Two Steps Down the Interactive Fiction Road
Photopia and Galatea are not iterations on interactive fiction, but something entirely new that happen to use the same form.
This post contains spoilers for Photopia and Galatea
Last time I looked at two examples of contemporary interactive fiction that were iterations of the classic text adventure genre. If I can borrow from Scott McCloud’s Six Steps of Art from his book Understanding Comics, those games sought to adjust and play with the craft and structure of their chosen medium. Photopia and Galatea are not iterations, but something entirely new that happen to use the same form. The two games I want to talk about now dig down and look at what the form of interactive text can accomplish and focus instead on the story and form levels of McCloud’s same steps.
Photopia (Adam Cadre, 1998)
For some reason one of the quintessential questions people like to ask about a game is if it is really a game or whatever the cleverly dismissive term of the day is. Recently the debate has subtly changed somewhat to what is being made wouldn’t be better off in a different medium. In other words, does being a game or interactive experience benefit the work or could it be written as a blog post or short story instead? No, I don’t think Photopia would work as well as anything else, but as a game.
As a text adventure, Photopia is a pared down example of such. There are few puzzles, and they don't require much stress on the brain cells. Also, the whole game flows so naturally as a story that it could lead an outside observer to think that the work might be better off as a short story. However, just because a game isn’t interested in what is traditionally thought of as gameplay doesn’t mean that it isn’t utilizing the medium’s specific attributes to its advantage.
Photopia is about fatalism. It’s a series of short scenes about a girl interspersed with scenes of an ongoing science fantasy story. The text of the real life scenes are white, while the fantasy sections are a series of six different colors -- one for each scene -- that reflect the environment of the section. The real life scenes all concern Alley, an inquisitive, intelligent, friendly, hardworking young lady that is clearly the apple of her parents’ eye.
She will die in a car crash. This will happen, and it cannot be changed. The first scene finds you controlling one of the drunk frat boys that runs the red light right into her. You are so inebriated and your companion is so intent on getting to his destination that on subsequent playthroughs an attempt to stop the car will always end in failure. A later scene has you controlling her neighbor, giving her a ride home from school, and there is nothing you can do to change his driving behavior either. You can talk to her about a number of subjects as the car rolls through green light after green light approaching the fated intersection. The section with the frat boys is about three interactions long. The section with the neighbor is more than three times that. Before that section, you play an as of yet unknown person waking up in a dark room overhearing snippets of a conversation. The little you can gather is that the frat boys got away without a scratch. You have insurance, and “the girl” did not make it.
The other real life sections jump around in time from a scene when she discusses the universe on the front lawn with her father, a scene of a boy asking her out to a dance, and one when her father saves her as a young child from drowning in the pool. This section is the third in the game, and here Alley cannot die. No matter how much time you waste as she lays face down in the pool or fumble the CPR, she will live. Just as no matter how much you try in the cars, she will die.
The game is on a very narrow track. You have a little wiggle room like for talking or observing, but the game will always hit the same points in the plot. These things have already been determined for Alley, and the game utilizes the modernist technique of non-sequential time to great effect. Time is cut up and rearranged for the sake of the narrative arc, but it also hammers home with the Chekhov’s gun that is the frat boys’ car in the first scene that there will always be a crash when speeding through a red light. Something that happens near the very end of the timeline coming first creates tension and sets the tone for the entire work.
The fantasy sections are at first unconnected to Alley’s real world story. They concern a young female adventurer Wendy Mackaye. She starts off landing on Mars to recover the remnants of the crashed colonization effort. The story continues with the recovery of a seed pod, before lifting off to return to Earth, only to crash land in the middle of the ocean. There in an underwater castle she finds a passage back to the surface and swims to a shore made out of gold coins, rings, and dust. The journey continues on through a crystal maze of which there is no way out of its twisting passages before settling beyond a mountain pass in a petrified forest where all the trees are made of stone. These sections are where the majority of the puzzles are with some items to be collected and used at different locations.
