequences that might theoretically be called "interactive". In the first, the program asks you, "What is the color of your fear?" and offers you a set of color swatches on which to click. Whichever color you choose is then integrated into a subsequent poem with a brief phrase alluding to the chosen color. I do not consider this to be substantive interactivity.

The second interactive sequence is even worse. You are asked to declare your gender. If you click on "Man", you get a screen that says, "Leave me". If you click on "Woman", you get a poem. Whoop-de-doo!

A simple test clearly demonstrates the lack of interactivity in this product. Suppose I were to start over from the beginning, videotaping the monitor output as I went, and went through the entire product in one sitting. This would take several hours. When done, I would have two versions of The Madness of Roland: a purportedly interactive CD version, and an unquestionably noninteractive videotape version. Now suppose that I presented these two versions to two different people. Would the videotape viewer derive substantially less benefit from the experience than the CD user? Would he get less entertainment/enlightenment/edification?

I think not. I think that the videotape version provides only slightly less than the CD. The vast majority of the material in this product is totally expository. Roach is talking to his audience, and talking beautifully, powerfully, artistically. But he is not listening. There is no interaction to speak of.

Roach has created an art film whose commercial value arises from the novelty of the medium he has chosen. He has not created an interactive novel, or an interactive anything. Despite the obvious artistry of his creation, it does not show us anything about how to make interactive art.

Nonetheless, I recommend this product to game designers. There are many good ideas here about presentation, narration, use of color and sound. Unlike most of the techno-schlocks in this business, Greg Roach is an artist, and I think that we could all learn a thing or two from his work.

I just wish he’d learn a thing or two about interactivity.