Upon launching Erik Loyer's The Lair of the Marrow Monkey (1998), a web-based work of digital fiction powered by Shockwave software animation, readers not only see the opening navigation screen, but must feel their way around it. Nine circles orbit, carrousel-like, around a tower constructed with two triangles, one inverted and resting on top of the other. The sound of an eerie synthesized pulsing accompanies each rotation, which speeds up the farther away the reader moves the mouse. A tiny number appears at the foot of each, counting—up or down depending on which way the shapes orbit—from one to nine.
When we move the mouse closer, the sound and the movement slows. And, when we hover over the triangles, they become pincers, allowing us to carefully close over and trap one of the circles, arresting its movement. At the same moment text is displayed just below that announces a "scene" number and name, with a further extra-diegetic directive to "[click to activate the scene]." With this abstract yet precise, even clinical intervention, we enter The Lair of the Marrow Monkey, an incipit interaction that is only appropriate for story about a collective mind experiment involving the "mnemomos"—a realm unimaginable to most, and accessible only to a chosen few.
Readers learn that one of those chosen few is Orion17, a chronically unemployed music school graduate who is struck by a glorious vision while watching a commercial for a used car dealership, in which sounds were visible to him as information patterns. Orion17 finds out that his strange synaesthetic experience was prompted in part by the coincidence of a series a highly secretive of mind experiments being run in the same town by one Dr. Ian Andrews. He is determined to regain his vision, and convinced that he possesses the gift that allows him to access this new realm of collective consciousness. After persistent correspondence to the "Institute for the Investigation into the Mind of Marrow," and eventually directly to Anders himself, he gains acceptance as a subject in the experiment.
What follows is a story of discovery and disillusionment, told in the form of poems, letters, monologues, and even transcribed orientation sing-alongs. The narration shifts in some scenes to the other "marrow monkeys" who are subjects like Orion17, but all of these elements are encased by the narrative about and narration by him, which begins and ends the text as a whole.
Musical tracks accompany most of the nodes, which range from ambient and minimalist to jazz. Each scene, furthermore, requires some form of user intervention to display or, in some cases, dynamically generate the text. For example, in the opening prelude, we hear the narrator give what amounts to a spoken word rendering of his internal monologue against a rhythmic backdrop, while we see each word of the monologue explode across the top half of the screen and resolve into their left-to right ordering upon landing. A more traditional rendering of the words—as part of cohesive sentences—is meanwhile generated just below and in sync with each linguistic detonation.
But perhaps the most dramatic instance of interactive motion graphics is the "mnemonic membrane," a device that is central to both the text's narrative design—serving as, we can presume, a fulcrum of the Institute's experiments—and to its aesthetic design; that is, the membrane is clearly the most special of the special effects on offer. It allows users to manipulate a surface by dragging and dropping a word or words onto it, thereby causing it to produce memories, which, upon reaching the minimum conditions for syntactical representation, are displayed in a running column underneath it. The membrane thus explicitly animates a recombinant poetics that productively draws on the rich Oulipan tradition of generative language art and the algorithmic creativity that colors such computational art.
The tight synchronization between audial and visual elements that respond to the user's movement sets the stage for an encounter that continually draws us in sensually, while the non-representational imagery—not to mention its deliberate thematic esotericism—keeps us at a distance cognitively. At the same time, the ordered narrative (which provides for "next" and "back" navigation in each scene despite the initial lure toward multiple entry points) is enough for us to sustain our own attempts to follow Orion17's pursuit of the mnemonos.
The Lair of the Marrow Monkey is a short work of digital fiction, even taking into account the high level of dynamic graphical interaction and interplay, and is in fact the basis for a much longer work by Loyer that followed in 2001, Chroma, which extends the themes laid out in the Lair and its project of interactive motion graphics.
Loyer's text has had a rich reception history both as a web-based interactive installation piece and as a work of digital literature. It was one of the first websites to be added to a permanent collection of a major art museum (San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art), won the 1998 New Media Invision Silver Award for Best Personal Web Site, and received an Honorable Mention at the 1999 Prix Ars Electronica.