The logic of these places and their situation within the whole is explained in the last of the fantasy sections in the throne room of the queen. Before that, we get a revelation of what these sections are. Alley is a babysitter for her neighbor’s young daughter. To entertain her before bed, Alley tells her a fantastical tale in which Wendy plays the main role. But more than that, she is telling the story as an oral text adventure. She is describing the locations and the actions, and Wendy is telling her what she would do in these places. The story is interrupted because it’s late, and Alley tells Wendy that she has to go to bed before her parents get home. You control Wendy in this real life section and eventually ask her where she gets her ideas. Alley responds, "in her dreams." Then she is convinced to tell her the next fantasy section that was her latest dream.
This is where Photopia uses interactivity to great effect -- by removing the ability to interact from the player. The game continues, but instead of the parser, the player is only give sections of text that can only be moved along by essentially hitting next. You are Wendy, but Alley is telling the story with her as the protagonist. The game follows a dream-like logic in which people’s identities can change and doing so is the most natural thing in the world. Alley talks to the queen and the queen tells her that this conversation has all happened before. The scene plays out like it would have were it a text adventure, but you are no longer in charge of the words or choices.
The queen remembers their conversation and the journey that brought her to it the first time as an adventurer that has seen another planet, surfaced from the bottom of the ocean, landed on a golden beach, and escaped the crystal maze into the petrified forest. The queen also reveals a sad truth that she got what she asked for when it wasn’t really what she wanted. She wanted to be a ruler, but everything that she is queen of is dead. Barren planets, fallen civilizations, and lands where nothing can grow. Alley is destined for this lonely existence.
For all the foreboding and depressing conclusions that comprise the game’s treatment of fate, nevertheless, it ends on a hopeful note. Alley may die in a car crash that she and others could do nothing to prevent, but even though her own psyche foresaw her tangled and twisted life's thread, the game ends with her as a newborn in her crib with her parents standing over her testing out a new toy – a video display above the crib shines different colors into it in an effort to stimulate the mind. It leaves the story looking to the future, an odd choice since the entire game has been dictating the exact opposite.
Photopia could have been written as a short story, but it would have lost a lot of the impact that the modicum amount of interactivity and narrative grants to the overall experience. A written story does not change because the words are set ahead of time, but a game allows differences -- however minute they may be -- allowing the larger concepts of fate to have a deeper impact in the moments when you can do nothing, despite your best efforts.
Galatea (Emily Short, 2000)
Galatea consists of a single conversation with a repurposed statue out of Greek myth. This conversation can go in any direction that a normal conversation would allow. Galatea has hundreds of things that she can say, but more interestingly, the things she will say on a topic will change depending on her mood and what has come before in the conversation. Depending on what you talk about and how the conversation goes determines the ending you get.
There are many different endings each with their own merit. One is not the “good” ending and others offer varying levels of “bad.” There is no win state, merely an end state. It took some looking around to find, but Emily Short has said that there 75 different endings. I found about 15 of them. Some of the endings were similar, some went in completely different directions, and three of those that I found undermined various elements of the game. One undermined the fiction, one undermined reality, and one undermined the game’s premise. The single thread that ties all these splintered realities of how the conversation can progress is the theme of the game itself.
Galatea is about art. Galatea is art. Galatea is about Galatea.
You play an art critic come to view a work called Galatea. The statue speaks to you, and you speak back. I say the premise is a conversation, but really it’s more than just words. You can think about things to get at what the characters may know about a particular topic. You can touch the statue or observe the surroundings. Galatea the statue has a limited understanding of the world and has a very small knowledge base from which to draw. Likewise, the game can only talk about what is programmed into it. Galatea is Galatea.
The game is a metatextual commentary on the subject of art. All the different endings have different things to say on the subject, whether it is about the work, the artist, our personal relationship to it, or the relationship of the group to it. While the conversational subjects will illuminate things about Galatea’s past or the artist or the world in general, their bearing regarding the subject of art is limited to our own behavior. Our behavior in relation to a work of art will dictate our response to it and our takeaway from it. The takeaway that the critic has is the ending based on his behavior, which is dictated by us.
