Photopia

By John Walker on March 31st, 2008 at 11:35 pm.

Writing about interactive fiction is always dangerous, because the hardcore IF crowd immediately appear to abuse you for liking something that’s merely a derivative of Galtaria VI or something that you’re supposed to have played if you want to be in their gang. Well guys, I’m not in your gang, and if I appreciate playing a game, then you can all live with that. There – I told them.

Parents: take note.

With that established, I strongly recommend you put aside forty-five minutes to play Photopia. Adam Cadre’s game won first place in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition, and comes to my attention now thanks to the ever excellent Play This Thing. It may well have come to your attention when it was mentioned in Kieron’s IF feature. Also, it features space, and this is SPACE WEEK!

However, to describe it is to destroy it, so forgive the vagueness and assume I’m right about its being good. You play as various characters, initially a frat boy, later a mother, at times an astronaut filtering through rubble on Mars, a father, a daughter, a driver. Each piece tells the story, and it’s in its construction that Photopia really shines. As the pieces come together, and you construct its narrative, the impact is quite remarkable.

Blue.

While there’s a lack of things to do beyond be drawn down its inevitable path, your actions do make a difference to how a scene will play out, even if it’s to reach the same destination. Often, inspired ideas within scenes have been thought of, meaning there’s room to try things out and the game will often respond accordingly. (Whatever you do, when you’re trying to get Alley to come in to the house, talk to her about astrophysics. Trust me.)

It’s a really lovely piece of storytelling, designed in a way that simply wouldn’t work in any other media, with some truly inspired moments. The use of colour is just splendid, and the moment where you realise the way out of the crystal labyrinth… Just perfect. Have a look.

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46 Comments »

  1. Mike Russo says:

    Seconded, thirded. Lovely, lovely game. Go play.

    [and as someone who's dabbled with being an IF-nerd: yes, in many ways Photopia is less original, less open, less what-have-you than you might initially think. But the way it brings things together and just *works* renders all of that utterly moot]

  2. guy says:

    Only 5 or so screens of text (text meaning a series of writing symbols comprising language) in and I’ve quit because the writer keeps defining (defining – explaining the meaning of) words in brackets (brackets, also known as parentheses – a grammatical construction for introducing a sub-clause into a sentence).

    As you see, it’s really annoying and breaks the flow. If I don’t know a word I’ll use a dictionary, thanks.

  3. Cycle says:

    Brilliant game.

    Though I felt cheated in the crystal maze, because I typed “look self” and it told me I know what I look like, why would I want to know that, and then yeah.

    But other than that, one of the greatest pieces of interactive media I’ve ever experienced.

    Guy: it’s been a long time since I’ve played it, but I’m pretty sure the definitions were there for a reason (related to the character you inhabited), and aren’t there the entire game.

    Give it another chance!

  4. Gregory says:

    Oh, yes, “Photopia” is a piece some folks like to rag on, but I’d venture that it did more to change the art of IF than any other piece in the post-Infocom era.

    Also, don’t be afraid of the IF crowd. You make us out to be like a biker gang, but if we are, we’re a Japanese one. Not the Akira kind. The kind with flags and costumes.

  5. Mike Russo says:

    @ Guy: Cycle is correct, the parens are there for a reason (a good reason! …sorry, couldn’t help myself). They do go away, and the author isn’t patronizing you.

  6. TychoCelchuuu says:

    I’d give it a 7 out of 10, I guess. It would have scored higher if it didn’t bug out a couple times and skip a bunch of text after like a second. I wanted to read that stuff! I was getting interested! It left me rather confused. Still, pretty good. And yes, the parentheses annoyed me for a bit, but they are there for a reason.

  7. Filipe says:

    One of my favourite IF games, but I’m a story over gameplay type myself, so take that for what it’s worth.

  8. PleasingFungus says:

    I remember trying it some time ago. Liked it.

  9. Dogun says:

    Wonderful. Short, sweet. Sad. I miss stories like this. The same sort of vibe as The Longest Journey, except, you know, short.

  10. Pace says:

    This was my first go at interactive fiction. I really enjoyed it, but it wasn’t quite as meaningfully interactive as I would’ve thought. I was expecting something where I had some degree of control over where the story went. Is that not how IF usually works? I suppose the story may have suffered if it were more open-ended, so I’m not complaining in this case, but is this typical of the genre?

  11. Sonance says:

    @Pace: There’s a huge variation in the degrees of interactivity offered by different works of interactive fiction. Photopia lies more on the “fiction” side of things than it does the “interactive”.

    My best advice for anyone wanting to see the best the IF scene has to offer but doesn’t know which of the thousands of titles to go for, head along to http://ifcomp.org/ and download some of the winners from each year.

  12. Pace says:

    Cheers, thanks Sonance, I’ll check that out.

  13. inle says:

    If you’re looking to explore specific kinds of IF, the IFDB is a great resource for people new to the scene. Entries have ratings, subject tags, and recommendation blurbs. Find it at
    http://ifdb.tads.org/ –Emily Short’s lists are always a good starting point.

  14. brainwashed says:

    A year or two ago I played Photopia and a few other works of IF. Another one I quite enjoyed – maybe more so – was Shade.

