The Concuspidor & the Grand Wizard of Many Things was a story released in weekly instalments on the net from July to December 1995. The project was ground-breaking, because it was one of the first full-scale storytelling projects to attempt to exploit the interactive possibilities the web offered at the time. We’ve put these notes together on the history of the project as a record of how much has changed since then.
In 2012 we made the first material change to the way The Concuspidor looks: we added pop-up dialogues so you remain on the same page when you click on a character. If you switch these off, you’ll be seeing the story just as it looked in 1995.
By 1995 the World Wide Web was growing beyond its academic roots with the uptake of domestic use. The idea of recreational surfing, that is, using the web for entertainment, was a fledgling concept to the public, although computing students and academics already indulged in such behaviour. Commercial use of the web was mainly limited to "brochure" websites.
These days everyone recognises an email address because of the @-sign, but it wasn’t always so. Similarly, when we took some cards to a printer to have the Beholder URL printed on them, he asked us what it was, never having seen www... before. We advertised the start of The Concuspidor in the UK magazine Private Eye, which we believe was the first time a URL had appeared in that publication. In those days the web was still small enough that new websites were routinely announced (if you’re really interested, you can still see the 1995 archive from the comp.infosystems.www.announce list).
One of the earliest web comics was Where the Buffalo Roam, and close behind was the daily cartoon Dr Fun. The reason both these cartoons are remarkable is that their readership was online, and therefore they really were publishing in the new medium. However, neither was doing anything (other than distribution) that couldn’t be done on paper.
Buffalo... was hand-drawn as a “paper” cartoon would be, but was scanned and delivered online. Dr Fun was a little different in that the images (which were single-frame gags similar to the well-known Gary Larson cartoon format) were prepared on a computer — they exploited the fact that colour was readily and cheaply available on user’s screens. The images were coloured, if not drawn, on the machine.
Some other cartoons were available online (such as Dilbert) but these were generally orthodox paper cartoons that were also being distributed by web or email. One notable exception was Stephen Toth’s World of Weasels, which did use interaction and even animation. Effectively the episodes were available online for download, because they used techniques that weren’t supported by the limited browsers of the time. WoW was created by Southam InfoLab, a group specifically interested in experimenting with the new media, and started on the web about four months before The Concuspidor was launched.
We only found out afterwards, but actually Charley Parker’s cleanly-executed Argon Zark! pipped us to the post by coming out in June 1995 (one month earlier than The Concuspidor). His site still has the original material archived, but more to the point the comic is still going! This of course makes Argon Zark the longest-running web comic on the net. The style is very different, and Argon Zark is much cleverer with its graphics than the single-frame illustrations we used. (There’s also a very good collection of links to web comic related stuff on the Zark site, if you want to go exploring).
The Concuspidor turned out to be more about storytelling than cartooning, although at the start that wasn’t how we saw it. The project was a deliberate attempt to use the medium to produce something that was fundamentally different to orthodox paper comics. The main difference between what was possible then compared to now is simply that the early web was much more primitive. Data transfer rates, processor power, and browser technology have all come a long way since then. Within those limitations, we settled on using the mechanism of revealing text when a reader clicked on a character. In this way there really is very little narrative, and the story is told instead from the point-of-view of each character, in an order and depth controlled by the reader. It would be hard to do this effectively in traditional print media, because it’s not possible to hide the weight, or indeed the sequence, of text that is to be revealed.
Interactive fiction (specifically on computers) was already happening, of course, and there were lots of hypertext examples. But these didn’t use illustration as an integral part of navigation. Since our outlook was to develop this from a cartoon point of view rather than just a story we saw this as something we could improve upon. One of the weaknesses of the interactive/hypertext fiction that was out there was its fluid structure. From a storytelling point of view, letting your readers ramble all around (browsing is certainly the right word for it) usually means a loss of control over the narrative and pace of the story. Our solution to this was to enforce a clear series of scenes and release them in instalments. In this way, the interaction lets readers decode each scene in their own fashion, whilst we keep control of the story. The use of (badly) rhyming couplets in the images is the narrative voice which provides continuity and effectively sets each scene. It’s significant that this core narrative is an integral part of the illustrations and not the text — the storytelling (a series of described scenes) is the primary structure, and the interactive exploration and detailing is secondary.
The overriding limitation on web content in 1995 was download time. Most of our readers were accessing the internet over dial-up using 14400bps modems, and reliability was an issue too; connections would often drop out. We used two techniques to overcome this: the re-use of the single image (exploiting caching), and constraining the size of the image.
The Concuspidor was designed around the structure of an illustrated scene. Each scene is a collection of pages all reusing the same image. Of course this exploits the caching used in web browsers (so the image is only downloaded once, and then reused in all the pages that require it).
The images themselves are about 500 pixels wide. Today we could be more generous, but at the time that pretty much filled a standard PC screen. We also used heavy-handed JPEG compression, which means the pictures are in places quite blurry. Again, today we could easily double the size of the image file without most people noticing, and the quality of the images could be considerably sharper.
The Concuspidor uses “image maps”, which allow you to jump to different pages depending on whereabouts on an illustration you click. Today this is unremarkable, but it was still quite a new idea back then. Today’s browsers reliably implement client-side image maps (whereby the click is resolved by the browser). At the time, client-side image maps were just being developed, so we used server-side maps (the client-side maps were added a few years later). Over time these have become less and less common. In fact, for the tenth anniversary (when we "washed" the underlying Concuspidor markup), the server-side image maps have been removed completely.
The growth of web comics in recent years is largely because publishing in this medium has some clear advantages over the "small press" alternatives. These are fundamental to the web medium, and The Concuspidor was created specifically to exploit and demonstrate, to some extent, each of them:
Today there is a large and thriving web comic culture. Some productions are highly professional, others are, well, a bit scrappy. Just like small press, in fact. And of course the technology and software has moved on, and mobile and tablet devices offer tremendous opportunities for image-rich storytelling.
Based on the precedent and the success of The Concuspidor, Beholder was commissioned by the forward-thinking ISP Planet Internet in the UK to do another storytelling project. Already the web offered better possibilities for more complex interaction. The result was Planetarium, which is considerably more sophisticated both in terms of design and content (it also took probably five or six times as much work to produce).
Planetarium is more interactive than The Concuspidor, and has a database behind it tracking each reader’s position and their answers to the puzzles within it — but the structure is fundamentally the same. We used the same mechanism of weekly instalments to control the storytelling, but this time the intertwingling and linking is much richer (jumping backwards and forwards in the story). In many ways, Planetarium is a professional application of the amateur Concuspidor experiment.
As it happens, Planet Internet in the UK was bought up by AT&T, whose management at the time frankly were completely clueless about the whole internet thing. That’s another story, but it’s how Planetarium came to be available, for free, here on the Beholder site.