Alt+Home: Tourism in 18 Frames or Less

Games can be more than mere entertainment. In our column Alt+Home intermedia artist Kent Sheely explores the ways independent developers are challenging the status quo.

The subject of in-game photography has been addressed at-length, not least here on this very site, gamers and artists alike having long ago discovered the potential for turning their screens into a camera lens for capturing stunning images of the artificial worlds they inhabit. This is a natural development, as the rectangular format of the screen already lends itself to the form factor of a photograph. Entire blogs and exhibitions have been curated based on the idea, which in itself raises questions about the nature of photography & what sets a real photograph apart from a virtual one. Duncan Harris has made a name for himself by taking stunningly well-composed screenshots using a number of different modifications and tools.

Artists such as Robert Overweg have even gone beyond merely capturing images of the game world as it’s presented and attempt to catch games in glitched states, depicting the inner workings behind the facade. The argument about whether screenshots can be art has long since been put to rest, but the way games approach the concept continues to evolve and give us new ways of approaching this documentary practice in interactive media.

Some games have actually included a camera as an item the main character can use, which adds an additional layer of immersion to the process but is generally thrown in as part of the fiction, a tool for completing an objective the game has assigned or for encouraging players to capture incidental moments in the storyline. As graphical capabilities have become more sophisticated, however, developers have been increasingly generous about giving players the ability to record their adventures within the realm of the game’s own universe, without merely tapping a screenshot button.

These contrivances may seem trivial at first glance, but they completely change the way players consider and document the simulated space around them. Just by having a camera in their inventory, players are more likely to be looking out for “photo ops” as they’re playing, much like you would if you were packing a camera on a vacation trip to a place you’ve never been before. In Grand Theft Auto V, you’re even encouraged to take selfies with the character’s smartphone camera whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In the recently-released Firewatch, developer Campo Santo has put a twist on the notion of virtual photography that, to my knowledge, has only been deployed in short experimental games, such as Richard Whitelock’s Into This Wylde Abyss. The player’s character in Firewatch ends up with one of those little disposable cameras you might buy at a convenience store on vacation, or find on your table at a wedding--the kind with a fixed lens & whose film has to be manually advanced with a little plastic wheel after each shot. By today’s standards, it’s the cheapest and easiest way of taking photos, and it’s also unique in the context of a video game because unlike screenshots, a disposable camera has a limited number of exposures; when they’re spent, all you can do is get the film developed and hope for the best.

The camera ends up in your pocket for the rest of the game, and aside from a single line of dialogue announcing the new toy, it’s never discussed by any of the main characters. You can’t even see the photos you’re taking until the very end. The camera isn’t integral to the story (save for a short sequence at the end, where you get to see some of the photos the camera’s previous owner took), nor is it even used to get an achievement, such as in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Regardless, it’s one of the most interesting mechanics.

Because of the limited amount of film, just like in real life, if you choose to take photos you’re going to intuitively pay a lot more attention to what’s worth photographing, & grabbing shots with much more focus on what you’re putting in the frame. You’ll also end up being very selective about what’s worth capturing, planning in advance for the possibility that something up ahead might be more worthwhile to preserve, and internally defending each press of the shutter.

It’s clear that Campo Santo was aware that players would be traversing these woods with the camera always somewhere on the back burner of their perception, because every corner of the environment in Firewatch is crafted with intimate attention to detail. Shafts of light pierce the treetops as you pass through the pine forest. The setting sun glistens off of a hidden lake. A raccoon, unaware of your presence as you emerge from an overgrown path, snacks on a piece of fruit. There’s so much to see and so little pressure to reach your next objective that it would be easy to just get caught up appreciating every little scenic nuance, and the temptation to photograph every one of them is reigned in only by the knowledge that you’ll only have about eighteen total frames over the course of the entire game.

After the credits have rolled and you return to the main menu, a new link appears, which takes you to a slideshow of all the shots you collected. In addition, you can send your digital photos and a small fee to the developers, who will actually have your pictures printed as 4x6 glossy snapshots & mailed to you. I have yet to receive my prints, but the idea that images I took inside a video game are going to arrive on my doorstep as discrete physical objects has me excitedly watching my mailbox every day.

