Saturday, December 8, 2012

#17 Photopia

Our house in Jefferson, Maryland had an enormous quartz rock sitting in the corner of the front yard. My best friend Wes Rowh and I used to play on that rock while waiting for the school bus. Going over the Wes’s house that year was my first exposure to video games where we would play Duck Hunt and Super Mario Brothers on his NES for hours and it was a frequent topic for imaginary play during our bus stop time. We touched the tulips in the flower beds like they were fire flowers and then pretended to shoot fireballs at the cats like they were goombas.

My interested in designing computer and video games started one day when we decided we were going to make our own video game system called Nintari (a combination of Nintendo and Atari). We brought papers and crayons out to the rock and scribbled tons of game designs. I don’t remember any of the games we invented except for one: Fire Against Water, where one person played fire and the other play water and then you fought against each other. Somehow it never occurred to me that the water would extinguish the fire every time.

In 2004, after graduating from Hope College, I had moved back home to Raleigh and was looking for a job with my degree in English and Psychology. I had spent a lot of my time in college focused on improving my craft at writing poetry and short stories, immersing myself in the work of improving my craft without a great deal of concern about my post-graduation plan. I had applied to MFA programs in creative writing earlier that spring and been rejected from all of them and I was feeling anxious and burnt out with regards to my writing ability and also full of questions about my future.

During this time, I decided that I needed a new creative outlet other than writing. So I combined my love of writing with my love of computer games and decided to create a comedic interactive fiction game. Given my love of adventure games and my writing background, writing interactive fiction seemed like a natural transition from. So, I immersed myself in learning how to code in the TADS interpreter, playing award-winning IF games and reading numerous articles about IF game design. I set a goal to enter the yearly interactive fiction competition that fall. With a few weeks to go before the competition I had completed the first functional draft of my game “Cutting Leaves of Grass,” a story of a heartbroken slacker with a psychopathic plastic surgeon neighbor that was an odd combination of The Big Lebowski and a cheesy romantic comedy with lots of Walt Whitman references thrown in for good measure.

I submitted it to an online site for help with playtesting and discovered that the game was rough around the edges with many illogical puzzles. I did not feel that I had the time to polish the game as much as I would like for the competition, so I did not submit it. Unfortunately, when I was in Japan a year later, the jump drive containing the game crashed and “Cutting Leaves of Grass” is now lost to the great hard drive in the sky.

The best game I discovered during this time was Photopia by Adam Cadre. It was one of those rare creative works that erupts out of the box of your understanding of its art form like a jack-in-the-box. I’d seen numerous pieces of art, writing and dance that exploded their genres, but never had I seen a computer game dig so deep into realm of emotional depth and complex storytelling. It is difficult to talk too much in depth about Photopia without giving away the story, but it is the computer game that has produced the strongest emotional reaction out of me. After my first play-through, I had to take a quiet moment to sit and stare at the computer monitor to think about what I had just experienced.

While simultaneously a game that tugs at your heartstrings and asks important existential questions, Photopia’s non-linear storytelling has few if any puzzles causing some to dismiss it as an interactive story more so than a game, where you are just pushing the buttons to see the story unfold as opposed to your actions having much of an impact on the outcome of the game. Few computer games before or since have attempted this style of non-interactivity and such a game could easily come off as confounding and unfun in the hands of a less capable writer. However, Photopia stands as one of the most ambitious and unique computer games ever made.

Photopia can be downloaded here:

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