Life through a lens: video games and photography

From the earliest cave-art to digital photography, making pictures has long been an intrinsic part of our being. When the world feels too big or chaotic to comprehend, photography can act as a form of curation, allowing us to extract meaning from chaos by choosing and capturing a chosen instant.

In their purest form, video games serve a similar function. Whether wielding an axe in God of War or a hoe to tend your pumpkin patch in Stardew Valley, games are a simulation of humanity’s basest instinct: the need to bring order to the world. And, as game worlds have become larger and more complex, players have been granted increasingly sophisticated cameras which they can use to document their own unique experiences within these spaces.

Many games are content to include a photo mode as a ‘bolted-on’ feature, and do so brilliantly, providing players with an endless array of creative options to capture thrilling or scenic moments. Over the past few decades, though, some developers have chosen to tightly weave the camera into their narratives, redefining the way each game’s protagonist, and to some degree, us as players, perceive that world.

Gekibo got a PlayStation sequel called Polaroid Pete in the US. Oddly, its camera isn’t actually a Polaroid

Looking down a lens alters our relationship with a game’s world, and even the medium’s earliest attempts to capture this relationship reflected this. Gekibo: Gekisha Boy, released in 1992 for the PC Engine, was a side-scrolling snap-‘em-up where the lead character – a recently orphaned, depressed teenager – salvaged his spiralling academic career by navigating peril-filled levels and taking photos along the way. Whether it realised it or not, Gekibo developer Tomcat System had hit on one of the fundamental tenets of photojournalism: that a single image can find meaning in a random, sometimes senseless world.

Other games soon used cameras as a way to explore a virtual environment; 1999’s Pokémon Snap, for example, allowed players to observe and appreciate fantastical creatures in their ‘natural’ habitats, rather than engaging in the morally dubious practice of trapping them in Poké Balls and occasionally forcing them to fight each other. Titles like Fatal Frame (2001) and Beyond Good & Evil (2003), meanwhile, made clever use of the camera as a game mechanic for busting ghosts and uncovering conspiracies.

Uncovering conspiracies in Beyond Good & Evil (above) and capturing memories in Life is Strange (below)

One of the most innovative photography-themed games of the past decade was, regrettably, never released at all. In 2011, Australian developer Defiant sought to explore the way photojournalism could change the course of history, as it had in the Vietnam War. Called Warco, the game would have cast the player as a photojournalist dropped into the middle of a violent conflict in North Africa, armed with only a camera and the hope of making a difference. While games about viewing the world down the sights of a firearm have long been ubiquitous, Warco offered a different mission: to document the human face of war, and uncover the true cost of conflict rather than simply gunning down hordes of identical enemies.

Warco never emerged from the development dark-room, but its concept was still a noteworthy step in the in-game camera’s evolution. Other games emerged with their own unique takes on the in-game camera, though, including 2015’s Life is Strange and Firewatch, released a year later. Each made the camera essential to understanding – or appreciating – their respective worlds. 

Five years on, and a newer crop of indie studios are working hard at evolving the camera within their narrative-led titles, each of them seeking, in one way or another, to prompt players to examine their worlds more closely, while also giving them the freedom to use the camera to capture the world as they see it. One recent example is Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, a charming eco-fable we covered back in issue 47. About a little girl attempting to save her Mediterranean island from being paved over by property developers, it offers a free-roaming take on Pokémon Snap: you can go wherever you like, capturing photos of the local wildlife on your phone, while the results are logged in an app. Photography’s only one aspect of Alba, but it’s a pivotal one: it both allows the player to explore and better appreciate the game’s carefully animated creatures, and also helps further the plot. As designer David Fernández Huerta told us, “Grandad shares his hobbies of birdwatching and hiking with [Alba, the game’s heroine]. It’s a way for them to be close to a person they have limited access to, but that they love with all their hearts.”

Warco was designed with a noble aim: to teach photojournalists how to prepare for a real war zone encounter

In Alba, photography forms one of the pillars of a deeply personal open-world adventure, and Scavengers Studio’s upcoming Season uses camera mechanics to a similarly heartfelt end. A gorgeous-looking indie adventure game set in the face of a mysterious cataclysm, Season is a bicycle road trip where you use your camera and other media to document your surroundings before the oncoming catastrophe washes the world away. It’s a bitter-sweet premise that puts choice at the heart of the player’s journey, and extends Firewatch’s camera mechanic, which only gave you a finite number of shots via a disposable camera. In that game, players had to think carefully about which of the beautiful vistas to capture as their shots were limited. In Season, the player faces some difficult decisions about which aspects of the world merit preserving on film and which will be lost to time.

Firewatch offers some of the most breathtaking views a game can offer, all ready to snap on your camera. Your photos play over the end credits

“Your goal in Season is to bear witness to a world that is about to disappear, in order to record and try to transmit what’s important to future generations,” the team at Scavengers Studio tell us. “As such, we wanted the camera to play a central role in the experience. When you travel and visit foreign cultures, there’s always that tension between being part of a moment or recording it. When you pull out a camera, you’re not into the moment anymore; you have already extracted yourself from experience to record it. In building the game, we’re trying to capture that tension: ‘Should I enjoy the moment, or should I record it?’”

