Adam Cadre’s interactive fiction Photopia was touted to me as a game where I wouldn’t get stuck and cross because I couldn’t figure out what the interface wanted me to do next. It’s also said to take about an hour and a half to play, which meant it would fit in nicely between my seven-year-old’s bedtime and that new TV series at quarter to ten. So I unplugged my computer, got some tea and a biscuit and lounged in the sofa to play.

My informants were right: I was never stymied. At first I just felt like a clever player, then after a while I started thinking that there were rather too few challenges here, then I just relaxed into it, enjoying the fact that I could (in one of my roles) explain the details of how stars work to my daughter simply by typing “talk to Alley” and choosing the “explain inverse square rule” option (or something) instead of “send Alley to bed”. The story is fascinating, multi-layered between several plots and several narrators that elegantly meet towards the end, and it’s well-written and engaging. Typical IF commands like “look at alley” produce thoughtful responses far more interesting than the physical description I was expecting, though I can’t cite any of them because I was enjoying the read too much to remember to save my place so I could go back.

Once I’d finished I wanted more, so I hit Google and discovered there are dozens and dozens of reviews of Photopia. The first I chanced upon, by Duncan Stevens, complained that Photopia lacked interactivity. In fact, the reviewer uses almost exactly the same arguments against Photopia as have been levied against Online Caroline:

It should be noted that the game does not simply ignore idiosyncrasies in the way you play the game; many choices are accounted for. Notably, one choice regarding whether you bring along a certain object or leave it behind is particularly clever and well-written. But the result is that the game achieves precisely the same result– your “choice” affects the beginning of one paragraph. (..) The minimal changes in the text highlight the noninteractivity (..)

I only played the game once (wondering whether many players play a game twice, I visited ifMUD and was distracted there for an hour. The answer, btw, is “some do, some don’t”) so I never discovered the ways in which the game adjusts to different player choices, but it sounds a lot like the tiny changes in Online Caroline. The small adjustments to the textual output, and sneaky “plastic geography” are excellent ways of letting the user feel as though she has some agency, while she really has very little or no impact on the plot or even the way in which the story is told:

Photopia’s invention of plastic geography–the player in some instances may travel in any direction, but the direction chosen will always lead to a certain location–makes the world seem larger than it is, and while it does that very effectively, it once again lessens the player’s impact on the story.

There’s been a discussion at Grandtextauto recently about different kinds of agency. Clearly there isn’t much agency in Photopia. I loved it anyway.

2 thoughts on “photopia

  1. Dennis G. Jerz

    Photopia adjusts to user input only in minor ways… but that’s not a problem. The strong storyline is one reason why Photopia has gotten so much attention.

    [Minor spoilers follow.]

    For instance, during a sequence where you are asked to perform CPR, an NPC tells you exactly what to do, but if you don’t do it, the NPC will take over, and the story will continue exactly as it would have if you had done what you were asked.

    I found myself a little disappointed by the Purple Queen sequence (where you read a transcript of a session as played by the NPC who is the central character), but denying the PC the ability to perform actions as the protagonist is part of the effect of the story that drives the game. So, upon reflection, I decided the disappointment I felt was not a flaw in the game, but rather the result of the emotional bond I had developed with Alley.

    FWIW, when I finished the game for the first time, I immediately played it again, to see how much flexibility there was in the storyline. There realy wasn’t any, though the game gracefully handled just about everything I threw at it.

  2. Jill

    Thanks Dennis, that’s really interesting. And so you replayed it – I think I might too, actually. I was fascinated by the CPR section and intrigued by that bit where you couldn’t do ANYTHING except press enter, but “your responses” were visible – I suppose simply because I haven’t experienced that before (I’ve barely played IF since the eighties, so I’m a beginner here) but I actually really enjoyed the dance of it, the pattern of clicking and wondering what I was supposed to imagine doing now.

    And I loved the story.

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