A Moment of Perfect Beauty

A lot has been written about Adam Cadre’s seminal work of interactive fiction, Photopia (1998). A quiet, thoughtful exploration of the preciousness of human life, it remains a deeply moving example of interactive storytelling for adults and is still very much worth playing and discussing. It also contains a moment of perfect interactive storytelling – which is particularly interesting given how often it has been accused of lacking any interactivity at all.

For those who haven’t played Photopia, I will begin with a brief summary: you should play it. It’s free, it’s relatively short, and it doesn’t suffer from the usual parser-related irritations. I’m not going to explore the details of the story in this article, as you don’t need to know them to understand what I want to say, but you won’t regret the experience.

Nevertheless, let me say a few words about the game’s story, just to give a bit of context. Photopia is about the life of a girl called Alley. The player never actually plays Alley, instead it gets to see various events in her life through the eyes of other people; interspersed with these events, which are presented in black and white, is a story Alley tells to Wendy, a younger girl that she’s babysitting. This story, which is presented in a variety of colours, is actually a game-within-the-game, or an interactive-story-within-an-interactive-story if you prefer more hyphens, in which Alley acts as the equivalent of a D&D gamemaster and Wendy is the player.

The story Alley and Wendy tell together begins with an astronaut on a red planet. Eventually the astronaut crashes her ship into the ocean, explores an undersea castle, gets out of the sea on a golden beach, and finally reaches…

As you walk through the pass, you encounter first one shard of glass on the ground, then another. But it isn’t until you crest the final hill that you see what you’ve discovered.

Before the crystal labyrinth

You are standing on a ridge above the entrance to a vast crystal labyrinth. You’d be tempted to call it a city, with its haphazard collection of iridescent towers and spires and arches — “iridescent” means shimmering with rainbow colors — but from what you can see from your vantage point, there is barely enough space between the crystal walls to permit one person to pass between them. The labyrinth is ringed by steep mountains, so going around it is impossible: your only choices are to enter it to the west, or to head back the way you came.

A labyrinth. A maze. Oh dear.

Mazes, of course, are one of the most infamous puzzles that adventure games and RPGs torture their players with. Almost without exception, mazes are a tedious way of stretching out a game’s length without adding anything of substance. Nevertheless, so far everything has been quite doable and the journey itself has been full of great imagery, so why not give it a go?


You step into the crystal labyrinth and immediately get lost.

In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, south, and west.

Fantastic. A typical maze experience, then. Let’s see, maybe you can find some sort of pattern that will help you get through this place…


You wander around the maze of glass until you find yourself at another intersection…

In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, south, and east. Two of the nearby walls intersect to form the base of an immense spire.

>x spire

Though the crystal sparkles in every color, the dominant note seems to be a beautiful light blue, refracted from the sky above. (“Refraction” is what happens when light passes through a medium that bends it, like water or a prism.)

Hmm, maybe you’re supposed to use these structures to orient yourself. You keep going, not really making much meaningful progress. The place itself is described quite evocatively, the writing working on more than one level, capturing both the beauty of the places described and the beauty of Alley telling Wendy about them, but the maze seems like it’s going to be somewhat irritating.


In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, south, and west.

With an audible sputter, the cooling unit of your spacesuit finally gives out.

Hmm? Oh, the spacesuit. Anyway. Let’s keep looking for the solution to this stupid puzzle…

In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, west, and east.

With its cooling unit broken, your bulky spacesuit begins to feel very uncomfortable. It’s like wearing a parka on a warm, sunny day.

Let’s get rid of it, then. Not that it will help with the maze, but at least it will prevent the game from constantly reminding you about it.

>take off suit

You take off your spacesuit and drop it on the ground.

Now, what could be the solution? Something about these larger structures? Always going in a particular direction? Or do you have to draw a map?


You wander around the maze of glass until you find yourself at another intersection…

The cool breeze ruffles the feathers of your wings.

And suddenly the realization hits you.

I have wings.

With trembling hands, you type:


You stretch your wings and soar into the sky.

It is a moment of perfect beauty.

Ironically, this moment is directly inspired by a scene in a non-interactive work of fiction. Adam Cadre writes:

The idea for the sky-blue puzzle came from Ron Hansen’s MARIETTE IN ECSTASY, in which two sisters play a little game: “You’re in a locked room. How do you get out?”  ”Call for help.”  ”No one hears you.”  ”Look for a key.”  ”There is none.”  ”Dig under the walls.” “The ground is too hard.”  ”I give up.”  ”The room has no ceiling. And you have wings.”  I thought this would make a cool IF puzzle.

What Cadre has created is far more than just a cool puzzle, though. The concept works better in an interactive story; one could say it only works in an interactive story. “I have wings” is a moment of self-revelation, and such a moment requires a self: not an observer, but a participant.

This reveals one of the fundamental (and often misunderstood) elements of the interactive medium: it is the medium of the first person and the present tense. That the narration takes place in the second person – you do this, you see that – is secondary. The experience takes place now, through the eyes of the player.

I have wings. I am here. These are my actions. This is my story.

Consider the words with which Photopia begins:

“Will you read me a story?”

“What fun would that be? I’ve got a better idea: let’s tell a story together.”

Photopia is not a glorified short story, as some have claimed, because moments such as this one could never be as powerful as they are without interactivity, without telling a story together. And it doesn’t really matter whether the plot is linear or not, whether the world is procedurally generated or hand-crafted, whether there is one ending or twenty. It matters that there is an I and a now, and that this is a story made to be told with these things.

No other artform can make you realize that you have wings.

No other artform can let you soar into the sky.