Photopia, designed by Adam Cadre, is an example of Interactive Fiction that leans heavily into the fiction side of that label. Written and published in 1998, it took 1st place in the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition and won Best Story and Best Writing XYZZY Awards in that year. The story has been criticized by some as relying too much on static storytelling at the expense of interactivity, or gameplay; unlike some more recent TBGs, Photopia (which is tellingly described as “a piece of literature…rendered in the form of interactive fiction” on its Wikipedia page) features a linear storyline, the ultimate resolution of which cannot be altered by the player’s choices, and few of the puzzles which are typical in this game genre. Though it is fundamentally linear in nature, and noticeably so for its medium, Photopia plays with the appearance of non-linear storytelling as various short scenes about the life of a young woman named Alley are interspersed with scenes from a continuous science fiction story. Alley’s story begins with her death in a car crash, and if, knowing this in advance or in repeated playthroughs of the game, the player attempts to change the course of the event, it is unsuccessful – nothing can change it.
The game provides extremely narrow, limiting parameters for interaction within the telling of its story. Alley’s life has been predestined, pre-written, and pre-doomed. There is more room for malleability within the fantasy sections, which, it is eventually revealed, are the fantasies of the little girl Alley babysits, fantasies which Alley weaves into a story to tell her, and which thematically reflect Alley’s own realistic, tragic, life story.
Could the story of Photopia have been told in a traditional short story form? Yes, absolutely. The interspersing of scenes from two different stories, the non-linear storyline, are hardly unusual in traditionally written prose fiction. But Photopia uses its medium not just as a gimmick, but to create an effect that would be lost in a non-interactive narrative form. The fact that Photopia is a game, that it is interactive fiction and should, therefore, have interactivity – the fact that in significant scenes we may think we can make choices to alter the course of Alley’s life, save her from her predetermined fate, but simply, no matter what we try, cannot – emphasizes the story’s themes far more than stagnant text alone could do.
Designer Adam Cadre wrote that, in coming up with the idea for Photopia, he said to himself, “I don’t want to do another wacky adventure featuring a player character with some rather extreme behavior right now; I want to try something literary and beautiful” (http://adamcadre.ac/content/phaq.txt). His goals were explicitly literary in scope and nature, and also explicitly referential, both to other IF games and to other narrative forms, like the specific movies, novels, and short stories, as well as non-narrative art like photographs, which influenced his plot and writing structure in creating Photopia.
That intertextuality is particularly evident in the fantasy scenes. These fantasy sequences are where most of Photopia’s gameplay and interactivity comes in, with puzzles to complete and objects to pick up and use. We see them first on their own, with no explanation, but near the end of the game it is revealed that this is the story Alley tells Wendy, the little girl whom she babysits, a story in which Wendy is the protagonist (and, through her, the player). As reviewer Eric Swain notes, Alley tells this story as an oral text adventure; she describes the location and events, and Wendy (by way of the player) tells her what she would do in these locations. It turns the storytelling act into a game, reflective of the text-based adventure game format, in its turn found within a work that uses the game format to tell a story.
But is Photopia in fact a game? Arguably not – it has no win condition (Alley dies, no matter what), and even with feedback on their actions, via repeated playthroughs, players cannot adjust their actions in order to improve the outcome or work toward achieving a particular outcome. Rather, it is a work of fiction that utilizes the ideas of a game, the technical framework as well as the audience’s expectations of a text-based game, to tell its story. On the other hand, participants voluntarily engage with the system of artificial obstacles (why can’t you stop the drunk frat boy from driving the car, after all? Because of the artificial, designed, programmed-in obstacles to this goal), and one could say that participants, receiving the aforementioned feedback which allows for the adjustment of their actions, do attempt to achieve a particular outcome, even if it is fundamentally hopeless; or, that the defined outcome – the win condition – is the story’s conclusion, and the player’s actions are progressing the game toward that end.
As Jordan Magnuson writes in his impassioned review of the game, “Photopia is so minimally interactive that it lies right on the boundary between the interactive and the non-interactive”; this draws out the significance of interaction, the significance of being able to choose and influence the way the story goes, which heightens the story’s dimension of fatality in a way that the short story format never could. Magnuson further notes that, knowing full well that Photopia was a linear, highly directed, rigid and predetermined game/story, he was drawn in by the limited interactivity: “And yet that little text prompt kept me glued to my screen. When I found the seed pod, it was my seedpod, and I wanted to know what I would do with it; when I found myself in an undersea castle I wanted to step through the rooms and discover how I would emerge; when I woke up on a golden beach I wanted to explore, and to dig something up. When I read these scenes in non-interactive form, by contrast, they only made me yawn.” He found, in fact, that the difference between limited interactivity and no interactivity at all is key, and “that allowing a person to step through a story is not the same as letting them read it straight out.”
Photopia demonstrates the storytelling possibilities in games in part by owing so much to non-game narratives – the movies, comics, novels that influenced Adam Cadre – while taking these story forms to a new, hybrid, interactive medium. It may be a game of limited interactivity, but it is significantly, vitally, interactive as a work of fiction told through game.