No Time To Squeal by Mike Sousa and Robb Sherwin [Comp01]

IFDB page: No Time To Squeal
Final placement: 4th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sometimes two heads really are better than one. Take Robb Sherwin, an author with writing ability and panache to spare, but whose comp games have traditionally been major-league bugfests. Combine with Mike Sousa, whose Comp2000 entry At Wit’s End proved that he was capable of thorough, polished implementation and taut pacing, though his prose didn’t particularly draw attention to itself (for good or bad.)

The result is a game that uses each author’s strengths to its best advantage. NTTS had me on the edge of my seat almost immediately, invested in the characters and sweating through the rapidly mounting tension. That sick, scared, hollow-stomached feeling isn’t one I tend to enjoy, even when it’s produced by fiction — that’s why serial killer horror is a genre I usually avoid — but I have to admit, this game did an excellent job at producing it. Very short scenes, whose interactions are limited to a few, very obvious moves, pile rapidly atop one another, screaming towards a conclusion that left me breathless, saddened, and a little confused.

Right about then, the game did something that really pissed me off. Of course, I didn’t know at the time to be pissed off about it — I only found out later, after spinning in frustrated circles, trying to make progress. And even though this move is one of the major surprises in NTTS, I’m going to spoil it now, because to my mind, it’s a terribly unfair trap lying in wait for people who approach IF like I do. You’ve been warned.

What happens is that NTTS appears to end tragically. It then offers the standard “Please enter RESTORE, RESTART or QUIT” prompt, and indeed, you can restore or quit from this prompt, and those functions will work as advertised. RESTART, however, doesn’t really restart the game but instead moves it to its next section. Now, it’s true that this is not a new idea. At least one other game pulls a similar trick, but in that game, no matter what you type at the question’s prompt, the letters RESTART appear. NTTS, however, offers a system prompt at which some responses will generate system actions and other responses will generate game actions.

This is a very, very bad idea. You know why? Because I chose RESTORE, that’s why. I restored my game, trying to “win” that first section, and failed, not knowing that failure was the only option. I was about to restore again, but I just couldn’t think of anything new to try, so I checked the walkthrough, and found out that the way to solve this “puzzle” was to type RESTART at a system prompt that really wasn’t. This is dirty pool. If you’re going to sneakily integrate system prompts with the game, at least have the courtesy not to make the feature into a puzzle, because solving a cheating puzzle isn’t any fun.

I approached the rest of the game with wariness and caution, unwilling to get too drawn in, which is too bad because NTTS apes Photopia‘s viewpoint-fragmentation (though not so much its time-fragmentation) to great effect, in the service of telling an interesting, multi-layered story. Of course, it was a story that still left a few major plot danglers swinging even when it reached its real conclusion, not to mention threw in cultural references from Jack The Ripper to Lewis Carroll without much to support them. Still, it was engaging stuff, and was peppered with one or two really clever puzzles. The overall design was solid, save for the one flaw, but that flaw was so glaring, I really can’t ignore it. No Time To Squeal demonstrates that great things can happen when two IF authors combine their strengths, but unfortunately, it also shows that even teams still have their weaknesses.

Rating: 7.4

Exhibition by Ian Finley as Anatoly Domokov [Comp99]

IFDB page: Exhibition
Final placement: 5th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Exhibition is a game of absences. It has no plot. It also has no puzzles, at least not in the way we’re used to thinking about puzzles. There are no takeable objects whatsoever in the game, and most of the action consists of standing around examining things. What it does not lack, however, is quality. It’s a masterwork of storytelling, creating a spellbinding narrative from spaces inbetween. I loved it. The story takes place at an art exhibition, the final show of a painter named Anatoly Domokov, who committed suicide shortly before the show opened. The only thing to do is stand around and look at the show’s twelve paintings, but devoid though it is of traditional action, the exhibition has psychological action galore. The player may view the paintings from one of four viewpoints: the wife of the dead artist, a critic, a twenty-year-old man, or a student. Although we can see (via HTML TADS image embedding) a drawing of each character, we do not see the paintings. Instead, each character describes each painting in magnificently written paragraphs, and in doing so tells as a little about the painting, and quite a bit more about themselves, usually unintentionally. The absence of the paintings is just another example of the way Exhibition tells us its most revealing secrets by what it chooses not to include.

