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A Curiosity, But Perhaps Not A Masterpiece, March 24, 2012
Play it if: you have a thing for IF that treats itself as a linear story rather than a game, for this is by its very conception one of the least interactive entries into the genre; and if you're big on "emotional" stories in your IF.
Don't play it if: if the line between drama and melodrama is just too fine for you, because Photopia is chock-full of whimsy, abrupt tone shifts, and strongly communicated emotion.
There's very little one can meaningfully say about Photopia that hasn't already been said. This has to be one of the least interactive works of IF in existence - the format is actually used more as a way to give cinematic effects to literature. Most of the time you're doing the equivalent of tapping the SPACE key and moving things along.
What takes the place of interactivity is the weight of narrative: the emphasis is firmly on the "fiction" aspect here, presenting a number of interrelated scenarios revolving around a single subject.
While the concept is interestingly done - and as has been said before, has some historically groundbreaking traits - Photopia leaves me a little cold because the writing, the aspect of this work that's supposed to take up the slack from the interactivity, feels decidedly average.
Don't get me wrong: Cadre's writing is fairly decent, and he can evoke images quite well in his description of things. (Spoiler - click to show)The way the car crash is described from the driver's point of view has details that give the experience a bit of visceral punch. The description of the crystalline maze was also evocative. The problem is that the subject of the narrative (Spoiler - click to show)(Alley) seems to have very little in the way of a genuine arc (Spoiler - click to show)besides just growing up, which reduces the subject's depth and makes the story as a whole feel less fulfilling. (Spoiler - click to show)Of course these things happen, and it's tremendously sad when they do, but it is the work of the storyteller to find solace in lending meaning to these kinds of tragedies. That Alley's death is the kind of awful twist that could happen to any of us is true enough, but as far as meaning goes it's rather mundane. There are also several passages where the writing is at risk of becoming overwrought (Spoiler - click to show)with the passage where Jon asks Alley out feeling overwritten, and the treatment of her curiosity and intelligence making her feel a bit like a Mary Sue character. In particular, the fact that the game wanted me to believe Alley's monologue on Freudian psychology to be a sign of genuine intellectual curiosity - when Freud's model was largely shelved a while before this game was written - really stuck out as an example of Alley being written simply as "smart". The view of the subject is also rather one-sided (Spoiler - click to show)Alley is given little in the way of flaws and as a result does come across as "too perfect".
I can understand why this story made certain readers cry, and I'm not calling them idiots for responding that way. It's just that for me personally, this story won't really stick with me on an emotional level due to the above issues. Ultimately, Photopia is better served by being upheld as an innovation on the IF concept than as a profoundly-written story - but it's still worth your time to play through it, as it offers insight into how IF tools can be used to lend cinematic effect to literature and to tinker with narrative structure.