Interactive comic explores the heartbreaking frailty of memory

Australian interactive comic creator Sutu's latest project is a poignant exploration of dementia, war and the impermanence of memory.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
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Sutu's grandfather is losing his memories.

This is not an unusual experience. However, Sutu, aka Stuart Campbell, is unusual. A creator of comics that integrate digital technologies, he had a pertinent means of sharing his grandfather's story, and his own heartbreak as he watches his grandfather's decline.

Above all, the interactive comic Sutu created is a story about memory.

"I've been creating digital interactive stories for a while now and with every project I try to explore new ways to use interactivity to invoke a feeling for the story," he explained.

"In this story the central premise deals with the loss of memory. As the reader scrolls through the story, it begins to fade away. This mechanism creates a sense of urgency to read the story before times runs out. This format also corresponds to my grandpa's predicament, every day he is falling deeper in to dementia and all his memories are becoming lost."

Sutu's previous works include Modern Polaxis, a graphic novel about a paranoid time-traveller, enhanced with augmented reality, Neomad, a digital comic created in collaboration with the children of the indigenous Ieramugadu community in Western Australia, and Nawlz, an interactive comic created for the iPad.

These Memories Won't Last takes a rather gentler approach. Designed in HTML5 to be read in a browser, its effects are subtle. Foggy clouds that drift across the screen, recalling the effect of reaching through your mind for an elusive memory that you can't quite grasp, obscuring the image if you linger too long. The inability to scroll backwards through the story. A beautifully atmospheric soundtrack, provided by sound engineer Lhasa Mencur.

It was, Sutu hoped, a way of preserving his Grandpa's stories of his life, told to Sutu in lucid moments. Yet the digital medium is deceptive, and even as he was working on the project, browser updates kept breaking the functionality of the web page. And yet Sutu feels that digital media are still an important way to convey stories.

"Today more and more people are consuming information via their computers and smart devices. As artists and storytellers who want to reach these audiences it's important for us to adapt and present our stories in an easily consumable way," he said.


Sutu and his Grandpa, Ladislav (later Jim) Szoke.


"We are also relying on our devices as a form of memory. They store all our photos, contacts, reminders. But as devices die and software becomes outdated, a lot of these memories might be lost. In a similar sense -- and I don't mean to be disrespectful to my grandpa -- he is also a source of memory and one day he will be lost and so will all his memories, memories that are our link to his generation, the wars, his immigration to Australia, our history. Whether it is living online or in person, memory is hard to hold on to."

He is not wrong. In fact, a recent study by Kaspersky Lab found that most people are using their digital devices as extensions of their own brains, relying on smartphones to store important contact information. Kaspersky Lab was far from the first to do make this connection; in 2011, Columbia University found that the internet was changing the way our brains organise and retain information, which had also been asserted by Weizmann Institute of Science physicist in 2010.

But using digital media to store longer-term memories, such as photographs, or emails that have strong sentimental value, or even important documents, is not necessarily wise. According to Google vice-president Vint Cerf, these articles may one day be lost to us, because the software we use to view them will become obsolete.

"I hope this project, through the story of my grandpa and its digital presentation, shows the fragility of memory and makes us question how we choose to preserve it," Sutu said. "At some point in the future, all my digital projects will stop working due to software changing and unfortunately I don't have the resources to continually maintain them. This inevitably leads to the projects becoming lost."

He quoted a conversation with his friend Remco Vlaanderren, Creative Producer for the Submarine Channel, an online channel for digital stories.


"We need to figure out a way to archive culturally relevant digital productions. Traditionally, this used to be a function of museums (for art) and archives for history," Vlaanderren said. "There are several initiatives now who are dealing with preserving electronic and digital works for future generations, but it's very fragmented and hardly enough."

These Memories Won't Last, then, becomes doubly poignant, a story of fading memories told in a fading medium that is supposed to be timeless. What's the saying? Once it's on the internet, it's there forever. Perhaps the internet has lost more than we know. Perhaps the human mind really is the best place for memories to remain, as we pass them on from person to person through shared stories.

After all, it's only through stories shared that we can learn and grow.

"As Australia considers its involvement in international wars and how it treats the victims of those wars I hope that Grandpa's story can help to remind us all of the pain and grief that these victims have to live with. These memories may not last but the lessons we take from them will determine our future," Sutu said.

These Memories Won't Last was created at AiR15, Virtual Identity's Authors in Residence program in Vienna, Austria, earlier this year, in collaboration with sound engineer Lhasa Mencur and programmer Vitaliy Shirokiy. You can read it online here.