Photopia dispenses with interactive gameplay

Dispensing with interactive ‘gameplay’, Photopia makes sure its story is told to the finish, creating its own narrative.

Published: 23rd May 2009 11:41 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th May 2012 11:32 PM   |  A+A-


In virtually dispensing with interactive ‘gameplay’ to make sure its story is told to the finish, this game succeeds in creating  its own unique narrative,  says Krish Raghav.

When Adam Cadre’s Photopia won first place at the 1998 Interactive Fiction competition, it started an (intense) debate about what really draws the line between an interactive video game and a work of fiction. Photopia unceremoniously dumped the idea of a ‘puzzle-based’ narrative in favour of what it called a ‘story-based’ narrative, a linear progression (linear in terms of interactivity, not time) from beginning to end that throws seemingly random fragments of a story at the player, which slowly start to weave into one another and create a cohesive pattern as the game progresses. The effect is akin to a movie like 21 Grams, which chops its linear narrative into fragments that slowly start to coalesce.   

The debate centred on the fact that Photopia required very little from the player in terms of actual ‘gameplay’. There were no ‘puzzles’, some reviewers said, and the experience was akin to watching a long cutscene (Metal Gear Solid comes to mind) and occasionally pressing a key to move it along. Most of the sequences, like the one in the beginning of the game, are timed to two or three responses before moving on, irrespective of what they might be.

Commentators seemed to regard Photopia as almost dispensing with the need for the gamer. It had a story to tell, and that was that. “I hesitate to call Photopia a game, but not because it failed to live up to a standard of interactivity,” wrote one reviewer at SPAG, “It’s just so patently clear that Photopia is not interested in puzzles, or score, or some battle of wits between author and player. Perhaps [we can] call it…a work.”  

Another pertinent question to ask of Photopia is whether it needed to be a work of interactive friction at all. Could it have worked just as well as short story?

To answer that question, we must realise that Photopia is not the only game, or ‘work’, to play down or disregard the idea of a ‘puzzle’ or interactivity.  

Planescape Torment, with over 800,000 words of written text within its script, dispensed with what many gamers would consider the central characteristic of an RPG, and made you immortal. Death in combat results in your character whirling back into existence at a nearby spawn point, levels and inventory intact.  The quest, then, takes centrestage in Planescape, and the inter­actions with other characters becomes more important than building up statistics through combat.  

Funcom’s Dreamfall (The sequel to the excellent ‘Longest Journey’) takes a similar deviant path, favouring an exploratory approach over the traditional puzzle-cutscene-puzzle-cutscene pattern of traditional adventure games. Apart from a few lethargic battle sequences and almost painfully easy a+b=c puzzles, the game made it clear that it had a story to tell, and took you along just for the ride.   

This downplaying of traditional game elements works perfectly in both cases, the odd game mechanics invert a gamer’s expectation, creating a unique gaming experience.   

And that’s really where Photopia shines. The core of its emotional impact is its ability to turn this expectation of interaction in a traditional video-game narrative on its head, and use the LACK of interaction as a narrative form in itself. Events in Photopia hurtle towards their inescapable fate, and the jigsaw puzzle timeline provides occasional flashes of what that conclusion might be, and that sense of foreboding, created by glimpses of understanding as the plot slowly unravels, only intensifies as the game progresses. In a sense, the very lack of interactivity becomes the reason Photopia works, and there is really no way to describe this in any more detail without giving vital plot points away.   

Suffice it to say that the inability to influence the fate that awaits Photopia’s characters, and the claustrophobia that the game’s limited interactivity creates within that universe works fantastically. It’s perhaps a testament to its brilliant game design — how the use of just text and splashes of colour can create an unforgettable experience.  

But is that enough? Is this skeletal frame of a choice-based narrative, within an unabashedly linear plot enough to elevate a game above the no man’s land of a mere experiment?

Play Photopia. Play it twice. And decide for yourself. Photopia can be played online or downloaded at:

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