Photopia: Not a Mediocre Short Story

Photopia: Not a Mediocre Short Story screenshot


Game released: 1998

Developer: Adam Cadre

Production: Independent

Platforms: Glulx, Z-Machine

Price: FREE

Get it from: IFDB
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If you have not played Photopia, you should play it now. You should play it because it is a beautiful work, but if that’s not enough to encourage you, you should play it because it is a very important game, and it is very short. Really, if you’re not interested in taking an hour out of your day to play one of the most significant pieces of interactive fiction of the last twenty years, then you probably won’t be interested in what I have to say anyway. All games should be experienced before they are analyzed, but some games absolutely need to be, or they cannot be analyzed at all. Photopia is one such game.

If you have not played interactive fiction before, or if you have tried and given up, then this is a perfect chance to bite the bullet and finish a piece of IF. Because Photopia is not only short, but also very easy to play. If you shy away from IF because you don’t have the patience to read, then Photopia is made for you in its brevity; if you like to read, but shy away from IF because you don’t have the patience to learn a confusing syntax and interface, then Photopia is made for you in its simplicity and linearity. “Talk to” everyone you can, use “who am I?” and if you don’t know what else to do, try “wait”-ing a few times, or just keep walking north. I promise you, you’ll finish the game in no time. Just try not to rush through it so fast that you don’t enjoy those moments that should make you say “ah.”

Is Photopia Important?

So now you’ve played the game, and maybe you liked it, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe it made you cry, or maybe you found the writing manipulative and the characters unconvincing. Maybe you thought it was a nice interactive experience, “but pretty linear,” or maybe you wonder how we can justify calling it a game at all, with the complete lack of control it gives its puppet reader.

Whether you liked the game or not, our first order of business, perhaps, should be to inquire as to why Photopia is important. In terms of the context of the work within the field of interactive fiction I cannot speak to this question directly, because I have very little experience with the genre. Fortunately, there are plenty of others who can help us here, like celebrated IF author and critic Emily Short, who calls Photopia “canonical,” and says:

This is a work so hugely influential to IF development that anyone interested in the history of the form should try it: it experiments with non-linear presentation of time, menu-based conversation, and constrained game-play to support a specific plot. A number of its features look perfectly ordinary now, but were ground-breaking at the time. Photopia’s particular form of menu conversation, for instance, was spun off into a library used in a number of other works (Photopia’s IFDB page).

So the game’s place in history matters: it has done a lot for the genre. But beyond its importance within the realm of IF, Photopia is important to video games as a whole, to the advancement of our understanding of the interactive medium. The reason for this is the same reason some people disparage the game: its low level of interactivity. Photopia is so minimally interactive that it lies right on the boundary between the interactive and the non-interactive, and this is one of the key reasons that it is valuable.

I have an undergraduate degree in physics. I have this degree because I like to understand, and physics—when taught correctly—is about understanding, and about learning to think well. One of the first things you learn to do with a physics problem is step back from the numbers at hand, and look at the limiting cases of the situation you’re examining. If you’re dealing with a car turning a corner at seventy miles per hour, you look to see what happens as the car’s speed approaches infinity; as the curve’s radius goes to infinity… and to nothing; as friction goes to infinity… and to zero. To a student new to the discipline, this procedure often seems odd, irrelevant; but it turns out that limiting cases give key insight into the inner workings of any physical system, and it is no different with computer games: by approaching the non-interactive, Photopia helps us to see just what is so special about that which is interactive.

In March 2008, Photopia was written up on Play This Thing! Aash29 replied to the write-up with this post:

I never, ever could understand why virtually everyone praises this game. It is simply a mediocre short story.

This comment demonstrates a flawed approach to approaching games, and a lack of understanding regarding the usefulness of limiting cases;  I single it out not for the purpose of picking on a particular commenter, but because it is reflective of a sentiment that pervades discussion of Photopia. I suspect what happened is that Aash29 played Photopia, was annoyed by the lack of interactivity (and what he or she considered to be poor writing), had a mediocre experience, and then quickly compared the game to the first non-interactive, mediocre thing that came to mind: a poorly written short story. The fundamental problem here is not that Aash29 had a mediocre experience playing Photopia, nor that they compare the game to a short story: both are perfectly legitimate things to do. Rather, the blunder was in lazily mixing these two things in a flawed equation (mediocre experience + like short story = mediocre short story). What Aash29 failed to realize is that, if Photopia in fact was a short story, it would be a very bad short story: nothing mediocre about it. In other words, the significant thing is not that Aas29 had a mediocre experience playing Photopia, but that they had a much better experience than they would have had reading Photopia in true short story form (mediocre > very bad, yes?).

The only really good way to compare Photopia as interactive fiction, and the hypothetical Photopia as short story—to get a good understanding of exactly what the limited interactive element adds—would be to have Adam Cadre produce the thing in actual short story form, and then present the two pieces to a group of thousands of test subjects, half of whom would get the interactive fiction, half the short story, with neither half knowing that the other form existed. After finishing the work, each subject would then fill out a detailed survey on how the thing made them feel, and what they thought of it critically, and whether they would recommend it, etc., etc., etc.

