beyond the photo mode. how video games use photography as a narrative device

SPOILER WARNING: this article contains spoilers for the following games: “Life is Strange”, “Virginia”, “1979 Revolution: Black Friday”. If you intend to play any of those you may want to come back to this article later. Otherwise you’ve been warned.

once i was a teenage girl who shot polaroid and then used the photos to travel back in time. then i was an FBI detective who developed a roll of film to get evidence. then in 1979 i roamed the streets of Tehran with my camera documenting the Iranian revolution as it happened.

as strange as it may seem, all these stories really happened. the only trick here is that they didn’t happen in real life, i lived them in video games.

these are some of the most memorable photography-related gaming experiences i’ve had in the last couple of years, and i want to focus specifically on the part photography played in them.

many modern video games incorporate photography in one way or another. the easiest is usually a photo mode which allows you to capture a certain moment in game whether it is a stunning virtual sunset or a weirdly smiling greek god in disguise. sometimes games would make you take pictures for cataloguing purposes or whatever, but the games i referred to up top take one small step forward. they make photography a part of their game mechanic.

i have to say that i’m probably biased highlighting these games because i’m a fan of film photography and all of those experiences were about exactly that, so take it as you please but the point i’m trying to make stays the same.

there is something special about the analogue photo process. maybe it’s the physicality of it that makes people connect to it. from the moment of taking a picture to the development and printing, it is this chain of actual chemical reactions that produce an image and thus it may feel more real. at least it’s what i feel, and maybe that’s why Max from “Life is Strange” can only use her polaroids to travel in time. those were real moments, captured by the chemicals and they bear a piece of that reality.

the analogue photography is also oftentimes not quick. the instant film being an exception, you can’t see the picture until you go through the development process. for some photographers it is definitely a hurdle but many, me included, actually enjoy the excitement one gets before seeing what’s on the roll of film. of course it can be only a couple of hours after you finished it but still the mere fact of waiting can get you pumped. let alone the excitement when you develop a 6-month old roll.

this quality of film photography was used numerous times in the past usually by cinematographers to create tension and suspense. what’s going to be there? will we see the evidence, the murderer? the game “Virginia” takes this trope and makes you, the player, go through the process of printing images. you take a sheet of photo paper,… you dip it into one bath,… then another,… and then one more,… and all this time you see the image is there but you can’t look closer until you’re done developing.

Roland Barthes in his essays on photography discussed what makes a snapshot a photograph, why we as viewers gloss over some pictures but spend time looking at others. he argued that the viewer’s personal connection to the object(s) on the photo amplifies the feeling of “that happened/existed” as compared to an image of something you don’t really know and thus can’t be sure of its reality.

in “1979 Revolution: Black Friday” you not only face some difficult moral choices throughout the story but also are tasked to document some key moments of the Iranian revolution. though you are not given a complete freedom to snap everything you see, the game helps and leads you to the exact spots you need to photograph but this is only to focus your attention on what really matters for history (in game creators’ opinion). by making us, players, witness the events and take pictures of them, the game hopes to create that barthesian connection, make us believe in the reality of what happened.

for me these artistic ways of incorporating one of my favourite hobbies into another are considered an absolute win for both. i’ll take my chance to shoot some film in a game any day. other players may see those mechanics as a chore or a nuisance. whatever the reaction the examples i gave prove that photography can be used creatively in a virtual world and be something more than an extra menu option.

and speaking of photo modes. recently my gang and i have been on a run from the authorities and those damn Pinkertons. we’ve managed to lay low somewhere in the woods, and sometimes, after a hard day of hunting or dealing with a rival gang, i love to take out my little camera and get that double rainbow before it vanishes. for no particular reason, just to relax.

games mentioned in the article:

  • Life is Strange
  • Virginia
  • 1979 Revolution: Black Friday

also hinted at:

  • God of War
  • Red Dead Redemption 2

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