Photograph by Steve Evans [Comp02]

IFDB page: Photograph: A Portrait Of Reflection
Final placement: 3rd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

If “Steve Evans” isn’t a pseudonym, then what we have here is quite an auspicious debut indeed. Photograph is a carefully crafted tale, executed in prose that is both transparent and strong. Well-chosen symbols underpin the game’s unfolding story of a man obsessed with what he perceives to be the big mistake in his past. Normally, this sort of thing isn’t really my cup of tea — I have a pretty low tolerance threshold for characters maundering over their memories or floundering in bad relationships. I get impatient for them to just take some action, move on and claim the present day, and I certainly felt some of those twinges of annoyance as I tried to guide the PC of Photograph into a less passive approach to life. However, the game made two choices that helped considerably to redeem these problems.

First, although the PC is certainly stuck in his mental processes, the writing introduces some blessed complexity into its depiction of his life, making it clear that his obsessed interpretation of events isn’t the only available point of view on them. There are some really beautiful details in this game, and their shine helps to illuminate the PC as a passionate but fallible character rather than some objectively correct observer. The game’s other saving grace is in its choice to cast this story as interactive fiction. Something really appealed to me about an IF character who wishes for nothing more fervently than a SAVE and RESTORE function for his own life. Choices, and how we are shaped by them, really works for me as a theme in IF.

Photograph also uses some rather clever narrative techniques, though I don’t think they quite lived up to their potential in practice. The first of these is the addition of a CONSIDER verb (conveniently abbreviatable to “C”). Objects, and even concepts, can be CONSIDERed, and doing so may yield anything from a stock response, to some additional information, to a major advancement in the plot. I thought this was an interesting idea, but too often in Photograph, the CONSIDER verb became just another, more superfluous version of EXAMINE. I ended up CONSIDERing almost everything I could think of, on the off chance that it might yield something, but most of the time it didn’t. In fact, I soon discovered that “CONSDIDER <any old gibberish>” would still yield the stock response, which encourages rather than discourages flailing at nothing with this verb.

Moreover, it seems to me that examining things and considering them aren’t exactly mutually exclusive processes; in my own experience, anyway, when I’m examining something I’m almost always considering it simultaneously. Still, despite the simultaneity, I agree that there is a qualitative difference between physically looking at something and thinking about it — for one thing, the latter can be done even when the object isn’t available, and it also applies to abstract concepts in a way that EXAMINE just can’t. Consequently, I think that the CONSIDER verb does have potential in games that want to preserve this difference.

Perhaps one way to better integrate it, and to reduce lots of useless CONSIDERing, is to print the CONSIDER text (if any) the first time an object is examined, making that text repeatable by using the CONSIDER verb on its own. Then CONSIDER could be better devoted to its more appropriate uses (out of scope items and abstract concepts), since players could be certain that they’re not missing out on anything by not CONSIDERing everything in sight.

Photograph‘s other major deviation from standard IF is in its addition of further conversation verbs beyond ASK ABOUT and TALK ABOUT, such as MENTION X TO Y or DISCUSS X WITH Y. In the words of its help text, “if you think something should provide a sensible response even though the verb is not standard issue, then try it. If it doesn’t work, then please send me a bug report.” This is an extremely ambitious approach, and unsurprisingly, it fails. That isn’t necessarily cause for shame — I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an IF game that really succeeded at providing reasonable coverage for all the various ways in which conversational impulses can be expressed. When a game presents itself in such an open-ended way, it’s just waiting for players to trip it up with phrases like REMIND X OF Y or ASK X WHAT’S ON HER MIND.

I’m all for expanding the palette of conversational verbs available, but in my opinion, it’s far better to just lay out what verbs are implemented and then to make sure that those are implemented quite thoroughly. This approach helps the player avoid seeing a lot of unhelpful responses from a game that isn’t equipped to handle the full range of human articulation. Still, these blemishes aside, Photograph is a fine game — I hope it heralds the beginning of a bright career from an excellent new author.

Rating: 9.2