Photopia

I had heard that Photopia was one of the IF greats of the past, and for a few minutes during some not-very-plentiful spare time, I took a peek into it. I got about as far as flying out of the crystal city, but my question is: Does it ever become more like a game? Or is mostly meant to be a “type-the-obvious-prompts-and-just-enjoy-the-ride?” With so little time to actually use for IF playing, I probably don’t want to go back to it if it’s mostly reading… thanks!

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The style you’re talking about is pretty much all of the gameplay, with the spoilered-out bit being the most famous puzzle. I think you’re close to the end if you got that far.

That’s why the game generated a ton of discussion when it came out; it was the most popular in a wave of “puzzle-less” games, so people had huge discussion about whether or not such games were enjoyable or good. A lot of people copied its style in succeeding years.

I liked the ending a lot, but I haven’t replayed it in years (I think the opening is obnoxious).

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Thanks for the reply, Brian! If I was that close to the end, maybe I’ll go back to it at some point. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that style, it’s just that if I have only a tiny window of time to play, I’d rather be exploring and solving…
I didn’t feel like I played very long, so I’m surprised if I was near the end…

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It was an IFComp entry (won the 1998 season), so brevity was probably intentional.

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Yeah, that’s like 3/4 of the way through so I’d say probably worth finishing at this point. I played Photopia soon after it came out and was blown away, then revisited it a couple years ago and found it surprisingly less effective than I remembered. For me, I suspect that has as much to do with the very high quality of later IF that’s tread similar ground in the decades since as it does any failings in Photopia, though. Anyway it had its legitimate detractors even in its heyday, but still I think very worth playing if only for historical purposes!

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Yeahhhhhh I didn’t really like Photopia for the railroaded design. Every time I say this, I’ve been told that this is the whole point but like…maybe I don’t like the point…? Maybe I actually do understand it fully and appreciate the themes, but still didn’t like it as an IF game…?

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I think the railroading is definitely not the point of the piece. Among many reasons for that, perhaps the most obvious is that almost all interactive fiction both before and after Photopia is railroaded. Sure, it’s often more subtle about it by allowing you to take a lot of actions that don’t advance the story, but the story itself is railroaded almost every time. I once wrote a long analysis of Photopia and concluded (about this theme or railroading and determinism and being unable to escape fate):

I concluded that instead

Now I think it is undeniable that Photopia took some of its power and relevance from being both commentary on and an intervention in the then-current state of interactive fiction. This has faded somewhat. But there are aspects of it that hold up pretty well, and I don’t think it’s a piece of purely historical interest.

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Yeah, Photopia is not a mechanically heavy game, so if you’re looking for that I guess it’d be a bad fit.

I played Photopia late, like, not more than a few years ago, and I really liked it! I’m surprised that there was apparently so much discussion of it back in the day because I’m a newer player and I’d have rated it good but not controversial in any way - but, then again, I’ve been raised mostly on choice-based stuff, some of which itself is extremely low-choice, so all of this:

was, like, kind of over my head? It became more obvious later when I learned more about the community and context that I realized that it was abnormal in its low-puzzle design.

I’d be interested in hearing the argument for “…and after…” given that in the majority of modern IF I play (Choice of Games, Twine, Ink, a smattering of the low-puzzle parser stuff) there’s enough player choice in there that most of the time I don’t feel railroaded.

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Well, that was the big advancement of the late 90s – better ways to railroad the player without them feeling railroaded. :)

(I am only about one-quarter kidding.)

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As a bit of trivia, Photopia is the most-rated game on IFDB, and almost certainly is among the most-reviewed.

It is a game that has elicited many strong (and mostly positive) responses over the years.

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The genius of really good IF is that you don’t feel railroaded, when of course you are. There is no truly open, free world in any game. But when something makes you feel free and you don’t notice the rails guiding you-- that’s a beautiful thing. Many games manage it for a while, but few, if any, manage it all the way through.

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I would like to state for the record that I was not the one who claimed that railroading was the point of the game. I’m sorry for sharing someone else’s conclusion here, though.

When I was discovering the modern IF scene, Photopia was a recommended title on the list. After attempting to play it, I actually got too frustrated to finish it, and can’t really tell you with any confidence what I think the point of the piece was, because I could not understand a single thing that was going on. I think I lasted about 3 or 4 scene transitions before I had to put it down.

If you hadn’t written your analysis on it, then I—to this day—still would not have understood what Photopia was about. I took a moment to read the analysis in full, and had some thoughts that I wanted to voice. Any emphasis in any quotes is mine.

