by Adam Cadre
Photopia is, without a doubt, the single most important work of interactive fiction ever to come from the IF community. It is an emotionally shattering masterpiece, a heartrending and gorgeous work of art...and it is a manipulative cop-out, a puzzleless snoozefest, and the downfall of IF. All depends on who you ask.
Photopia ran away with the 1998 IF Competition, no surprise even considering a fairly strong field. Although there is an unwritten code of silence during the voting stages of the competition to prevent unfair influence, the debate raging over Photopia could not be stemmed. For this game was the first notable example of, as Carl Muckenhoupt brilliantly put it, "interactivity at the service of fiction, rather than vice versa."
To share any of the story would detract from the experience, and the experience of playing through Photopia for the first time is an irreplaceable one, a half-hour to be treasured. The game begins in a speeding car with two frat boys, and ends in a baby's nursery. Besides one rather brilliant maze (nominated for Best Puzzle in the XYZZY's), the game is completely puzzleless, fully playable in half an hour by even the most novice of IF newbies. About twenty minutes in, when the series of seemingly disconnected and unordered scenes snaps into place and you understand what is happening, every emotional bone you possess will tingle sharply, and your pounding heart will carry you through to the inevitable conclusion of the story. You will understand, as I did, the emotional impact that a story can have. I have cried each of the three times I have played through Photopia; it is that darn powerful.
Despite the vociferous criticism of Photopia, generally thought of as the penultimate "IF on rails" game, the vast majority of posted reviews hail it as nothing short of an epic masterpiece. I will make no quarrel with that statement, and would rather like to expand on it...but words have failed me every time I've finished the game.
Please, I beg you, if you have not played Photopia before, make sure that you can set aside a half hour where you will not be distracted. Disconnect the phone, log off of your IM programs, and be sure you're using an interpreter that can handle color text, it's an essential part of the game. Photopia is emotionally wrenching, far transcending the level of a game and becoming an experience.
1998 was, without a doubt, the best year ever for interactive fiction, and Photopia only captured two of the seven XYZZY's it was nominated for: Best Writing and Best Story. This is probably due to an unfortunate bias against competition games, although it could also be due to what some would say is a weak ending (I would tend to agree, though it is a small blemish on an otherwise perfect story). Photopia is an eternal classic, and an essential part of any IF primer.
This was the second IF game I ever played, and immediately I knew it would be #1 on my list forever. Yet here it stands as #2. What could possibly top such a beautiful game?
Hardcore IF fans will not be surprised at all when I say that my #1 game is also from 1998. Think you know what it is? You might be surprised...Continued on the next page...