Like last year’s winner Photopia, Exhibition is all about someone whom the player never controls. Unlike Photopia, this game goes one step further: we never even see Anatoly at any point in the game. Instead, what we get are descriptions of his works, sometimes mixed in with anecdotes about him when the work is being viewed by someone who knew or met him. With each description from each viewpoint, we get another piece of the puzzle. All the pieces fit together like a jigsaw, but they do not form a clear portrait of the artist. Instead, like a frame around his outline, they define his shape, each moving from a different direction to collide with one of his boundaries, and sometimes with each other too. At the end of the game, we know Anatoly’s form, but only obliquely, filtered through the very individual perceptions of each viewer.

In the bargain, we are granted insight into his art, his loved ones, his disposition, and his culture, but all these insights are lines around a central emptiness, an absence reflected in the artist’s final painting, “Iscariot.” The painting, in the words of the critic, is “a simple desert landscape with a frayed noose hanging empty on a gnarled tree and a scrawny goat searching in its shadow.” Anatoly hanged himself, and was found next to this completed painting. Each character offers an interpretation of the empty noose (as well as its grisly companion), and each interpretation gives us a piece of the truth. The author notes that, in part, Exhibition aspires to be “an experiment in how tales are told and the inevitable gap between the teller and the audience.” It is by shining its light through these gaps that the game so sublimely illuminates and limns its subject.

Unexpectedly enough, this collection of descriptions is a puzzle, though certainly not in the tradition of most IF puzzles. It is up to the player to create that outline, to put the pieces together so that one viewer’s comments clarify those of another viewer, and both together sharpen the focus on Anatoly’s silhouette. Even the shape of the gallery itself, walls around a space, contributes to the developing portrait. Exhibition makes the process of deduction easier with its stellar production values. In the reams of text presented by the game, I found not one grammar or spelling error. I didn’t find a single bug either, though the game’s design is admittedly simple as far as programming is concerned. These virtues by themselves give me great pleasure, but what made the game a true joy to play was its wonderful writing. As an exercise in character and viewpoint, Exhibition is an impressive performance. As storytelling, it is mesmerizing. Exhibition may be a game of absences with death at its core, but like the stories it tells, it wields a power far greater than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 9.9

A Moment of Hope by Simmon Keith [Comp99]

IFDB page: A Moment Of Hope
Final placement: 18th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Remember how one-room puzzlefests were the big trend of the 1998 competition? Well, I think I’m getting a handle on what it is for ’99: non-interactive fiction. It’s the legacy of Photopia, I suppose. But how little we knew, when we played that one short, brilliant Red Planet section of Photopia where every chosen direction advances the plot, that in a year we’d be playing entire games that operate like that. So far I’ve seen Halothane, which enforces its plot fairly rigidly; Remembrance, which limits the player’s options severely by restricting them to a very short menu; and Life on Beal Street, which is no more interactive than a book. Perhaps the worst offender yet, though, is A Moment of Hope. At least Beal and Remembrance didn’t pretend to be anything but linear roads with no detours available. At least Halothane allowed some freedom of action. Because A Moment of Hope is a TADS game with the appearance of an unrestricted parser, it gives a very believable facade of interactivity, when in fact it’s anything but. Here’s a sample from towards the end of the game:

>SLEEP
You flip your pillow upside down, and hope you can go to sleep.

>GET UP
Turning to your other side, you give it another try.

>GO GET A SANDWICH
You kick at the tangled blanket, convinced it's what is preventing your
slumber.

>IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT I TYPE, DOES IT?
In a valiant attempt to block out the sun, you vainly cover your head
with your pillow and try to relax. ...It doesn't work.

>BITE ME
You finally decide to give in. It's time to get up.

This is the most drastically non-interactive section of the game, but every section of it crowds that side of the continuum. There is only one exit from each location — even if others are described, the game forbids travel in all but one direction. When the game wants you to, for example, read an email, any other command is met with something along the lines of “Not right now, you’re busy.” Adding to the aggravation, sometimes commands have to be repeated multiple times in order to get the parser to accept them. At one point you have to repeat a command eight times in order for it to actually work.

