Alt+Home: Tourism in 18 Frames or Less
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.