So what makes Photopia a game that people believe to be about determinism? Certainly none of its structural features, since these are (in this respect) absolutely unremarkable and shared with 99% percent of the current IF corpus. Rather, I think it is the fact that Photopia’s ending is an ending that people actively wish to avoid; and when they find out that this is impossible, they are so upset by this that they believe the unavoidability to be the central message of the game.

So, while it’s accurate to say that most games (IF or otherwise) eventually funnel the player into a single ending, I feel like Photopia leans into this a lot harder than usual, which I think you acknowledge here:

But of course, I can hardly deny that there are differences in terms of interaction between Photopia and most other pieces of interactive fiction. There is a sense in which the game does give you less freedom than other games do.

The fundamental lack of true freedom in most games out there is usually mitigated by allowing the player to do some amount of exploration, or take some number of actions along the way, even if those actions fail to change the ultimate ending of the larger story.

Honestly, Amanda really nailed the idea here:

I feel like in Photopia’s case, this thin veil of choice is removed entirely, and the game just simply keeps going, whether the player is following along or not. I do understand that this is a necessary facet, though, as you explained here:

Faced with the choice of attributing to Cadre an unsuccessful attempt at speaking about determinism or a successful attempt at introducing pacing into his game and respecting the inner logic of the fictional world, we should choose the latter.

I respect and appreciate this. All the same, though: I can both acknowledge the importance and necessity of Photopia’s structure, but still dislike the piece itself, even after gaining a new understanding about what it was about.

This game can do everything right, and still be disliked, without the player implying that it could have done better. All the pieces were there, and put together in an ideal way, but it still did not land for me. This is not only something that happens in art, but it also happens in engineering as well.

Also, I want to focus on this bit, too:

Rather, I think it is the fact that Photopia’s ending is an ending that people actively wish to avoid; and when they find out that this is impossible, they are so upset by this that they believe the unavoidability to be the central message of the game.

I can definitely see how some people might have come to this conclusion about the perceived central theme, given this explanation.

Personally, I feel like wasn’t invested in how the story was fated to end at all, even if I wanted to be. I was still actively in the process of trying to figure out what was going on, in order to acquire the necessary information to care, but the game kept leaping and changing throughout my confused, directionless meandering, filled with my attempts to examine my surroundings. Every time I seemed to progress the game, it was entirely on accident. I did not feel like I was working towards a goal at all.

For example: In one scene, there was a conversation happening in another room, but the game did not let me investigate. The entire scene abruptly changed while I was in the middle of examining my surroundings, trying to understand what was even going on.

It really felt like someone needed to sit down with me, and tell me what I should focus on—NOTE: not what to think; what to focus on—in order to get anything out of the game at all. I genuinely felt like I was constantly missing opportunities to learn and understand, instead of—as you explained—missing opportunities to change the outcome.

The game didn’t seem to have the patience for me to experience the story, as my accidental progression kept changing the scenes before I could understand them. It was this apparently-breakneck pace that made me put the game down before it concluded, because I felt incapable of any meaningful input, and the game did not seem interested in giving me coherent output to work with (either passively or interactively).

Although the entire game has been linear, and we thus might believe that our interacting with the work has been totally inconsequential, the purple scene proves that this is not the case. In this scene, control is taken away from us for the first time; the commands at the prompt are filled in automatically, and we can only see the story unfold without having any influence on it at all.

I don’t think that presenting the player with an “input” prompt that auto-fills can succeed in making the rest of the game feel interactive, much in the same way that you cannot convince someone starved of caloric intake to see three individual beans as a full meal.


While I am extremely thankful for your analysis, and genuinely enjoyed reading it, I still feel like my experience and feelings around Photopia haven’t changed. It still felt like I was reading a book with various pages ripped out. However, it was insightful to hear your perspective on it, and read how it was received by the IF community. The part about how it addressed the puzzle-heavy scene at the time was absolutely fascinating, and gave me a real reaction.

I feel like if Photopia wasn’t so excited to move on at a moment’s notice, then I might have been able to properly observe what was going on, understand what I was doing to progress the game, and meaningfully sort and prioritize the information in a way that would allow me to understand what it was trying to communicate to me.

Also: A lot of what I’m writing here is sort of a compilation of thoughts that I’ve had in various private conversations, when discussing this game with other people, and I felt like it might be healthy/useful/cathartic to finally post my experiences with this somewhere, like right here.

I was hesitant to voice my thoughts for a long time, because I usually get met with “you just didn’t get it” or “you must be a diagetic reader” when I have experiences like these.