This kind of tangible connection between the game world & reality is not exactly new (Pokémon Snap allowed you to take your memory card to your local Blockbuster and print out your in-game photos on glossy paper), but the inclusion of this service along with the frame limitation lends itself to a much more intimate connection with the pictures you’ve taken, and a greater sense of pride in what you end up with. Rather than digging through an entire album of digital photos & trying to pick out your favorites from a thousand attempts, you’re bound to the handful that you managed to snap along your journey, so when you manage to come up with something really impressive, it will mean that much more to you because it took so much more effort to collect.

I’m elated to see more analog technology emulated in video games and extended into the physical world. I’m not in it for the nostalgia as much as I’m in it for the extension of the video game as a medium, the direct physical connection between the tangible and the intangible. I’m lukewarm on fad technology like virtual reality, but I’m intensely interested in games that can creatively weave their simulacra in ways that make us feel just a little more connected to the fictional worlds we choose to live in for shorts bursts of time.



First of all great Article, I enjoyed reading it and I totally agree with the notion of changing the perception and sense of exploration of the player by providing a tool for documentation. If I had to give an example for the sake of comparison and distinction of virtual photography Beyond good and evil would be my pick. Its main protagonist Jade uses a camera not only to progress the story by reaching certain goals in terms of economic mechanics but narrative mechanics as well. In Firewatch economic mechanics are isolated from the story and its progression. The fact that you only have 18 pictures to spare doesn't relate to the all too often proposed idea of ware and value in videogames at all. However, narrative mechanics still exist within Firewatch. I think the camera in Firewatch is integral to its story and it is talked about on other occasions then its initial discovery. So it's all in the writing?
In terms of structure the story of Firewatch consists of several narrative frames. Like in a novella there is a background story, Henry's relationship with his wife Julia and the revelation of her Dementia. Within this framework the 79 days of Firewatch, the relationship of Henry and Delilah, takes place. Again this serves as a narrative frame for all the other stories evolving through Henry's encounters during these 79 Days. Most notably Ned Goodwin's relationship with his son Brian. The plot of Firewatch chances and so does our perception of what might be important to document. In photography there is a very big distinction between taking scenic pictures of elaborate landscapes or collecting evidence from a devastated camping site and documenting a potential crime scene in a cave or simply spying on what appears to be the head over heels abounded work of a mind gone insane. The connection or Leitmotiv between all these encounters and the framework finds it symbolic expression in the one use camera. Once you put a motive into the frame and shutter has opened and closed there is a little piece of recorded history within a black box. The question or the central problem that Firewatch presents is: Does it matter? The answer is: There are no bears in Firewatch, only fire.
Ok. The camera isn't a camera. It's vessel carrying the ideas - which are their emotional dilemmas - of Ned Goodwin, the campers, Delilah and Henry out of their own narrative Frame. As everything else burns, first slowly illuminating their more or less troubled past on to its inescapable revelation, when the fire is in its final inferno, the hardened crust of rejection covering up their insight of their own history blazes off baking it into existence. You know, like when you develop a negative into a final picture. Right about when you return to your outpost for the very last time packing up all the things you want to take with you and you hold the picture of Henry and his wife in your stubby little hands you will notice the flash of the camera blinding out the face of Henry's wife right when said picture was taken. Regardless of using all the snapshots left in that camera or not, they will only ever show us the world of shoshone creek as it once was right up to the moment when it changed. So in relation to what happens to the story it doesn't matter what you put into frame and it doesn't even matter if you use the camera at all but in order to understand what is happening to the characters in Firewatch, their image of themselves, we need that almost physical reference of documentation illustrating their inability to cope with the past.
And what about the bears? Well they do not exist, only scratch marks bear whiteness of their existence. Sorry for the bad pun. Sorry for writing a long winded argument about whether the camera in Firewatch is relevant to its story or not and sorry for my bad english.
I'll hope you go bird watching someday again.

thanks :)
I didn't even spot the racoon :(

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