Photopia starts off with a short dialogue: "Will you read me a story?" "Read you a story? What fun would that be? I've got a better idea: let's tell a story together." This quote reverberates very strongly throughout the game for a variety of reasons.
The game plays itself out through many short vignettes, each easily completed in ten moves or less if you know what to do. The vignettes link to each other thematically but they're set in their own environments and each tell their own mini-story. Within each vignette, there's not much room for a puzzle. Most of them can be solved by simple exploration while others rely on successful resolution of dialogue with a character.
Because conversation is handled in multiple-choice menus, though, there's not much wrong that can happen once you initiate conversation with someone. Eventually, you'll run out of other conversation options and will have to choose the one the game wants you to in order to advance. There are a few places where you may get stuck but that's not due to puzzle design. Instead, you'll be stuck because you can't come up with the one word the game is looking for or don't know what to do because the game gives you absolutely no direction.
Since the vignettes play out in a linear fashion, the story is generally not moving along at any pace until you hit on the correct command. So, you just have to try things until you find the action or combination of actions that lets the scene proceed. Photopia's illusion of freedom, when it does give you one at all, is cursory. In that sense, the game's opening quote rings hollow.
Technically, Photopia lets you tell the game's story together with it but only grudgingly accepts your input and always guides, if not actively pushes, you to its desired scene conclusion. This makes you feel more like a spectator watching a panorama of scenes unfolding rather than an active participant within the game.
The real game is in trying to piece the game itself together, finding meaning in apparently unrelated vignettes and trying to figure out the "why and how" of Photopia. That's as fascinating as actually playing a game because Photopia layers its vignettes over each other cleverly. At first, the different scenes seem disconnected, as if each was happening in its own isolated world. But, at some point in the game, you will finally manage to make the connection and it's a very powerful moment. After that happens, you also realize the opening quote does ring true but in a different sense.
Photopia stands out in another way. You can set the game to use its own color pattern when the game begins. The different color schemes really add to the flavor of the scene. For example, the first scene starts with the words "The streetlights are bright. Unbearably bright." The game presents this particular scene with a harsh white background with black text, to simulate the unbearable brightness of the streetlights.
For most gamers, Photopia's story will leave a very poignant impression. It's a beautifully constructed piece of work of which any fiction writer would be proud. As a game, it's a big failure. What you get out of Photopia depends in great part on what you put into it. If you're looking purely for a puzzle game, you'll be badly disappointed. But, if you decide to simply enjoy the storytelling experience, then Photopia can be a very moving piece of work.
Graphics: Even though Photopia is a text-based adventure, the background and foreground color option deserves a rating. Sometimes the color scheme enhances the setting but, more often than not, it makes the text difficult to read.
Sound: None in the game.
Enjoyment: The game's ability to immerse you into its rich and moving storyline is neatly cancelled by its inability to immerse you in any gameplay whatsoever.
Replay Value: Although Photopia insists on telling a story (and the same story, no matter what you do), it can be worthwhile to go through it again and explore some dialogue options for interesting results.
In this text adventure, you journey between various short stories that are connected solely by color. At any one time, you may be speeding on the road with a friend, landing on Mars, or teaching your daughter about astronomy. It all wraps together in the end, though.
I can't think of a better way to describe this deserved winner of the 1998 IF Competition than Paul O'Brian's review: "It's just so patently clear that Photopia is not interested in puzzles, or score, or some battle of wits between author and player. Photopia is interested in telling a story, and it succeeds magnificently on this count. Unfortunately this deprives me of the use of the word "game" in describing it -- perhaps I'll just call it a work. In any case, it's a work that anyone who is interested in puzzle-less IF should try." I won't even mention the plot lest I spoil it for you. Yes, the game is THAT good. A must play for anyone with even a passing interest in IF.
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