(Minor spoilers for Umurangi Generation and its DLC, both of which I recommend you play)
Photography in games tends to have a very detached perspective on the world being captured. The camera is often free-floating, removed from the constraints characters and environments can impose on them. In some cases the game brings all motion to a standstill so that a player can more easily capture the perfect moment, and even allows them to alter the world by adjusting natural light and positioning.
Allowing for this creative freedom isn’t bad per se, but it causes there to be a disconnect between the player and the world the game is showing them — that it’s something that can bend to their whim, and not a larger autonomous environment. Some games take different approaches to their photography; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild gives Link a device for him to take photographs with, allowing the player to roleplay as a character dabbling in photography. More notably, for a while the only means Final Fantasy XV gave the player of capturing in-game photos was through an NPC companion who would take photos of your adventure himself.
One of the best games that effectively utilize photography however, is Umurangi Generation. Set in a cyberpunk apocalyptic future, it tells a story about climate change, capitalism, imperialism, and indigenous struggle, all without a single word of dialogue. The only means it gives the player to interact with the world is a camera, and as you go through each level taking photos of your given targets, the game weaves facets about its world into environmental details big and small. The pitfalls a game like this can run into come with how they frame the action of taking photos of certain environments. Any game that makes its main verb an observational one runs the risk of detaching the player from the world by having them document the world without grounding them in it. In other words, by making the player a tourist: someone who’s passing through a space, taking it in with no real attachment to it. Umurangi Generation avoids this trap, in part by making the player connected to the events at hand, and by making its radical story unavoidable.
The most obvious way the game does this is by giving you some cool friends. (Something more games should look into doing, in my opinion.) From the very first level you’re introduced to the characters who’ll follow you around for the rest of the game, and you’re encouraged to take photos with them whenever you can. They all have incredibly distinct and stylish looks, from nerdy bunnygirl to pink-haired punk to “is literally just a penguin.” The environments you’re in will change rapidly over the course of the game, but having friends by your side gives you a sense of community in the face of oblivion.
It’s also clear from the get-go that you and your posse are not tourists in the world of Umurangi Generation, as evidenced by the types of environments you end up exploring. You’re never treated to the kinds of views and experiences that might be commodified for tourists — the locations here exist for themselves, not the player. Watching the faintest of sunbeams fall to rest and fail to light the dank streets of Kati Kati lined with people whose nation has failed them, it’s a scene that’s so vivid because it finds beauty in the mundanity. Choosing what aspects of this area to capture is an exercise in choosing how to tell the story of those native to here, as it’s clear their fate is entwined with your own.
It’s the framing of your relationship with the locations in this game that move your role as a photographer from a passive one to an active one. You’re not just observing these places, you’re invested in them. There isn’t a better moment that demonstrates this than the last level in the DLC, where you’re suddenly in the midst of a protest. People march in the streets, police guard a monument at the end of the street, the injured are tended to on the sidewalks. It’s hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere here, but it’s impossible to escape the state when they decide to crack down on you. Throughout the game you see the excesses spent on defense and weaponry while sea levels reach astronomical heights, and in the end you find yourself at the receiving end of all of it.
Taking photos in Umurangi Generation isn’t just an act of creativity (though the game’s extensive camera customization and touch-up options encourage experimentation with the form). You’re bearing witness to the story of people stuck at the end of the world and, in turn, telling that story through photography. It’s a story that you’re involved in, both as a character connected to the world and as a player who’s probably familiar with feeling insignificant in the face of catastrophe. That’s what makes it such a powerful narrative experience: not only does it convey so much through its environments, but it makes the player part of them, and thus, part of the story.
(Pictures: me, the Umurangi Generation Steam page, and Into the Spine)