On the growing appeal of photography games • Eurogamer.net
Photography games are all the rage lately. Last year, major publishers included Pokémon Snap and the re-release of a slandered Fatal Frame game. You don’t have to look far to see that every triple-A game these days has a photo mode, but if you look beyond that, you’ll see that indie developers were the ones who pushed the genre forward. . Games like Umurangi Generation, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, and the upcoming Pupperazi show that the emerging genre has as much reach as, say, the first-person shooter.
TOEM is one of the most charming and recent examples of this space, a game about exploring and taking photos as you move through pocket communities. But TOEM didn’t start out as a photo game. It started simply as a non-violent game that allowed the player to stop and enjoy the illustrative art style of the game. The original idea was born out of a conversation between two friends about quitting game development for all time. TOEM may not be their Final Fantasy, but the heart-to-heart sparked the sketch that would become the basis for the game’s gripping art style. There would be a long way to go.
“We dropped the game five times before we came up with the photo version,” says Niklas Mikkelson, one half of SomethingWeMade’s two-man team. ” Lucas [Gullbo] remembered an idea for a telescope he had been testing and said to me, maybe we could make a camera.”
With just a camera, tripod, and photo album at the player’s disposal, TOEM does a lot with a limited toolset. On the other end of the complexity spectrum, we have Umurangi Generation, a game that’s both a masterclass in environmental storytelling and a low-key photo tutorial. Throughout the game, the player unlocks new goals and editing tools at a pace that won’t overwhelm newcomers.
Naphtali Faulkner (who works under Veselekov) wanted to make a game where editing was just as important as shooting.
“The pleasure of the act of photographing is choosing the right lens and the right retouching.” says Veselekov, detailing the game’s two design pillars. “There’s a lot of depth to choosing a lens. When you start getting into photography, [you realise] lenses can see beyond the human eye. It’s a very important feeling to capture in photography games.”
Two of the main inspirations for Umurangi’s level design were Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series and Jet Set Radio.
“[In Tony Hawk] you stop paying attention to the score and you just do what you like, so I was kind of inspired to make this recreational activity into a game without losing the recreational aspect of it,” says Veselkov. “They had the right model there – you have the freedom to do the mechanics but you have objectives to get you through the map. With Umurangi, photo bonuses are distributed but we put them in places we want people to see.”
One example comes from the Macro DLC tier, Gamer’s Palace. The level is a dystopian bar and arcade, with tunes pumped out by DJ Tariq. The game doesn’t tell you outright who and what Tariq is, but one of the objectives of the level is to take a picture of the DJ. Objectives can be tackled in any order and – if you’re not aiming for bonuses – in any time frame. Ultimately, players are going to see what Ves wants them to see, but as he says, “It’s like when you promote a movie to your friends and they’re like ‘well , it was not so good. “”You have to let people discover the excitement and the meaning for themselves.
The Jet Set Radio influence is even more evident for players who have fully explored the Macro levels and unlocked the roller skates (an essential upgrade for speedrunners). But beyond that feeling of speed and momentum, the setting and world of Umurangi Generation was heavily inspired by the Dreamcast series.
“Jet Set Radio is an inherently political game about resistance to the state and [Umurangi is] take those mechanics and bring them into the 21st century,” says Veselkov. “There are times in Jet Set Radio where the police escalate their aggression and that was for comedy at the time. If he were to come out now, we would react differently.”
Umurangi Generation uses its photographic mechanisms to tell a story of resistance to the state at a time when resistance in a meaningful sense is heartbreaking. He teaches the importance of photography in a time of conflict. Meanwhile, the SomethingWeMade team used photography mechanics to mimic their favorite parts of the outside world instead of the most depressing ones.
“We wanted our mothers to be able to play it,” Mikkelsen laughs. “We thought of ourselves when we travelled. I always save all my photos from all my travels. It’s a magical feeling to look back a year later.”
This sentiment inspired the game’s photo album, which players can open and browse at any time. While Umurangi focuses on teaching gamers the basics of photo editing, TOEM emphasizes the power of photos as personal artifacts. For the developers, that meant not over-complicating the mechanics. “It suited the game to remove the complicated photo features. We often went back to [the question] ‘does that add anything?’ Most of the time the answer was no.”
This was the design philosophy behind the Swedish team’s first game. Every mechanic went through extensive back-and-forth between the two-man team, so much so that one of the game’s best elements almost didn’t make it into the final build.
When you complete an objective in TOEM, the notebook opens, the objective gets a checkmark, and then you can add a stamp to your collection. Stamping at TOEM is one of the most satisfying mechanics of the year. All thanks to game artist and fellow creator Lucas Gullbo.
“I think it’s more about the buffer and the whole full quest cycle,” Gullbo says. “When the stamp hits the card, the whole card wobbles a bit to indicate the impact. When the stamp disappears, there is a small pause in the feedback, then the jingle starts playing with a small particle pop on the new stamp .”
The appreciation fans may have for those little details, the way the creator’s eyes light up when you mention it is also your favorite part of the game – that’s the heart of why these games are made. To put the audience in a mindset of observing the world around them, in-game and otherwise.
From a developer perspective, the appreciation for the art and detail that creators put into the world is part of the appeal of photography games. The genre is about showing players around the world that you’ve built in a way that allows them to be creative and, most importantly, non-violent. Umurangi Generation and TOEM exemplify the power of photography, whether as political protest or as a way to relive your favorite memories. This depth of emotion appeals to a generation of players who tire of the same violent actions that we are asked to perform until nausea.
“It feels like a nice way to explore a world,” Gullbo says, “it focuses more on examining things rather than destroying them.”
Ultimately, that’s the nature of photography. Preserve, not destroy.