Photopia’s Stars and Aaron Reed’s Newsletter

I took a detour from the Infocom classics to engage with an IF classic of another stripe: Photopia (1998) by Adam Cadre. I’ve been following along with Aaron Reed’s absolutely essential “50 Years of Text Games” newsletter, which recently featured Photopia. Reed warned that this game more than most would be spoiled by spoilers, so I bumped Photopia up in the queue of IF works to read.

As a side note before getting into the game, I want to highlight Reed’s newsletter as a stunning, peerless introduction to IF specifically and game-oriented e-lit more generally. As I wrote in the send off post from my old blog, I had been contemplating shifting my digital curation/preservation research from focusing on net art to e-lit (though there are overlaps between these two squishy categories, of course). Reed’s newsletter has been a much needed crash course into a whole swath of e-lit history that I have not engaged with before. I look forward to each new entry in the newsletter, and I do hope Reed puts this thing together as a book!! I don’t have much to say in the way of digital curation about Photopia, but I will say that Reed is doing some serious digital curation work in this newsletter — both providing critical readings of key texts peppered with historical details and context, and also offering guidance on how to keep playing these games.

I owe this newsletter a longer, more detailed post (perhaps when that book comes out!), but suffice to say that this is already a great resource and becomes richer every week. Reed has stressed that this is a personal history and not intended to be the definitive history of text games, but this is more valuable than some exhaustive history — lots of histories of this area of digital culture that come together to reflect a polyvocal and diverse community of readers and writers.

On to Photopia…as Reed covers in his excellent write-up, the game (or ‘game,’ or interactive short story, or ‘interactive’ short story) made waves for proposing a radically different approach to IF. Lacking anything like a typical puzzle, the work consists of at first seemingly unrelated narrative fragments that the reader progresses through via familiar IF commands albeit with minimal (or in some cases non-existent) power to actually affect the player character, the non-player characters, or objects in the world. Understandably, this provoked great debate in the IF community about what constitutes a work of IF — what is essential for a piece of software to be considered as a work of interactive fiction? Rather than characteristics of the software itself, I would instead point the context of its creation, reception, and ongoing use; the fact that Photopia has (and continues to be) a work with currency in the IF community makes it a work of IF, even if it’s often held up as a contrasting example or as a turning point in the history of the form.

I don’t want to wade into those waters since Reed has done a good job of summarizing the debate and highlighting some key discussants in that debate. Rather, I want to linger on one scene in the work (hopefully without giving too much away about the plot or conceptual thrust of Photopia) that was especially moving to me. In the first half of the work, there’s a scene where you play as a father whose task is to tell his daughter that it’s time to come inside and get ready for bed. You make your way outside through the garage and find your daughter staring up at the stars.

The only available course of action is to engage your daughter in conversation. Throughout Photopia, conversation is handled by a preset menu of choices rather than free text input. In this case, you’re presented with three options, the first two relating to the stars and the third being to ask your daughter to come in and get ready for bed. You can prolong the conversation by continuing to select one of the first two options or you can ask your daughter to come in and get ready for bed. You can continue the conversation for quite a while, discussing some finer points of astrophysics, a subject in which the father has some expertise and in which the daughter has deep interest. But eventually, the scene ends when the mother comes out and corrals everyone inside.

To be vulnerable for a moment, I was in tears by the end of this scene…and not because the molecular composition of stars is a a particularly emotional subject for me. No, as the father of a young daughter (and now a newborn son), I didn’t need much help to get emotionally invested in this scene. I wanted to extend the conversation between the father and daughter in the game as long as possible, even though I could see from the start how it would have to end: no matter what you do as the player, the conversation is going to end. Bedtime (literally and metaphorically) will come.

It’s more complicated than that, of course, in my own personal reading. It’s not just that we need to cherish every moment (true enough if saccharine), but that it’s often very difficult to cherish every moment even when we know at our core that time is fleeting and bedtime is near. I’ve been struggling quite a bit with this recently, or really, for the whole 2+ years of my daughter’s life. Two years ago, after my wife’s maternity leave ended, I became the primary caregiver for my daughter…while I was also trying to finish my dissertation and then secure a tenure-track professor gig. With my first year as a professor coinciding with the Plague Year(s), I was working from home, often shouldering child care duties when the daycare (frequently though understandably) locked down. My schedule was more flexible than my wife’s (a blessing and curse of being a professor), and so I was the go-to for play time and tantrums alike. Now, I’m home again until January as the primary caregiver for our daughter as my wife tends to the newborn. Again, I’ll be the sole parent at home for a couple months this fall when my wife’s less-extensive maternity leave is up.

I know how unbelievably fortunate I am to have been gifted this time during critical periods of both my children’s lives. But I often find that I’m reminding myself of that as I battle frustration of a career that I can’t quite get going. The fits and starts of exciting stuff happening — like getting the job at UNCG and making some strides in my research, teaching, and service — are all the more frustrating when things come to a halt again. Especially in a line of work that’s so defined by productivity (and the looming threat of perishing if you don’t publish), I’ve found it challenging to be at home playing with a train set while I see colleagues (at UNCG and elsewhere) doing fantastic work. Ultimately, I’m able to work through that frustration, because I want to be the father who puts off bedtime just a bit longer to talk about the stars, or to build an otherworldly train set, as the case may be. And I am — and playing Photopia has prompted me to resolve to continue to be.

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