Photopia is indisputably a very important game in the history of IF and of video games in general. It’s also a very short and focused game, and if you haven’t played it before, you should set aside 15 minutes to do so now (here).
I found a moment of the game deeply affecting the first time that I played it and I wanted to go into what made that moment work so well. Near the end of the game, there is a moment when you’ve figured out the non-linear storyline and understand that Alley is going to die in the car crash and the scene has jumped backward to the point before she jumps in the car with Wendy's father to drive home. At this point, you want to talk them out of driving back, but you have no way to convince anyone. This feeling of powerlessness hit me hard the first time that I played the game and I wanted to look a little bit into why it felt so strong and how it could potentially be reproduced.
First of all, Alley is impossible to dislike. She’s a bright, kind, polite and inquisitive kid and the game goes out of its way to emphasize this.
She has been criticized for being too perfect to be real, and I can see where that comes from. Personally, I didn’t feel that to be the case, but your mileage may vary.
By having the player like the character so much, the moment where you realize that she dies becomes much more impactful and so you have a strong desire to keep that death from happening.
So, the game has taken you to the point where you’ve figured out that:
It is natural at this point for the player to try to prevent the accident from happening. Up to this point, the player has no major goals and is likely playing this in an exploratory frame of mind. After this point, every action feels informed by this foreknowledge and so is done with the hope of preventing the accident from happening.
I actually didn’t like this section of the game. While driving, you can talk to Alley and eventually the other car is going to crash right into you. That much works well. At this point, you know that the other car is going to run into you, but neither Wendy’s father nor Alley know this. I tried to do things like drive carefully or be aware, but naturally the game did not recognize anything like that. So, the first time that I played, I just had a quiet talk with Abbey about small things that Wendy and her father said.
This worked very well for me the first time that I played it. The conversation felt right, it was what talking with a sleepy fifth-grader felt like. It was warm and human, but the entire time that you’re navigating through that conversation, the coming accident hangs over your head. Even if you can’t prevent the crash, you at least want to say something to Alley.
The first time, it felt like there was nothing I could do because neither Mr. Mackaye nor Alley knew that they were about to be in a car crash and so were not going to act as though Alley was about to die. This was what really made the feeling of powerlessness strike home. You have information that neither of the actual people in the game have and so you cannot get them to act in the way that would be best. You have no way of getting them the information that they need either. Given the setting of the game, it doesn’t make sense that you would be able to give them that information either.
The game manages to put you into an observer role instead of an active role and so you don’t run into the issue of “why can’t my character do what I would have done in this situation?” In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I did not want to go into the cave. I didn’t know who that girl was and the younger brother being worried about it felt like a giveaway. However, the game did not let me make a choice there despite the fact that I had absolute control over the brothers. Similarly, I knew that the house was going to be full of cannibals in The Walking Dead, but when the game pretended to let me object to the idea of going into the house, but I knew that one way or another, I was going into that house. The designers had a chapter to fill after all.
This was disempowering, but the feeling from these games was completely different than the one that Photopia engendered. There, I was frustrated at not being able to do something that I felt that I should be able to do. Those moments broke immersion for me. It made the experience feel very authored. With Photopia however, it felt understandable that I could not act as I wanted to as I was not a character in the game. I could at best nudge people.
The linearity of the game helped build this mindframe. Solving a puzzle is something that you the player do, not the character, and the lack of significant puzzles helps keep you from feeling defined. The cast of characters that you play does the same. When you control everyone, it keeps you from forming a definite entity for yourself. Additionally, seeing the other characters as NPCs emphasizes that you are not any of them.
When replaying the game recently in order to write this article, I learned that you can stop on that car ride, and that’s going to result in the car crash anyway. I felt that this undercut the above feeling significantly as it made clear the fact that the game is authored.
You have a moment after Alley finishes the story to talk to her as Wendy. The game gives you a bunch of dialogue options here, but obviously none of them include asking her to take the bus home instead. It is natural here to try to extend this conversation as far as possible both because players tend to want to see all of the content in the game and because you want to get to a point where you can prevent Alley from getting into a car crash and so you try what you can. This moment of going through your options one by one and finding none of them do what you need them to was very powerful for me. This is the feeling of powerlessness that stuck with me long after I first played this game.
Additionally, this feeling mirrors what Wendy would naturally have done there. Wendy just wants to stay up a little longer and talk with her idol. So, she uses the cliche of asking for water and tries every conversational gambit that she can to put off needing to go to bed. As it does for those little kids, a feeling of inevitability dominates the scene. You’re stealing minutes here and there, but the result is that you are going to go to bed and Alley is going to die and even though you know that there’s nothing you can really do about that, you’re almost forced to try.
The scene immediately after this, where you live Alley’s dream and are unable to do anything as the text is entered for you, extends the feeling of powerlessness. Here, being unable to even enter text replicates the feeling of not being in control that some dreams engender. There are plenty of dreams that I’ve had in which I felt like an observer despite being the protagonist of the dream.
From this, you go to Wendy’s mother. Unlike Wendy, the mother should have the ability to keep Alley and her husband from driving Alley home. This scene goes by in a flash though. Even before you can try to figure out a way to get the mother to do something, the scene is over and the pieces for the accident are set in place. Wendy’s mother naturally doesn’t think anything of the routine goodnight to Alley before her husband drives her home and you don’t have the time to influence that at all.
Powerlessness is not that uncommon an emotion in games, but it is one that designers often try to avoid. Photopia builds it in a way that still feels unique almost 20 years after it was first made and does so in a way that designers of today can still learn from.