Ideals aside, we can at least convert the game to a non-interactive story as best we can, and have a look at the outcome. Which is what I did: cut and paste, and rewrite here and there until the thing resembled something of an ordinary short story; far from a perfect process, but it gets you something. It’s admittedly difficult—perhaps impossible—to approach a non-interactive version of Photopia properly after having already played through the interactive version, but I did my best to be “objective.” If anything, I think playing through the game first made me feel more attached to the non-interactive copy than I otherwise would have been. Still, the thing (the non-interactive Photopia) just didn’t work. It’s not that Cadre’s writing is particularly bad—certainly not worse than mediocre, by anyone’s standards (and that’s being unkind). The problem is that half of the story—that rather important half where you’re exploring a fantasy world through Wendy’s imagination—isn’t interesting enough to read in a non-interactive format. The environment is too dull, the settings too bare, the progress too little-kid-late-night-pulled-it-out-of-my-head storybook.

I knew Photopia was linear going in. I’d heard as much, and I could feel it in my bones as soon as the game started. I knew the author was directing every step that I took, I knew there wasn’t going to be any surprise ending. 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.

What Photopia demonstrates, is that there is a big difference—somewhere, somehow—between something that is barely interactive, and something that is not interactive; that allowing a person to step through a story is not the same as letting them read it straight out. And this demonstration, this realization, is why the game is important. I used to be one to criticize games for anything that wasn’t 100% interactive; if a game had a lot of these non-interactive elements, then it was a bad game. I still think that the importance of interactivity to games cannot be overstated, and I still want games to push the “interactive limit.” But what I am coming to realize is that there is no real “forgetting” literature or film when it comes to game development, just as there is no forgetting painting and literature when it comes to film creation. In a very real way film is part painting, and part literature: it borrows and steals from, and dances around, and exists in a sometimes awkward and sometimes elegant relation to the arts that came before it. And it is the same with games: they are part film, they are part television, they are part painting and photography and literature and sculpture and poetry. And as much as we learn and discover by pushing the boundaries of the interactive, we also learn by subtly adding in touches of interactivity to things that remain otherwise linear, “film-like,” or “short story-like.” We discover beautiful hybrids that didn’t exist before, and are not the same as the things they are derogatorily compared to. Physics again: limiting cases involve going to zero, as well as pushing towards infinity.

Is Photopia Good?

Frankly, the question of whether Photopia is “good,” in the sense that it will impact you, or from the standpoint of the quality of writing, is a question that I am less concerned with in this particular case, than the question I’ve been addressing, of whether a minimally interactive work of interactive fiction is qualitatively different from a short story. Still, I will do my best to address the question of “quality” (over against importance), by responding briefly to a few criticisms the game has received.

To begin with, in the 17th edition of the SPAG e-zine, Duncan Stevens makes this observation:

Graham Nelson wrote several years ago of linearity in game design, noting that the player comes to feel that "the author has tied him to a chair in order to shout the plot at him," and Photopia suffers in that regard. No one would complain of having the plot shouted at him in a short story; the nature of story-based non-interactive fiction is that the author dictates and the reader absorbs. But the genius of good IF is that the player shapes the development of the story, even if the author has a certain end in mind…

This is a statement that I may have agreed with at some point in time, but now take issue with. I would argue that the major reason Stevens feels that the author of Photopia “has tied him to a chair in order to shout the plot at him” is not that Photopia claims some level of interactivity that it does not have, but rather that Stevens is coming to the game expecting it to have some level of interactivity that it does not claim. To a certain extent Stevens cannot be blamed for the assumption, because Photopia is a work of interactive fiction after all, and interactive fiction typically gives the player greater control of its story than Photopia does. The issue here is categorization and naming, and a lack of flexibility when approaching a work of art—or anything, for that matter.

Let me explain: as human beings, we rely on language, vocabulary, grammar, grids, and categories to understand the world around us; yet we must always be cautious when handling these ideal grids and categories, because as soon as we apply them to anything we interact with, we lose something of the “thing” itself: something of the actuality disappears, and is replaced by categorical information in our minds. Frederick Buechner describes this process very well in The Sacred Journey, where he notes that as soon as we call a tree a tree we gain some understanding about the world and about ourselves, but we also lose the thing that the tree was before we labeled it a tree.

This tangent is all to say that when we approach a game (or anything), we must be careful to try and experience it as “innocently” as possible, rather than assuming it will fit into some genre-based grid in our mind.  It is my opinion that Photopia, taken apart from the standards of interactive fiction or computer games in general, does not create any false expectations of malleability.