One of the difficulties with Galatea is that getting different endings is difficult, some require you to think laterally, and some require you to think like a different person. Many times no matter how I tried to steer the conversation in different ways through different topics, I ended up on the same few concepts that I had already explored. Only when I had drastically changed my goals or methodically engaged with a conversation that seemed unnatural to me did I find vastly different endings. In a way, Galatea can be a mirror to the player’s own personal thoughts and philosophy on art. One of the endings is just that. The critic ends up using Galatea as a sounding board to come to terms with the tragedy of his own past and ends up using her to psychoanalyze himself. Here the player is using art as a reflection of themselves to find that Galatea concludes that art reflects its audience, a Möbius strip of metatextual analysis.
For the record, I did not get this ending until I used a walkthrough.
The ending that I did get very often was one in which the critic’s entire perception of the world is changed from what Galatea told him about the artist’s -- a highly disturbed and paranoid individual -- own world view. Given the context, this ends up being a very negative ending. Another ending that I got quite a bit was in which the critic sits down and begins to teach Galatea about the world of which she knows so little. I also seemed to piss Galatea off to the point of screaming at me by forcing my own viewpoint on her once or twice, which in the fiction meant speaking and acting in a manner in which the goal was solely to get her to turn around and face me.
Take of that what you will.
There were many other endings each with their own take and stance on the subject of art. One had you push and push Galatea to talking about love and its patron deity Aphrodite, which happens to be the source of Galatea’s animation. Upon her scorning that which created her, Aphrodite appears and removed all life from her, leaving a simple marble statue. Pushing for an absolute truth or answer only kills the work I suppose. One is a somewhat narcissistic ending in which you exchange places with Galatea and you become the artwork while she goes and enjoys the party in the gallery. You literally put the player on the pedestal instead of the video game and call it art. One ending is lovingly nicknamed “The Wizard of Oz” ending. You have to play the game, restart it, and then go to rip down the curtain behind the statue to find… a blank wall.
You can go through the entire game not knowing several basic facts about Galatea, the art critic, or even the gallery/art show where she is being shown. The fact that he doesn’t run screaming from the room because the statue talks and moves I took at first as one of those avant garde touches in which the subject accepts the unexplained and fantastical despite there being no reason that it should be. But if you know what topics to think about or what topics to ask about, you learn that this is an exhibition of Artificial Intelligence. The works are built to speak and move with the goal of fooling people into believing they are real. Galatea was bought by some high society types and entered in the show.
I bring this up because at least two of the endings revolve around this very fact and one builds on it. One has the critic acting snootily and condescendingly believing himself to be talking to an automaton, and he gets strangled to death for his trouble. (Make of that what you will.). The second ends with her so depressed that she commits suicide by willing the life out of her. (A work’s own self realization of itself can cause the art to die?). There is also one in which only there are only a few spoken exchanges. Instead, Galatea is touched, as a statue would be. The different parts of her anatomy are caressed to admire the craft of design. It doesn’t take long for the critic to realize that the work is reacting to a degree that the AI automatons cannot. Slowly she turns and more of her is revealed: an ear, a cheek, a hand, a mole. Then at the very end when she is facing you, you look into Galatea’s eyes and she into yours. It is an appreciation of pure beauty. Art is beauty.
Finally, one thing that is never said -- and I love that it was included -- is that you can leave at any time. Type leave and the critic will go back to the party. Depending on how much you’ve covered and what she thinks of you, the ending that results will be slightly different. In each instance, one thing is for sure, everything is inconclusive, especially if you leave near the beginning after saying and doing very little. The critic will speak condescendingly about Galatea calling her “rough around the edges” and pays her no more mind. Here he is a man who has put little thought or effort into assessing a work of art, left only with his arrogance and a sense that his work is done.
I could go on, but there are the dozens of endings I never saw, each one with its own meaning regarding the work, the audience, and philosophy of the word. Galatea is an exploration and a treatise on what art is. It repurposes the original myth of a creator and his art, which had come to life, and tells the next step in such a process, one in which the created work moves beyond the artist and meets the audience.