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Art on the Web:
Can You Keep a Secret?

By John Poole Staff
Friday, January 15, 1999


    the secret garden
A captain steering his steamer over the garden's Sea of the Snapp-Rabbits. (Jens Schmidt)
If a blade runner or a replicant ever had a kid, "The Secret Garden of Mutabor" would likely occupy a prominent place in his or her list of Web-browsing favorites. A German-made, Japanese- and Italian-influenced interactive adventure story, this site is a children's book for the multicultural and multimedia future. And like all good children's books, it's for adults, too.

The winking character Youmiko introduces you to the garden and gives you the lay of the land when you first arrive. In charming, broken English she says that something is amiss in the Secret Garden, explaining that it is "a very complex organism and each changement can have fatal effects to the whole system." The Castle of Ice is melting, and the beating Heart of Desire that it contains will die soon without protection. Guess whose job it is to investigate?

Your travels will lead you through the dangerous Pond of Fisho-Cooda, the swirling Sea of the Snapp-Rabbits, the home of the Squirrel Scoiattolo and the Gate of Serpent Zoom. In each scene, you look for a key to the code that will decipher the mystery of the Ice Castle. Many clues are hidden deep in the pictures: Zooming allows you to inspect the artwork at many different levels of magnification, all without loss of image quality. But be careful as you explore, and keep in mind the warning words of Fisho-Cooda: "You're lucky, because actually I am not very hungry, otherwise you would have finished in my tummy already."

"Garden" is the Web child of Jens Schmidt, 30, a German multimedia designer who describes it as a "zone of cultural pleasure" for people who don't want to think of the Web as a boring "information-supermarket." The entire project, partly funded by a grant from the German government, was created over the course of six months.

Castle of Ice
The Castle of Ice protects the heart of the Secret Garden. (Jens Schmidt)
The site is as good an example of the overworked phrase "interactive multimedia" as you'll find on the Web. It talks, it responds, it flashes, it tells a story, it involves the viewer in the action. Its design is consistently beautiful and exciting – everything seems to do something, other than simply look good. And all the pages, each one brimming with sound, animation and graphics, load quickly over a standard modem – a truly impressive feat.

"The idea of 'The Secret Garden' is based on the structure of an adventure game, but it is a lot more than that; it is a metaphor for our world," wrote Schmidt in an e-mail. "We weep about the destruction of the world but we do not change our life-style. . . . Using cars, planes, computers and all the technical things that modern life has prepared for us, we silently agree to the destruction of our environment. ["The Garden"] wants to remind people that everyone plays a role on the stage of our world future."

If you persevere and play the game for 20 minutes or so, until you unlock the Matrix of Wisdom, you'll find a surprising, if mystifying, ending. But you don't really need to understand all the garden's secrets in order to appreciate its cleverness and elegance.

Enter "The Secret Garden."

John Poole's e-mail address is Write to him with Web art finds, comments or suggestions.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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