Image courtesy of Square Enix

'Final Fantasy XV' Is Surprisingly Good at Teaching Photography

That wonderful boy can teach us the magic (and science) of great photography.

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May 15 2017, 10:00pm

Image courtesy of Square Enix

I didn't really love Final Fantasy XV, but I couldn't put it down. 140 hours later, I'm still playing because it does one thing more brilliantly than any other game—photography. The Buddy AI system that drives Prompto does more than turn what would be an ordinary screenshot into what feels like a believably real photograph though—it instills, through Prompto, ways to appreciate and improve our own photography.

Like Prompto, I've carried around a camera since I was young. I took photos of everything and everyone. It became the thing my friends and family associated most with me, but it wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I finally took myself and my photography seriously. That Prompto's personal growth resonated with my own was a pleasant surprise, but it's the ways he can teach and inspire us, whether we're outsiders or already in the craft, that captured my interest.

All images captured by the author

That's right, the "waifish weirdo art kid" can teach anyone to be a photographer just by playing the game.

Believe In Your Camera

Odds are you're carrying around a powerful camera right now. You might even be reading this on it. But do you really believe it?

This could easily have been "Take Your Camera Everywhere," but just like Prompto, you already do.

Prompto is never without his camera. Even when—maybe—he should be.

Any camera is capable of taking beautiful, emotive photographs, but we don't often think of the camera in our pocket as "real." I promise you it is. Any camera you have in your hands is a real camera.

Just hear that sweet boy Prompto whispering in your ear reminding you it's just as capable as a LOKTON LX-X1R and get to shooting.

Respect the Failures

In the early days of FFXV, some people believed that Prompto was a bad photographer because he returned "bad photographs"—but they're wrong.

Prompto does not take bad photographs. He sometimes fails at his attempts.

Failing at photography is the natural result of pushing against the current limits of your compositional understanding...

It's also the result of not being mindful.

And sometimes subjects just don't cooperate.

Photographs that don't succeed are integral to the process, because not only is this how we learn to be more critical of our work, we get to define what a meaningful photograph is to us.

Failed photographs are beautiful and instructive. Not bad.

This photograph is a failure. There are things wrong with the composition and the lighting. It's also an incredibly difficult photograph to take.

The composition is actually quite strong, the lighting moody and dynamic. When Prompto showed this to me, I was ecstatic for him. I even rushed off to twitter to show it to Kotaku writer Gita Jackson as she labored over Prompto's many failures. Taking risks. Challenging yourself. That's how you fail at taking photos. That's how you grow.

And remember, failed photographs comprised one of the most important photographic series of the 20th century.

Think About Your Filter Before You Shoot

With digital, it's easy to flip through different visual aesthetics and find one we like. And a lot of photo modes in video games follow this same function, but not Final Fantasy XV. Before we see the results, Prompto has chosen the final look.

What works for one image...

Won't work for others.

Before digital filters, this look was heavily dictated by film stock. And while filter-flipping can be a useful to understand how they change an image's mood, pre-visualizing the filter you're going to choose is crucial to thinking photographically.

While there are some filters in Final Fantasy XV that I like, I made a break for unlocking the "Time" filter because I wanted Prompto to think monochromatically.

I won't lie. His black and white grading is often better than mine.

A simple and easy challenge for yourself is to do just that — limit yourself to just one filter (and I gently urge you to try a black and white one). No matter what you snap a photo of that day, you'll learn to see how different lighting and color impacts it, how the emotional quality of an image changes. And you'll end up with a number of visually cohesive photographs!

Shoot a Series

My Prompto is gearing up for his first gallery show to coincide with the debut of his book. He's been working hard, building up a body of work that revolves around the tragic menace of Magitek grunts.

You might not ever want to publish a book, or even show your photographs at all, but shooting a series is one of the most exciting and important things you can do.

As explained by AI Lead Designer Prasert Prasertvithyakarn, Prompto's AI breaks down into three main themes:

"Joyful" with it's focus on pleasant moments with his friends…

"Wonderful" which places an emphasis on the world of Eos…

... and "Exciting," highlighting the thrill of combat.

Now this is an easy enough breakdown for most of us, but perhaps like my Prompto there's something that stirs a deep interest in you. Do you take selfies? Maybe there's a particular wall where you live. I like mannequins. My Prompto likes Magitek soldiers.

Whatever your interests are, seek them out and photograph them. The more mundane and abundant the better. Purposefully shoot those seemingly insignificant subjects every day for a month, and then group them together. Maybe you won't end up with anything, but shooting serially will not only help you understand what photographs work and which don't, but how you build meaning and tell stories through your photographs.

And as we learn from Prompto, photographs are all about creating meaningful stories.

Snapshots: The Story You're Not Telling

Photographs are snapshots, snapshots are photographs, and if there's one critical lesson Prompto imparts it's that. Outside of a conversation about economics, the valuation of art, and the survivability of photographers—the distinction is completely meaningless.

As Prasertvithyakarn asks in his GDC talk about designing the Buddy AI system, "Can we rely on storytelling by cinematics and linear level script?" Maybe we could, but Prompto's snapshots tell us stories that the narrative of Final Fantasy XV cannot. Your own photographs do the same.

Photographs are literally split-seconds of time (okay, unless it's a really long exposure). We're not given what's before or after. We have to infer that. In viewing a photograph we have to make up our own stories and fill in the gaps.

And sometimes, our own memories are that filler. Prasertvithyakarn explains that "Photos create emotion pulse." A stirring of emotion that is brought about by a connection to an image either through empathy or remembrance.

"They can bring us back to the moment," Prasertvithyakarn says, "and show us what has been lost."

Every snapshopt Prompto takes is a precious memory, whether it's Noctis eating meat on a stick from a street vendor...

Gladio's face buried in a book...

...Or just Ignis being grumpy because his expensive shoes are being ruined.

Sure, these might seem mundane. But it's those mundane moments that define us. Those seemingly trivial experiences often become profound connections.

Snapshots are reminders of what's important and meaningful. They're reflections of moments that we've shared. And in those reflections we can tell ourselves the stories to relive what we've lost. Prasertvithyakarn says of the system that drives Prompto that they're not creating photos, but photo experiences. And when you take a snapshot, you're doing the same thing.

Every snapshot is a piece of you, your feelings, all of your profundity and mundanity in that moment, just like every snapshot Prompto shares with us and his friends before bed are pieces of him.

And that is the beauty of photography. Now get snapping.