Let’s take a moment to think about this. It seems clear that what the game wants to do is to tell me a specific story. It seems equally clear that the game isn’t much interested in what I want to do. Why, then, was this written as interactive fiction and entered into the IF competition? To really delve into the reasons would be an essay in itself, but one that comes to mind is, as I said earlier, Photopia. After all, the big winner from last year was a game that heavily emphasized the “fiction” side of the IF equation, so that must be the way to win competitions, right? Well, not necessarily. Even setting aside the fact that the three previous competitions were won by games with prominent and interesting puzzles (Edifice, Meteor, Weather/Zebulon), there’s also the fact that Photopia restricted interactivity strategically rather than just doing it indiscriminately. To take one small example, think about the Red Planet section of Photopia compared to the section of A Moment of Hope I’ve quoted above. [PHOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD] The Red Planet section of Photopia is part of a story being told to a small child. Even though the player may not know it at the time, the responses of the parser are really Alley’s responses, and the player’s input really Wendy’s participation in the story. This fact constitutes a sensible, cogent reason why every direction taken advances that section’s plot: Alley is telling a story to a small child, and using a clever technique to move the story along so that Wendy won’t find herself pointlessly wandering around the landscape. No such fictional level is present in A Moment of Hope. The game’s responses and player’s input are no more or less than they seem, and as such, when the game uses Alley’s trick on the player it seems rather condescending. After all, we’re not small children with five-minute attention spans. A range of choices and a landscape to traverse won’t lose us.

The game doesn’t take that risk, though, perhaps because its main character is so unsympathetic that it can’t afford to allow any player input that might make him less pathetic. The basic plot here is that an incredibly insecure guy has gotten an email from a matchmaking website. The site has matched him up with somebody he really likes, but how serious is she about him? The game is unrelenting with the constant reminders of just how strung out this guy is. Especially in the first section, almost every single turn yields multiple messages about the PC’s deep, deep depression. No wonder, then, that the game wants to restrict player action. What if a player came along who wanted to make the choice to just forget about this girl and call a friend instead? What if a player wanted to just turn off the computer (the computer in the game, I mean) and read a good book? Hell, what if a player wanted to at least make the damn bed? Nope, wouldn’t fit the story. Wouldn’t fit the character. So it’s not allowed. But a player can’t help wondering: what am I doing in this short story? It’s written well, with no mechanical errors (or coding errors), but if A Moment of Hope were straight fiction, I wouldn’t much want to read it. But I did read this game. Come to think of it, because it was a competition entry, the whole group of judges was a bit of a captive audience, wasn’t it? Hmmm, maybe the choice to write the story as IF rather than straight fiction isn’t so mysterious after all…

Rating: 3.8

Chicks Dig Jerks by Robb Sherwin [Comp99]

IFDB page: Chicks Dig Jerks
Final placement: 31st place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

[NOTE: There are some obscenities in this review.]

Yecch. After an hour of playing Chicks Dig Jerks, I feel like I’ve been swimming in sewage. The PC and his friends are some of the most repulsive human beings I’ve ever seen described, and spending time looking through their eyes was pretty sickening. Now, it’s clear that the author is aware of this fact. The game begins with a big banner reading, in part, “There are absolutely no role models in this game.” Fine. But if it was intended to be some sort of satire, it didn’t work, at least not for me. Perhaps some reader smarter than I am will explain how in fact the whole game brilliantly skewers the emptiness and horror of its protagonist’s life, but for me, that didn’t come across. Instead, it just felt like living some stereotyped nightmare for no particular reason. Remember those fratboys at the beginning of Photopia? This is basically an entire game from their viewpoint, with some off-the-wall supernatural stuff thrown in for no readily apparent reason. The fact that the game was loaded with bugs and writing errors didn’t give me much confidence that it had some sharp, intelligent viewpoint behind its ugly veneer, but I don’t think that’s the main reason why I found Chicks Dig Jerks so unpleasant. That reason can be summed up in one word: misogyny. The game’s fear and hatred of women starts at the title and just snowballs from there.

The game’s basic notion is that women come in two varieties. There’s the Dumb Chick, who is prey to the PC’s predator. She has no illusions about her status, and apparently likes it, because she’s attracted to men who will treat her like dirt. Then there’s the Evil Bitch, who hates all men and is out to kill them and/or drain them of their vitality, at least until she can find one strong enough to dominate her and turn her back into a Dumb Chick. The male characters wandering through this world have two basic goals: score with (i.e. fuck) the Dumb Chicks and avoid or kill the Evil Bitches. We see the former in the game’s first sequence, in which the goal is to get two phone numbers from a group of women at a bar. The PC does this by approaching them with the dumbest lines imaginable, and guess what? Because they’re even dumber then the lines, they think he’s cool and give him their numbers. Here’s what the PC has to say after accomplishing this goal: “Word up.”