In our Instagram era, this is undoubtedly a relevant subject, and one thrown into relief by the game’s pre-cataclysm setting, where an air of finality pervades every decision. For every picture you choose to take, you’re forsaking everything beyond the frame of the image to memory. As the team tell us: “Capturing an image fixes it in place. It’s a way to bypass the erosion of time, at least for a little while. It’s also a prosthetic of memory. Photos we’ve taken sometimes seem to replace our actual memories of an event. The underlying forces and themes at work there are what Season is all about.”

Pokémon Snap was an on-rails photographic safari that depicted Pokémon in their natural habitats

A perfect counterpart to Season is Forever Ago. Beautifully crafted, it’s another road trip adventure game with a camera mechanic at its heart. Created by the two-man team at Third Shift, Forever Ago adopts a subtly different narrative perspective from Season. Where Season tasks players with documenting the world before a catastrophe occurs, in Forever Ago, the tragedy’s already happened. Its hero’s journey is one of redemption, with his trusty camera along for the ride. “We want to tell a story that took place a couple of decades ago, and we want to visit these places in Forever Ago – this was the core idea of the game,” says developer Fabian Denter. “We thought a lot about how we could tie the past and the present together. The camera came as a way to do that pretty late in the process, but it turned out really well.”

“It was a late but obvious choice,” adds Kai Brueckers, the other half of Third Shift. “Before that, we thought about a lot of other mechanics such as the ‘ghost people’ that a lot of walking simulators use, but then we really thought about how to capture the topic of memories. Photographs are a good tool to dive into [memories], relive them, revisit places where you took them. We also thought about flashbacks [and] voice-overs, but none of them had that core gameplay mechanic, like a camera does.”

The camera offered an ideal means for the developers of both Season and Forever Ago to tell stories in a way other game mechanics wouldn’t allow. For the developers behind TOEM, a hand-drawn indie title in development at Swedish studio Something We Made, an in-game camera became a unique means of letting players appreciate the game’s captivating visuals.

“We always had the art for TOEM, that’s how it started,” says CEO Niklas Mikkelsen. “We had this really cool art and we [weren’t sure how to proceed]. It was cool to walk around the game world, but we didn’t know what to do with it. It took four different versions of TOEM to arrive at the camera mechanic. It came from a telescope mechanic that we turned into a camera. It allowed you to really appreciate the art which has always been at the forefront of the game.”

The line art style is integral to TOEM’s atmosphere – and makes for great photographs

More than anything, all three development teams we spoke with used a camera mechanic to give players the freedom to interact with the games’ worlds on their own terms. “The camera’s an incredible tool,” adds the dev team at Scavengers Studio, “because a lot of information and knowledge couldn’t be captured through words in Season; they’re captured in the walls, the sculptures, the animals, etc. Every single detail tells you something new about that world. What’s especially interesting about the camera is that it allows you to zoom in on those details, record them, and put them side by side with other recordings to create your impression of the world.”

“There are a lot of things you can do with the camera as a mechanic in terms of just capturing specific objects or items,” says Forever Ago’s Brueckers. “Or you can try and play with the viewfinder to reveal something or unlock additional narrative. That’s something we’re playing with.”

Although their games are very different, the developers we spoke to agree that giving the player free rein with the camera allows them to form a meaningful relationship with that world. This is especially true when a game’s story is tightly scripted, since the freedom to explore and interpret the world through a lens balances out the more restrictive elements of an authored narrative. “The story [in Forever Ago] is pretty linear,” continues Brueckers.

In Forever Ago, Alfred’s camera is clipped to his bag, meaning it’s always ready for a quick photo

“There are some story beats we have to get right, and that includes some photos that we intend the player to take. But we allow the players to immerse themselves in the world by taking pictures at almost any time. They can review them inside Alfred’s [the game’s protagonist] photo collection, and that’s what makes the camera interesting. Those players can shape how they experience the story by capturing parts of it that are important to them.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Mikkelsen, who also reminds us that perhaps the greatest advantage of the in-game camera is its universality. After all, the still image is a form of visual language just about all of us can immediately understand. “We have a goal, and that’s to get our mums to play TOEM, understand it, and say ‘That’s so cute’ – and they’ve never played a game in their life! So right now, it’s zoom, snap, and you also have a honk button so you can wake people up or hurry up snails, which is a far more important upgrade for our camera.”

Whether an in-game camera includes a ‘honk’ function or not, giving the player the means to form their own interpretation of a virtual world is undeniably powerful. It is, after all, a form of expression we understood before we even developed the power of words. As Scavengers Studio puts it: “What you choose to record or not record, and what you decide to save, is based on what you think is important. What you believe matters in this life.”

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