Photopia
By John Beeler
Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

Before mugging and then killing hookers in back alleys of virtual worlds was cool, before Solid Snake had his first cigarette, and even before Mario downed his first mushroom, gamers were reading/playing interactive fiction (IF). Once referred to as "text adventures," these games would spit out a paragraph or so of text, often a description of a place, and then wait for typed player input. Zork, which was not the first text adventure but certainly the first commercially successful one, started like this:

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

An astute player would then type, "open mailbox" to which the program would respond, "Opening the mailbox reveals a leaflet."

Written by ubergeek hackers at a company called Infocom, the first text adventures were interesting for their puzzles only. Narratives played a role in the games, but were not the main attraction. But as text adventures became more popular, the quality of writing became more important. Douglas Adams wrote the confusing and humorous Bureaucracy for Infocom. A game designer named Steve Meretzky penned the controversial text-dystopia A Mind Forever Voyaging, which upped the writing ante.

Eventually, Infocom wove its own demise by trying to branch out into spreadsheet applications and was bought out. Graphical adventures like King’s Quest made text adventures seem bland and obsolete. Super Mario on the Nintendo Entertainment System started the slow but eventual annhiliation of PC games, and before long text adventures had become a relic.

But in the time between Zork and Grand Theft Auto 3, text adventuring has matured into Interactive Fiction. Fans reverse engineered the versatile Infocom parsing engine and began to code their own games. They even developed a yearly competition in 1995. But while technically proficient, the writing in these games has ranged from subpar to barely above average.

But in 1998, Adam Cadre released Photopia, a game that redefined the text adventure. In writing the game Cadre sacrificed puzzles for narrative, a brave move considering its seemingly fundamental role in the history of the text adventure. Advancement in the game does require input, but the solution to the obstacle or problem is usually obvious. But more than that, Photopia was one the first fan-made games to feature solid – at times remarkable – writing. Cadre, who later published a somewhat well received novel, writes in Photopia with attentive but subtle prose that quietly culminates.

Yet, for all of Cadre’s shiny text, the beauty of Photopia is that its storytelling is inseparable from its format. Photopia is fundamentally and essentially a text adventure, and works only as words scrolling across a computer screen. To read it as a transcript would rob it of its essence. Photopia demands the first person perspective and the first person interaction, even if it that interaction consists only of simple commands like "look at rob" and "go north." It is so first-person that to reveal anything about the plot would be a disservice, a chip away at the nature of the first-person narrative. Cadre also makes essential use of the text and background colors – a rarely used feature of the parsing engine. Those too alter the feel of each scene, which becomes more necessary as the game progresses.

Photopia ends quickly, but with a rewarding, highly introspective, and emotionally jarring conclusion. It is such a profound one that I think it is responsible for inspiring me want a daughter, and overwhemingly happy when I was blessed with one. A newcomer to text adventures could easily finish Photopia in an hour. That hour is best spent undisturbed, in one sitting, and alone. The game is sad, beautiful, and hard to forget. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself playing Photopia each time you start to forget to it, just to make sure you never do.

[Download Photophia for the PC]
[For Macs, download Zoom, and then open the Photopia Z-Code file with Zoom]

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