Then one of the Dumb Chicks takes the PC home and they have “animal sex for the better part of the night.” Then the PC bolts, leaving “a little note” and his number. What a guy. Thus ends the Dumb Chicks portion of our show. Moving on, the PC then invades a graveyard (did I mention he makes his living as a grave robber?) where an Evil Bitch tries to kill him. He ends up killing her, which is too bad, because I was really rooting for her. Then he gets real sentimental because his best friend (male, of course) was killed in the battle. Damn those Evil Bitches and their short male accomplices! (The game also seems to have a problem with short men.) Damn them to hell!

There are two dreams described in the narrative which illustrate this dichotomy perfectly. In the first, the PC is lured into an unoccupied room by a seductive woman, and in the room he sees the dried, dead husks of all his male friends. Then the succubus drains him too, and sticks his skin to the wall with thumbtacks. You can probably guess which side of the coin she represents. Then, in the second dream, the PC is having a fight with his old girlfriend, who apparently was the one person with whom he didn’t act like total scum. She breaks up with him, and in remembering the breakup, he wishes he had given into his impulse to “rock the bitch’s world and leave her reeling and bleeding.” He also regrets all the time he didn’t spend “being an exciting, unavailable, uncontrollable asshole.” Hey Avandre, here’s a hint: if your girlfriend left you because you weren’t enough of a jerk, the answer isn’t to be more of a jerk. The answer is to FIND A SMARTER GIRLFRIEND! But that might be too much to ask of this character — a woman who he sees as a human and who is as smart as or smarter than him would just be way, way too scary.

Speaking of scary, let’s talk about this game’s code. At one point a character playing a video game exclaims in frustration, “This fucking thing has more bugs than a tropical swamp!” I had to smile at this, since the sentence (with the exception of the expletive) is lifted almost verbatim from a SPAG review of the author’s last game, Saied. The description is also apt for Chicks Dig Jerks. Unless you go through the game exactly as described in the walkthrough, you will find bugs. At one point, I was talking to a character, and one of my conversation options actually put me back in a previous scene. That scene went differently, and then I had to sit through the whole “animal sex” thing again. At another point, two characters are described as being disintegrated, then proceed to take some actions in the following paragraphs, then get re-disintegrated. There’s an item you can pick up, and no matter where in the game you pick it up, the description always indicates that you find something else under it, even if the thing you supposedly find is already in your inventory. You get the idea — examples abound. Chicks Dig Jerks is the Cattus Atrox of the 99 competition — I had a strong reaction to it, and that reaction was: I never want to see this game again.

Rating: 1.9

[Postscript from 2020: Adam Cadre wrote a contrarian review of this game in which he asserted it has “the best writing of any game in the comp.” Since then, Sherwin has proved to be one of the stalwarts of modern IF, releasing several full-sized games and even packaging them commercially. I wrote a long, appreciative review of his game Cryptozookeeper, which no doubt I’ll post here at some point. In it, I described the friendship Robb and I have developed: “Belying the outrageousness of his writing, the man himself is a gentle, witty, soft-spoken presence, a real mensch who’s done me many a good turn over the years.” Funny old thing, life.]

Remembrance by Casey Tait [Comp99]

IFDB page: Remembrance
Final placement: 27th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Unlike all the other entries in this year’s IF competition, Remembrance isn’t a story file or program. Rather than the product of an IF language, or even a standalone executable written from scratch, the game is a collection of web pages, each one leading to the next. At the bottom of each web page is a little piece of JavaScript, sometimes just a button reading “Continue”, other times a pull-down combo box with a list of possible actions (never any more than three) and a “Try Action” button. Many attempted actions bring up input boxes, asking for further clarification (e.g. “What would you like me to get?”). Once the command has been fully entered, the page will do one of two things. One possibility is that the browser will display a JavaScript message box indicating the results of the command, either the generic failure message “Your action has no effect” or some longer response which advances the plot. The other option is that the browser will simply bring up the next web page in the sequence. This web implementation has some advantages. Guess-the-verb problems are entirely eliminated, and for one particular puzzle in the game that is a distinct benefit. The web-based approach also allows the author all the traditional advantages of a web page — colors, pictures, fonts, etc — though I can’t say that the game did much with the possibilities. The plot concerns World War I, and the pages do have a color scheme which matches (black on olive drab), but that’s about as fancy as it gets, aside from the JavaScript parts. In addition, there were some serious problems with the web-based approach. For one thing, I found that the chosen color scheme made the text pretty difficult to read. Also, the pages are hosted by tripod.com, which generated an inexpressibly irritating pop-up window every time the game moved to a new page. On top of that, whenever the JavaScript message boxes would appear, my browser would sound a chord; this is the same chord that Windows 95 sounds for urgent warnings and notifications that the hard drive is about to melt, so hearing it over and over was a pretty unpleasant experience.

