“Time” – epic, minimalist storytelling through a time-lapse webcomic

Panel from “Time” by Randall Munroe

I just finished watching something strange and brilliant. Readers of Randall Munroe’s xkcd webcomic have been following this since March. If you’re more familiar with this than I am, tell me, has this sort of thing been done before? Or has Munroe invented a new genre of storytelling? But if this is as new to you as it is to me, here’s what I’m talking about:

When xkcd creator Randall Munroe first posted a new installment of his webcomic titled “Time” on March 25, it looked deceptively simple: a picture of two black and white stick figures, a man and a woman, sitting wordlessly on the ground. There was no story, no punchline, no words. 30 minutes later, the image changed; the figures shifted slightly. And they continued to change every half-hour for the next week–and every hour for months after that–slowly coalescing into a story as the two characters discovered disturbing changes in the landscape around them, and set out on an epic, time-lapsed journey to discover the truth about what was happening to their world. (From Wired)

The story is now complete and I just watched it as a 40-minute video… not intending to watch the whole thing, but merely checking it out after a friend emailed me (thanks, Brad!). It starts out quietly and simply, like an old-fashioned children’s book, back when stories were told at a slower pace. But there was something intriguing about it, and the story got bigger and bigger as it began to build toward its climax.

If I had it to do over again, I’d watch the video first and read the Wired article afterward, which contains spoilers. Best of all would be to start from the first frame back in March, checking in on the story’s progress day by day as its growing community of followers discussed what was happening and slowly figured it out. Laura Hudson at Wired writes, “Munroe offered no direct answers, instead seeding the panels with esoteric clues from botany, astronomy and geology. Soon, ‘Time’ had developed a fanatical following that pored over every update pixel by pixel and gathered online to trade theories, decipher clues, and even write songs.”

By pacing his delivery, 3,099 frames at a frame an hour, Munroe apparently intended to make the conversation central to the story. You could think of it as a minimalist, frame-by-frame, serial. (Who knew you could do so much with stick figures?) The characters are placed in a world they don’t understand, and we share their ignorance… and thus, share their process of discovery.

All stories do this to some extent. The storyteller’s job is as much about withholding information as it is about giving information, and Munroe does a fine job of withholding. When we begin, the world we enter is literally blank — just a few lines with no visual depth. We’re given no context, almost no setting, and the characters speak in clipped, comic-book phrases. Like the nameless stick figures themselves, we know little about this world except for what’s right before us. Like them, we want to know more, and so our journey begins.

Start watching the video. Where are the characters? When are they? What is happening to their world? (Tip: The frames with dialog go by rather quickly; keep your pointer over the pause button as you get into the latter part of the story.) Or read it here frame by frame if you prefer, at a site that allows you to click through it or play it fast or slow.


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