(Stevens’ argument is also flawed in that it is inverted. It is true, as Graham Nelson notes, that the introduction of any interactive element in a game can paradoxically serve to highlight everything that is not interactive, but this is a phenomenon that typically grows with the level of interactivity allowed. Critics have often noted that the fantastically free world of Grand Theft Auto can sometimes feel like the most constraining world in games for this reason: our ability to do so much only makes us wonder at those things we cannot do. Genre expectations may lead you to think that Photopia should be more interactive along the lines of other IF titles, but set those expectations aside and it may be the other IF titles, with their increased level of interactivity, that make you wonder why you can’t do more; Photopia makes the small boundaries of its interactive world perfectly clear, and in my opinion perfectly comfortable.)

Another criticism of Photopia, made by Stevens and others, is that the game is just too short: “one has to be a very, very slow reader to play a game this short from beginning to end longer than 20 or 25 minutes.” The problem with this argument is the form it typically takes. I think it is reasonable to criticize the length of a game (or any art piece), but only in so far as you explain how and why it should be longer, from the perspective of what the piece is trying to be, and what it is trying to accomplish. Complaining that Photopia is only “20 or 25 minutes long,” without further explanation, only indicates that you have time to burn, and that you’d like to burn it in quantity. It is fine to claim that a short length precludes the level of emersion and character development that can be attained by longer works, but to say that all interactive fiction should thus be “so many” words long is ludicrous, just as it would be ludicrous to suggest that all stories should be novels and all poems should be epics.

It seems clear to me that Cadre is trying, with Photopia, to create something analogous to a short story, and I, for one, think it works well that way. If the game were longer certain things would start to get out of hand (unless the whole thing was reconstructed in a very different way): the exploration scenes, for example, are perfect length as they are, but would be tedious if drawn out; Alison’s “saintliness” is acceptable as an outline sketch of a character in a short story, but would become unbelievable if we didn’t learn significantly more about her in a longer work.

Besides those elements that would suffer if drawn out, there are two form-related reasons I can think of why Photopia should be short. One is that it is partly a bedtime story, and it seems proper that its length should mirror that form.  The other is that, as Paul O’Brian points out in his own SPAG review, Photopia is partly a “metanarrative about the medium of interactive fiction itself,” and I think this fact is made abundantly clearer by Photopia’s short length.

All of that being said, there are limitations to every form, and Cadre’s choice to create a short work does necessarily limit his power to engage and impact the player/reader. This is the same truth I noted in my review of Jason Rohrer’s Passage: a well-crafted haiku will rarely, if ever, have the ability to impact a person like a well-crafted novel will, and the comparison can be made between any two forms of fundamentally different lengths.

The last criticism I’ll bring up is one made by Emily Short, who says of Photopia (while acknowledging its historical significance), “I personally found it wavered between effective and manipulative, with the main character too saintly to be true.” To a large extent I agree with this statement. I said earlier that “Alison’s ‘saintliness’ is acceptable as an outline sketch of a character in a short story,” and I half believe that—but half don’t. The main issue, really, is not Alison’s saintliness (which I do think is painted within acceptable lines for a short sketch), but her looming deadness, which flips the switch of her saintliness on, and sets her up on a pedestal where we are all presumably supposed to bow to her (i.e. cry for her).

I think the main potential barrier to Photopia having the impact that it desires to have (setting aside the “I’m not happy because there aren’t enough puzzles” complaint) is that the player/reader may feel manipulated: that they are only getting one side of the story; that they are being made to believe something that they haven’t chosen to believe for themselves; that Cadre is not so much relaying a story, as he is crafting an emotional trap.

To some extent this dilemma comes back to form, length, “the nature of the beast”: it takes a bold person to try and make you care, in the span of ten thousand words, about someone you never met before—not just care, but care enough that their death makes you cry, rather than look for someone behind the curtain. Come believing, hoping, innocent, and Photopia may well make you cry; come skeptical, critical, exacting, and it might leave you feeling violated. Like Short, I found the game wavered: artful, but maybe not artful enough for its grand ambitions…


Does Photopia deserve to be so hallowed as it is? Quantitatively, that question may be hard to tackle. In my mind, though, the game does, without a doubt, deserve to be hallowed to some degree. It is historically important both as a work of interactive fiction and as a game, for its numerous technical innovations, and for its minimalist interactive component that makes it such a great example of a “limiting case game.” Whether Photopia succeeds on the affective level is open for debate, but my opinion and your opinion notwithstanding, the fact that it clearly does succeed with so many people is a strong testament to Adam Cadre’s ability to innovate and impact all in the same breath.

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Jordan Magnuson is the founder and editor in chief of He recently traveled around the world on a shoestring budget with the goal of making small games about the experience. You can find out more at


Note that you can run this game on any platform that has a Z-Machine or Glulx interpreter available for it. These include Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Nintendo DS, Pocket PC, and more. For instructions on downloading and installing an appropriate interpreter, see this page.

If you’ve never played interactive fiction before, I’d suggest you read Emily Short’s beginner’s guide (PDF) before diving in. Also, check out the beginner resources available at Brass Lantern. If you finish this game and are interested in the idea of making your own interactive fiction, check out the powerful and easy to learn Inform 7.

Further Reading

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