But the biggest problem with the web approach is that the interface itself dramatically curtails interactivity. At its worst, the interactivity is limited to a “continue” button, which is about as interactive as turning the page in a book. At its best, the interface is reminiscent of the “command menu” interface of some point-and-click commercial adventures, only with a drastically limited menu. Compounding this problem is the highly linear design of the game itself. Not only is there just one path through the game, but there is really only one path through each substep of the game as well. For example, in the opening sequence there are three commands which must be entered in order. It isn’t tough to guess which three, because the combo box at the bottom of the screen only contains three options. Nonetheless, choosing the wrong command to start with, no matter what further explanation you put in the input box, just gives one response: “Your action has no effect.” Choosing the right command, but putting the wrong thing in the subsequent input box just gives the same terse (and improperly punctuated) hint line every time. Once you get the first command right, the process starts again for the next command. After a few iterations of this process, it becomes eminently clear that Remembrance is less interactive fiction than it is forced-participation fiction. That is, to see the next page of the story, you have to enter the magic word. There is no possibility of exploring the landscape, no opportunity to attempt other routes, and very few things to even try along the way. To further enforce its boundaries, the game uses the technique of regularly shifting viewpoints and settings, a la Photopia.

In fact, the comparison between Remembrance and Photopia is a fruitful one. Remembrance feels very much like it wants to emulate Photopia, changing Alley to Alex and the dangers of irresponsible driving to the dangers of trench warfare. You might even say that it starts down the trail blazed by Photopia and walks it all the way to its logical conclusion: highest level of tragedy, lowest level of interactivity. However, there are some important differences between the two as well. Foremost among these is the writing. Where Photopia maintained a consistently excellent level of prose, Remembrance is more uneven. The bulk of the writing is clean and well-done, but there are also a number of misspellings, punctuation errors, and awkward phrases. In addition, where Photopia‘s scenes are non-sequential both chronologically and in terms of point-of-view, in Remembrance it is only POV that shifts, with the exception of a short prologue. This difference probably contributed to the fact that the twist in Photopia is quite surprising the first time through, whereas in Remembrance the climactic event is visible several miles off. However, all that aside, I still found Remembrance touching. Perhaps I just have a soft spot for World War I stories ever since I saw Gallipoli, and certainly the type of tragedy depicted in Remembrance is an easy target for a tearjerker, but the interplay of letters and scenes, encompassing the trenches, the planning rooms, and the homelands, made for a nicely affecting overall presentation. It’s not the sort of thing I’d want to see very much of, but it was definitely worth my time once through.

Rating: 6.7

About my 1999 IF Competition reviews

Photopia was a meteorite. It landed, and changed everything. I would argue that it was Adam Cadre’s 1998 comp-winner that moved interactive fiction out of Infocom’s shadow once and for all. In a swift, brilliant stroke, it proved that IF could be popular and artistically successful without puzzles, without linear time, and to some extent without meaningful choices. Assumptions molded by IF’s commercial history melted away in Photopia‘s light.

That change had a huge effect on the 1999 competition games. In my reviews I found myself referencing Photopia the way I used to reference Infocom, as a benchmark that set expectations for both authors and players. That year’s comp was full of Photopia-alikes, most of them pretty unfortunate. It’s a bit reminiscent of how in the comics world, the excellent landmarks of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns set off a 15-year wave of “grim and gritty” superheroes, from authors and editors who thought those books were successful because they were dark rather than just both dark and successful.

Photopia was also a high-profile breaker of formal boundaries in IF, but it was far from the only one. 1999’s comp saw formal experimentation blossoming in lots of really interesting ways, and in reviewing the games I found myself evolving a terminology for how to talk about aspects of IF that the games were teaching me to understand. For instance, this year is where I started talking about levels of nouns. Quoting from my review of Hunter, In Darkness: “In this terminology, first-level nouns are those nouns that are mentioned in room descriptions. Second-level nouns are those nouns mentioned in the descriptions of the first-level nouns. Third-level nouns are in the second-level noun descriptions, and so on. The deeper these levels go, the more detailed and immersive the textual world.”

