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Indie Nation #28: Photopia

3:43 PM on 08.15.2008 // Anthony Burch

Where Indie Nation is concerned, I usually make a quick plug for the game before the jump, then halfheartedly tell you to download the game first and maybe hit the jump later to hear my disjointed, irrelevant thoughts on it.

I'm not going to do that this time, because Photopia is too damn good, and too damn important, to be spoiled by my ramblings. My thoughts on the game can still be found after the jump, but I must insist: do not hit the jump until you have played through the entire game.

Photopia is potentially the greatest piece of interactive fiction I've ever played, and don't let the text adventure format turn you off; it's necessary to the game's story and emotional impact and besides that, it's nowhere near as cryptically difficult and puzzle-filled as Zork or even Gun Mute -- you'll never need a hint or a walkthrough to complete the game. Just remember that you need to say "talk to ____" instead of "say ___" in order to engage in conversation with another character.

In fact, if you only play one text adventure, ever, make it Photopia

If you haven't played the game yet and simply hit the jump in order to see if it's worth playing, or because of some flippant "Eh, I'll never play it so what's the harm in seeing what makes it so special" attitude, then scroll up right now, click the link, and complete the game.

I'm dead serious. 









Assuming you have now finished the, right? If you weren't sobbing, or at least beginning to tear up by the end of the game, then you probably weren't paying enough attention.

Admittedly, Photopia is barely a game. The actions which drive the plot are very obvious, and the optional actions you take don't affect it in the slightest. It's the very definition of "interactive fiction": a completely linear story with minor nonlinear digressions, controlled by the player only inasmuch as you control the characters' immediate fates. 

Talking to Alley as her father, for instance, can yield three very different conversations: one about the nature of the universe, one where you surprise her with a trip to Space Camp, and one where she goes inside with little discussion. None of the outcomes changes the plot at all, but each conversation drops narrative hints which inform aspects of Alley's story to Wendy: a sky made of gold, an astronaut. The story already exists fully-formed within the confines of the game, and the player has the option of exploring different aspects of it as it progresses along its predetermined course.

The mere fact that you have some degree of control over the events, however, gives the story a much greater emotional weight than if you'd just read it. Even without the wonderfully subtle, clever story reveals (when, in the fantasy story, the narrator casually mentions you have wings, I flipped my shit), the player gets to understand Alley through no fewer than five different perspectives: we see Alley, fragile, almost drowning. We literally save her from death. We ask her to prom, we explore her scientific curiosity, we hear her thoughts on her father, and, most importantly, we explore her imagination from the inside as she tells us a story. What starts out as intensely confusing ("Why is the narration defining words for me," one initially wonders), the scenes eventually weave into a cohesive examination of Alley.

Yet, importantly, we never play as Alley. Even when Alley tells the story of her dream, it's her inputting parser commands, as we watch. It's important that we don't play as Alley. Alley is the focus of every story, and almost every vignette includes her as the main goal in some respect ("get Alley to come in for dinner," "ask Alley to prom," "drive Alley home"). We watch Alley and get to know her almost subconsciously, because every scene revolves around doing something with her or to her. If we played as her, we'd lose sight of her character for that brief period of time: our goal would revolve around doing something else, and even though we'd be controlling Alley's actions, we wouldn't be paying attention to her as a character. 

It must be said, the game also warrants an extra playthrough or two. It's worth looking at pretty much everything (though it's easy to forget about Gabriel after the Alley CPR scene, his place in the family is not explained unless you either look at his room or the person himself), it's worth testing Alley's limits when she tells you the story (try leaving the shovel behind in the underwater castle), and every alternate conversation has something interesting to offer the player. Something new to tell about Alley, or the game's theme in general. Hell, you can even exit the fratboy car in the very first playable sequence before Rob runs the red light, but it doesn't change the fact that Rob does so anyway. In the world of Photopia, versus, say, the world of Masq (which I plan to do an Indie Nation on sooner or later), it seems that certain events are simply fated to happen.

In the end, Photopia is an incredibly written short story, made even more affecting and immersive thanks to the text adventure format. It's more story than game, to be sure, but the story is told so goddamn brilliantly that I can't help but feel like this is one of the best indie games I've ever played. People always talk about Passage making them cry, but I never really got close to tears when playing it. When I reached the end of Photopia, however, I took off my glasses and dry-sobbed for at least half a minute.

Then I played it again.

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