Video game photography is undoubtedly experiencing a golden age. In recent years, the photo mode exploded into hit titles such as Spider Man, offering complex tools for pausing the action, composing a photo, and tweaking the end result. You’ll find the results dotted around social media feeds thanks to the Share button found on modern controllers. Often these describe “cool” moments, sometimes even absurd problems, but especially photos such as those popular snapper and EA DICE screenshot artist Petri Levälaht, are concerned about the beauty of big budget video games. With each like, retweet and share, we collectively revel in the technical art of worlds now so visually detailed that they seem to rival our own, captivated by the density and arrangement of their pixels.
While the DNA of this modern iteration of virtual photography can be traced back to video game marketing departments keen to promote their hyper-detailed products, the speed and popularity of adoption reflects a popular desire to interact with people differently. game worlds. Stopping to take a photo can shatter a litany of tedious tasks. It presents an opportunity to observe rather than target, and just hang out in a space whose facades we tend to roam at an adrenaline-pumping pace. Like real-world photography, it’s also a way to document presence – to say “I was here” in any ephemeral digital environment we find ourselves in.
Generation Umurangi, released last year for PC and slated for the Nintendo Switch in 2021, internalizes these disruptive principles of video game photography and, in doing so, builds its own set of rules around them. In a violent neon future of kaijus, mechs, and break dance hipsters, you play as a parcel courier with sideways shaking for photos. Much like the other games, there is a subordinate objective checklist (“Take a photo with at least four robots in it” says one), but it mostly looks like a prompt to make you look at its world through the lens of its pleasantly mechanical digital SLR camera. You won’t come across an explicitly relayed narrative – there are no cutscenes or dialogue text; Instead, the story is discovered through the game’s lo-fi and mock-type environments, each filled with sad, funny, and poignant details.
An urban art form
Generation Umurangi Often asks you to photograph your team of friends who congregate on busy street corners and on the roofs of half-finished skyscrapers. You’ll see them surrounded by paraphernalia of graffiti, skateboards, and boomboxes, all hobbies and land-claiming items – just like photography. However, it’s not just these characters and the player who make their presence known, but game designer Tali Faulkner, 28, whose Maori heritage is imbued across the world with visual cues like the tāniko and raranga motifs. This, he explains of Zoom, is part of an effort to “solidify” the stories he had been told about his journey; as a graffiti artist, Faulkner painted his own perspective on the world.
The game’s surprising emotional range doesn’t end there; in a level adorned with memorials lit by candles, the camera becomes a tool of commemoration by the simple virtue of spending a few seconds isolating, framing and photographing war memorials. Taking their picture seems to reveal a melancholy – not just in them, but in other objects scattered around the environment. The lens, virtual or not, has a unique way of catalyzing meaning.
It is perhaps ironic that such acts of gazing were inspired by astonishing acts of avoidance. The Australian bush fires of 2019 and 2020 destroyed Faulker’s mother’s house, and the game’s creator was struck by how few people seemed to care. “When you drive, one side of the road is fine and the other half is totally gone,” he says. “Then you turn on the television and you see that nobody cares because the fire hasn’t reached Sydney yet.” This is where the title of the game comes from; umurangi translates to “red sky” in Maori, and its presence haunts the game’s sinister landscapes. Along with the caustic billboards that seem to refer to the climate crisis (it reads: “New Sydney: It’s like the old but not under water ”), the luminous horizon is part of Faulkner’s critique of the political and media classes that he suggests showing voluntary blindness; giving the player a camera – a way to take a closer look – only further emphasizes its shortcomings.
A new path for the walking simulator
Generation Umurangi isn’t the only photography game to cause a stir in recent memory. Sludge life was released less than a week after Faulkner’s 2020, and it bristles with a similar anti-establishment philosophy, albeit with an emphasis on graffiti rather than photography. A year earlier, the serene Eastshade arrived, throwing the player like a painter into a richly vegetated fantasy world; its compositional mechanics, however, resemble the framing involved in taking a photo rather than painting. More recently, Nuts asked players to film and photograph squirrels in a virtual forest. You can also find smaller titles on the indie game store itch.io: Shutter Promenade serves pleasant, procedurally generated panoramas for aspiring shterbugs; solo developer RD cellars gives players a camera to take photorealistic spaces.