Unfortunately, this year also saw a wave of buggier, more broken games. Where Comp98 had 27 games, Comp99 had 37, and much of the difference was made up by substandard clunkers that were turned in before they were ready for public consumption. My opinions about this got shriller and shriller the more of these games I had to endure.

I was fully invested in contributing to the world of IF criticism at this time, so much so that I had become the editor of the SPAG webzine shortly before the 1999 competition. I’d continue in that role for about six years, collecting reviews and essays, and publishing issues more or less quarterly. My biggest annual IF effort and commitment, though, remained the competition. I wrote these 37 reviews in the space of six weeks, and although there was a fair amount of chaff, finding a great game still thrilled me like nothing else.

I originally posted my reviews for the 1999 IF Competition games on November 16, 1999.

Photopia by Adam Cadre as Opal O’Donnell [Comp98]

IFDB page: Photopia
Final placement: 1st place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

If there was a prize for “competition game most mentioned on the newsgroups before the deadline had passed,” Photopia would win hands down. Everyone was quite courteous about it, spoiler warnings and rot13 and all that, but there was a marked impatience to talk about this game, recommend it to other people, make it the test case in any number of arguments. There is a reason behind this impatience: Photopia is an amazing piece of work. It’s also very hard to talk about without giving spoilers away, so please forgive me if I’m a little vague in my language. One of the most brilliant aspects of the game is its plotting. It has what Adam Cadre, in an unrelated discussion, called a Priest plot, named for writer Christopher Priest. I don’t know if this is a term that Adam just made up, but it’s a useful term nonetheless. It refers to a plot which just gives you fragments, seemingly unrelated to each other, which coalesce at (or towards) the end of the story. When the fragments come together, and you figure out how they relate to one another, the result can often be surprising or revelatory. When they came together in Photopia, I found the revelation quite devastating. I won’t say too much more about this, except to say that it wasn’t until the end of Photopia that I realized what a truly incredible, powerful story it is. It’s the kind of thing where when you’ve played it all the way through once, you can then replay it and all the pieces fall into place, everything interlocking from the beginning in a way you can’t understand until the end. I think that this is the game that opens new frontiers of replayability in interactive fiction — I needed to play through Photopia twice in order to see all the text again, knowing what I knew after the end of the game.

Actually, I hesitate to call Photopia a game, but not because it failed to live up to a standard of interactivity. 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 puzzleless IF should try. At no point was I even close to getting stuck in Photopia, because the obvious action is almost always the right one — or else there is no right action and fated events occur with heavy inevitability. Oddly enough, this creates a strange contradiction. I was on ifMUD looking for a word to describe the plot of this work (I couldn’t think of the phrase “Priest plot”) and someone said, jokingly, “linear.” But actually, that’s true. Despite the fact that it’s completely fragmented, and despite the fact that it jumps around in time, space, and perspective, Photopia is a linear composition. There’s only one way to go through it, and the player has little or no power to make it deviate from its predestined course. I think the reason that this didn’t bother me, that in fact I liked it, is precisely because Photopia isn’t a game. Because it is a story, the emphasis is taken away from a teleological model, where the player tries to steer for the best outcome. Instead, you’re really just along for the ride, and the ride is one not to be missed.

Now, this is not to say that Photopia may as well have been a short story rather than interactive fiction. In fact, it takes advantage of the capabilities of the medium in some very inventive and almost unprecedented ways. One of the foremost of these is its use of color — each section of the game (oops, there’s that word again. Make that “the work”) is presented in a preset color, and these colors also play a part in the Priest plot. I understood their function by the end of the piece, and once I understood, I knew exactly why they were there and how much they enhanced the storytelling. Unfortunately I found the colored text a little hard to read at times, especially the darker colors on a black background, but I wouldn’t go back and play it in blue and white. The colors, like everything else in Photopia, worked beautifully, adding artfully to the overall impact of the story. The work is interactive in other important ways as well. In fact, in many aspects Photopia is a metanarrative about the medium of interactive fiction itself. Again, it wasn’t until the end of the story that I understood why it had to be told as interactive fiction. And again, to explain the reason would be too much of a spoiler. I have so much more I want to talk about with Photopia, but I can’t talk about it until you’ve played it. Go and play it, and then we’ll talk. I promise, you’ll understand why everyone has been so impatient. You’ll understand why I loved it, and why I think it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction ever to be submitted to the competition.

Rating: 9.9