I never actually gave the game a bad rating or review, for what it’s worth. I’ve actually abstained from rating or reviewing it at all, because I did not feel it was right to provide a rating for something I failed to understand.

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Also this might be off subject so I’m not gonna stay on it but I wasn’t aware that y’all used to have a (roughly quarterly?) newsletter thing. I’ve been reading through some of this stuff and it’s fascinating, so thanks for linking that.

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I dunno if this is what Victor meant, but this sentiment rings true to me and it all hinges on the distinction Zarf made – the difference between being railroaded and feeling railroaded. Like, I’ve played and run a bunch of tabletop RPGs, and even with an actual human brain running the game world like 95% of the time the game’s story is pretty much on rails – when you swap out said brain for a dumb lump of silicon that 95% goes way way up. In both mediums, the trick is to provide opportunities for the player to engage with the fiction – which could be via narrative agency that really does branch the story albeit usually in carefully-preordained directions, but also like allowing the player to do things that aren’t narratively significant but express something about the protagonist, or create or shift a thematic resonance that impacts how the player understands the work, or of course just engage in mechanically-complex gameplay that makes it feel like the player’s doing something more than just flipping between a couple pre-chosen destinations.

Yeah SPAG was great!

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I guess I’m wrong here, but wasn’t Photopia main point that it was - in opposition to regular IF at the time - mostly a disturbing, sad tale told with an uncommon media? Weren’t story-driven IF a rarity? I remember I was shocked at the end scene when I first played it, and I believe the lack of that shock is what lowered the experience in second run-throughs. That, or the fact that puzzle-less, interior songs are more common.

Btw, the “we know how it’s going to end and can do nothing about it” was not my experience (I’m pretty useless at foreshadowing the outcome of a story), even though now, reading this thread, I can better connect with what went slightly wrong for me with The Excavation of Hob’s Burrow.

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When I was looking at the history of IF in the 90s from an outsider perspective, I felt that A Change in the Weather by zarf was the big breakthrough moment for IF where ‘the puzzles are the story’, i.e. story-driven IF. Just look at the most popular games the few years before and the other entries in that year’s competition, and then compare them to the next few years. Either it had a major effect on what people thought possible or it was just the first in a zeitgeist wave. I think traditionalists were okay with it because the puzzles were (incredibly) hard; Photopia just continued the trend by making the puzzles almost trivial.

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Photopia is one of the first four or five IF games I played. I had just discovered this weird and intruiging new medium and I was still blissfully unaware of any expectations or unwritten rules. I read Photopia as a complete newcomer, no thoughts about “puzzles” muddying my experience.

It had quite an impact. I felt like I deeply understood the quote “Let’s tell a story together.”

It’s been one of my guiding experiences in IF-playing ever since.

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Photopia does have the tags “puzzleless” and “linear” on IFDB: Photopia - Details . You may wan to stay away from games with these are, if that’s not your cup of tea.

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Everything you say is, first of all, surely an accurate description of how you experienced the game; but also, and perhaps more relevantly given the above comment, defensible criticism. Cadre’s game is confusing; you are constantly wondering what is going on; and this does make it hard to emotionally engage with the game. (I don’t think of it as very emotionally engaging, though some other people obviously did. I have a suspicion that this may have had as much to do with expectations as with the game itself.) In order to enjoy it, you have to go along on the ride and find enjoyment in puzzling out what’s going on. If that’s frustrating to you, you won’t get much out of it. And I can absolutely see how frustration could come from the feeling that the game is actively working against your attempts to explore and understand it. (A source of frustration that is unique to an interactive medium; no matter how obtuse James Joyce may get, his text isn’t forcing you to flip over the page before you’re done reading!)

Come to think of it, one could argue that Photopia was still captured by the puzzle paradigm, except it put the puzzle at the level of interpretation of the narrative rather than progress in the narrative.

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I’m going to try to say this in the least normative, most descriptive way I can. You have been playing the wrong tabletop RPGs. No, wait. Let’s try again. :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

In all seriousness, there absolutely are tabletop RPGs for which this is true, but there are also – and have now been for about 20 years or so – many tabletop RPGs for which this is totally false. These are games where nobody has thought up a story in advance; where the slogan is ‘Story Now’ and it is the interactions around the table that create story. It would derail this thread too much to go into that, but let me know if you’re interested and if so I can describe a few of these games and how they work in a new thread. (But maybe you’re already well aware of these games and prefer not to play them!)

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