Interview with Erik Loyer

Originally published here on the 14th September 2015

ELR: Erik Loyer since the mid-90s you have been creating and studying works of electronic literature. What was your approach to this field and where lies your main interest?

Erik Loyer: Early on in my career, I was interested in using interactive media to explicitly recreate the mindset of the author in the reader. This is a pretty universal goal for an artist, but I had a theory that interactive media might be particularly good at doing this in a more literal way. Like anybody, I’ve got a network of associations and memories that give context and meaning to my experiences, and I wanted to find out if I transcribed those relationships into an interactive work, whether it would convey more of that authorial perspective to a user/reader than other art forms could.

After following this trail for a while, however, with “The Lair of the Marrow Monkey” and “Mnemonic Membrane” in particular, I felt like I got an answer—that in interactive media, as with many other art forms, translation (processing and transforming my internal landscape with an eye towards evoking a specific response from the user) was a more powerful technique than transcription (attempting to recreate in digital form a set of relationships that were in my head). And so at that point I more or less left the “built it and they will come” mode of making behind.

“Marrow Monkey” crystallized my approach in other ways as well, with the poetic, graphic use of words, an emphasis on tactile interaction and real-time animation, strong musical and rhythmic influences, and narrative. An all these are still very much the sandbox I like to play in! It reminds me of the line from that Steve Reich piece “Proverb”: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.”

ELR: On your profile on your short biography reads that you create “stories that are played like instruments. Combining elements drawn from video games and comic books with dynamic music, gestural control, and synaesthetics (…)”. What is the purpose of the use of such features and how do they affect the reading experience?

Erik Loyer: Well, I enjoy playing the piano because it’s fun, because you can make beautiful sounds with it, and because it has a powerful effect on the emotions. Those are all the same reasons why I make the kind of work I make. I have a reasonable amount of facility with the piano, so I can step right into that experience pretty much whenever I want, but it took years to get my skills to that point. What I think interactive media can go is lend the user a bit of “instant fluency” with a voice or instrument that is unfamiliar to them, and through fun, beauty, and emotion, lead them through an experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. I often compare the sensation I’m after to what it would feel like to live inside a musical. Characters in a musical can break into song and express with complete fluency exactly what they are feeling and thinking, with seemingly no effort. I’m trying to create that experience for users, both literally and metaphorically—what would it feel like to be in a musical where you got to sing all of the songs, and where each song was its own instrument, its own possibility space constrained by circumstance and character?

ELR: Your latest work is a digital graphic novel called Upgrade Soul which is “built using a new engine for digital comics”. Could you tell us how Panoply works?

Erik Loyer: Sure. Panoply is an add-on for the Unity game engine that combines the visual language of comics with the dynamism of games. I think comics have a lot to teach us about how to design for screens, which are increasingly subdivided and increasingly being used to show us multiple streams of content at once, and so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and playing with digital comics lately. The basic premise of Panoply is that each panel is its own camera in 3D space, and what the tool allows you to do is to choreograph what those cameras are looking at and where they are rendered on the screen over time. You can use it to create multi-panel layouts that change and develop as the user swipes from step to step. Some creators use the tool to emulate traditional comics, with each camera pointed at a separate piece of 2D artwork, while others are experimenting with creating 3D environments and dropping the cameras into them at different points.

Traditional comics gone digital are kind of the Trojan horse for the tool, but I think the implications of this kind of media for “born digital” interactive storytelling are much broader. The great thing about bringing the visual language of comics to the digital realm is it enables you to create story-driven experiences whose interfaces don’t grow out of a traditional “game mechanic” but are instead heavily tied to the graphical presentation of the story itself. The presentation actually can become the interface. We’re starting to see this in interesting comic/game hybrids like “Storyteller” and “Gorogoa,” and it’s something I’m very keen to explore and enable with tools like Panoply.

ELR: Your first work “Lair of the Marrow Monkey” from 1998 is no longer available online and the last works you created run on iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch only. These restrictions raise questions about preservation and adaptation of the work of electronic literature. How do you cope as a creator with the fast changes in the digital realm?

Erik Loyer: Like many artists who work with technology, I’m lured by the promise of the new and shiny, and probably always will be. The ability to reach a broad audience with powerful, tactile forms of interactivity is one of the medium’s biggest draws for me—and why I’ve never felt especially led to do installation work. While I still have video documentation of my Shockwave-based works like “Lair of the Marrow Monkey” and “Chroma” online, seeing the work itself become increasingly inaccessible is definitely painful, and the specter of Flash going the route of earlier technologies is especially troubling given the number of works I and others have produced in that format.

I don’t regret my work in Shockwave and Flash, though, and I’ll always choose the ability to reach a wide range of people with innovative interactivity today over other approaches that may be more amenable to preservation. I am, however, quite fastidious about making backups (I have basically my whole output since 1986 stored in multiple locations) and when there’s critical data that’s in danger of becoming truly inaccessible I try to convert it to another form—this past summer I enlisted my son to help me rescue musical cue point data from “Chroma” that I feared would soon be lost, and without which it would be nearly impossible to reconstruct the piece in the future.

ELR: Last March you were at the International Comics-Festival Fumetto in Lucerne in Switzerland where you taught a digital comic workshop. Could you tell us more about this project and what your next projects will be?

Erik Loyer: This was a week-long workshop in “Motion Comics” that I taught at the Hochschule Luzern during the Fumetto comics festival, and it was a blast. First of all, it was a real luxury to have that kind of time to devote to exploring split-screen media and digital comics in so many forms, and to have students who were so eager to dive in, especially given that “motion comics” are often misunderstood, if not outright derided, in the traditional comics and media worlds at large. To avoid the baggage that comes with trying to call anything “comics,” I’ve taking to calling this practice “timeframing”—the art of choreographing boxes of time. My goal with the class was first, to get the students to think deeply about what it means from an expressive standpoint to put time in a box; whether freezing it with a still image, repeating it with a video loop, or constructing it algorithmically as video games do. Next comes the ability to think critically about the creative potential inherent in juxtaposing boxes of time: what does it mean to put two GIF animations next to each other, and what can we say by doing so? We looked not only at digital comics, but at parallax scrolling websites, split-screen movies from the 1960s, video games, and more.

The students produced their own projects over the course of the week, with really fascinating results. One of them decided to use Panoply to do her project because she already had a 3D environment built in Unity as a first-person “walking simulator”-type experience. She adapted the navigation from first-person to a multi-panel swipe-based interface with captions, and felt that as a result she was able to convey the story more effectively. For me this was a great example of how the singular perspective that tends to get privileged in video games, whether first-person or third-person, isn’t always the most effective way to tell a story.

I’ve started a site at where I’m very gradually adding my thoughts about this practice of choreographing boxes of time on digital screens, which I don’t believe has really been explored systematically before. In addition, I’ve been working towards the commercial release of the Panoply tools, and developing an open source framework for one-button performance of electronic literature called Stepwise that I hope to release next year. Beyond that, I’m doing a lot of experiments in split screen, in music-driven interaction, and in storytelling—my intuition is there’s something powerful in that combination of elements, so I’m noodling around trying to find it. We’ll see!