OUTSIDE EDGE / Bard of the CD-ROM: Sabine Durrant talks to Greg Roach, 'the Bard of CD-ROM'

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE Houston Chronicle calls Greg Roach the 'Bard of CD-ROM' and the 'Steven Spielberg of multi-media'. The American Film Institute says he provides a glimpse into the future of cinema. The San Francisco Examiner reckons he changes reading habits forever. But his friends, he claims, think he's 'nuts'.

Three years ago, Greg Roach was just your run-of-the-mill Texan arts figure (if you can get a run-of-the-mill Texan arts figure). He directed plays at the Houston Stages Repertory; he attended a creative writing workshop ('We teased each other, offered advice'); he fired off the occasional poem and short story to literary magazines. Then in 1990 he was cast as a baddy in the TV series America's Most Wanted and got a big fat cheque.

'I went out and splurged. I bought a new Apple computer and a hypermedia authoring system called Hyperstudio. This was kind of expensive, dollars 200, and it sat there for a couple of days with me thinking, 'I've wasted my money. I don't know what to do with it.' '

Luckily for our reading habits and the future of cinema, inspiration struck. Roach rang round his like-minded literary friends, input a selection of their creative writings on diskette, strung them together with a little visual interface, added a dash of musical accompaniment and, hey presto, a bimonthly eclectic hypermedia journal called Hyperbole.

The magazine and, later, the interactive 'films' Roach has created using CD-ROM are fired by two beliefs. He explains: 'One, that interactive media has the potential to be an art form, that you can bring the same set of aesthetic criteria to software that you do to a piece of theatre. And two, that there are a number of intelligent adults out there who have access to sophisticated technology but who use it to entertain themselves at the level of adolescent boys.'

Hyperbole has become increasingly versatile. Roach and his 12 employees are concerned not only 'to touch the child' in us all, but also to stimulate individual self-awareness; to put, if you like, the PC back into PC. Most of his features involve the 'reader' making choices. His multi-media novel The Madness of Roland tells the story from five different points of view, which the users can move among at will. His interactive short story 'The Wrong Side of Town' shares the dual perspectives of a rich woman and a vagrant. The article 'Zen Garden' contains a huge virtual landscape in which every object, when clicked, delivers a poem or a Zen koan. And 'Descending Armies of Light' asks you 35 personal questions that 'get to the very bedrock of existence'.

'Descending Armies' is particularly popular. 'We get very long lines whenever we show it in public,' reflects Roach. 'People find it fascinating to watch how the picture responds to the answers they give. But when I conceived that piece, it wasn't the end result that interested me but the process for the reader. I wanted to create a place for private examination.'

Roach is convinced that Hyperbole is his 'life's work'. Things were lean at first - 'In fact they're still lean,' he says. But he's recently signed a new distribution agreement and his new secret project has a budget of 'Hell, I can't tell you, very high. Close to a million dollars.' It means he has to move to Seattle, but the West Coast should suit him.