  15. John Walker says:

    Guy – did you not think that it might be for a reason? How it didn’t happen in some scenes, but did in others? Go back and play it again!

  16. Dracko says:

    Now this is what I’m talking about. :)

    When it comes to Adam Cadre, be sure also to give Shrapnel and 9:05 a look. The former made me feel like my computer was maliciously laughing at me, and that’s a feeling hard to come by anywhere else.

    Also worth checking out are Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, which plays like an Æon Flux short, as well as Hunter, in Darkness, a loose adaptation of Hunt the Wumpus. Shade has already been mentioned, and it is excellent. Also, be sure to check out the works of Emily Short. I’d say newcomers should give her Galatea a try first, as it can be played in less than 10 minutes a go and is very open-ended in how it plays out, with multiple outcomes to discover.

  17. James G says:

    I love Photopia, one of my favourite games of all time. It took until my second play through to piece everything together, and realise what happened. It then took another few play throughs to realise that there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent events from happening.

    In many ways I think the linearity of Photopia is one of the situations in which gameplay is controled to be in service of storyline. It amplifies the feeling of helplessness, and of inevitability. In the form of a short story Photopia would have had far less impact. But this isn’t a case of games being able to get away with poorer storylines, but one in which the gameplay itself is an intergral part of the readers reaction to the story..

  18. Jonas says:

    I also strongly recommend reading the Photopia PHAQ where Adam discusses some of his design choices. There’s some good stuff in there:

    http://adamcadre.ac/content/phaq.txt

  19. mrrobsa says:

    Really did not enjoy. Was like reading a book where every twenty words the author stops to ask ‘Guess what word I’m thinking of now!’, ‘Ermm…shovel?’, ‘Wrong it was pickaxe!’.
    Listing this as interactive is an oversell, I was given next to no choices, and the ones I did get to make made no difference to anything.
    Some of the emotive language seemed a little heavy handed too, and I found it hard to build any attachment to anything in the story because half the time I didn’t know who I was, or what my relationship to anyone else was. If I ever did start to figure out who I was- PRESTO-CHANGE-O now I’m someone else.
    Also did not like maze escape.
    Sorry for sounding like a whinging bastard. I do have a heart. Promise.

  20. Dracko says:

    Try the shorter games first, perhaps. I find IF can work at its best in short quarter of an hour doses. The main issue with IF is that it takes some time to get into, especially if not written properly. Inform 7 elegantly tries to make writing IF natural, but it’s still clearly a work in progress.

  21. Smee says:

    Just finished it, am seriously depressed. Thanks, I guess.

  22. Guy says:

    Well, I went back and finished it, then ran through again to see if you can change anything (spoiler: nope). It’s irritating to read and to play, but it was interesting to figure it out once you’ve finished it. It’s definitely better than the first impression it gives, but considering you can get the same positive experience from a book and also have a pleasant minute-to-minute time reading beautiful prose I wouldn’t recommend this.

  23. malkav11 says:

    Meh. I thought Photopia *had* beautiful prose. And the interactivity (limited though it was) made for a more profound impact (for me, obviously). Adam Cadre has written a novel, btw. It’s called Ready, Okay! and is one of the best things I had ever read at the time. (Haven’t read it recently enough to say “period”.)

  24. roBurky says:

    I didn’t like this at all. Although I don’t understand the purpose of the early non-coloured scenes, so maybe I’m missing something.

  25. MedO says:

    It’s really interesting that a lot of what people don’t like about this game were the things I found very good. It’s not very interactive, yes, but that means you won’t get stuck in frustrating puzzles as much, which would distract from exploring the story.

    — spoilers below —

    I liked the maze escape a lot. It’s crappy if you think about it as a puzzle. You try to solve it, only to have the game give you the completely unpredictable solution when you fail after a while. But that’s not what I experienced at the point. Instead, it felt somehow uplifting to realize that I had only failed because I made limiting assumptions about myself. After all, at that point you know you’re an astronaut on a strange planet in a children’s story, why should you assume you’re a normal human being? It’s not that you should have been able to solve the “puzzle”, but that it shows you you might have more freedom and abilities than you think.

    — spoilers above —

  26. Therum says:

    Holy shit. I got linked on Rock, Paper, Shotgun? How did I miss this?

  27. laptop battery says:

    it felt somehow uplifting to realize that I had only failed because I made limiting assumptions about myself. After all, at that point you know you’re an astronaut on a strange planet in a children’s story, why should you assume you’re a normal human being? It’s not that you should have been able to solve the “puzzle”, but that it shows you you might have more freedom and abilities than you think.

  28. Club Penguin Cheats says:

    It amplifies the feeling of helplessness, and of inevitability. In the form of a short story Photopia would have had far less impact. But this isn’t a case of games being able to get away with poorer storylines, but one in which the gameplay itself is an intergral part of the readers reaction to the story..

  29. insurance says:

    Meh. I thought Photopia *had* beautiful prose. And the interactivity (limited though it was) made for a more profound impact (for me, obviously). Adam Cadre has written a novel, btw. It’s called Ready, Okay! and is one of the best things I had ever read at the time. (Haven’t read it recently enough to say “period”.)

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