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:
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:
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.