A Game's Photo Mode Isn't Just a Feature, It's My Way of Seeing the World
Photography isn't just about posing the perfect shot, it's about working within limitations to capture a moment.
Welcome to Waypoint's End of Year celebration! This year, we're digging deep into our favorite games with dedicated podcasts, interviewing each other about our personal top 10 lists, and reflecting on the year with essays from the staff and some of our favorite freelance contributors. Check out the entire package right here!
I guess, in a way, my mother is the first game photographer I knew. It wasn't until years later, digging through boxes of family photographs that I discovered this.
It was a photo of the television in our living room. A tight shot of the first stage of Super Mario World. Paused. Buried among birthday parties and holidays, the trained photos my stepfather took of my mother in San Francisco on a then state-of-the-art Canon, it was an outlier—or so I thought.
Blurry, but unmistakable—my mother had taken a photograph of a video game. My video game. There were dozens more.
And as my mother and I went through the box together, we told each other the stories of those photographs and the all the feelings the moments they contained welled up in us. We talked about the games she photographed me playing. We debated when they were taken and at which house. She mentioned how much she still hated the music from Simon’s Quest, which a shaky snapshot was able to conjure, decades later, in her head, and then in mine.
Photographs can be something we flip past on Twitter or in a magazine, a poster we hang on a wall, even a particular selfie we’re really confident in and can’t stop pulling up on our phones. But they can also be so much more than that.
The intrigue of a photograph is in its potential. Whether printed or not, photographs are an attempt to communicate something that was so crucial to the photographer they needed to literally capture the light from that moment and preserve it forever. In doing so, a photograph becomes an impression of the photographer’s emotional landscape, a suggestion of the thoughts and decisions made prior to and during the act of taking the photo.
Photographs hint to us what mattered to a photographer and about their relationship to the world around them. Often, a photograph is the photographer’s direct point of view. But they also abstract that moment from its context both from time and space, and the psyche of the photographer. A photograph cannot tell us what happened before, or what will happen after the moment it contains. Because of that, the power of photography comes in the interpretation and sharing of the meaning we take from these images. To truly appreciate a photograph needs people to draw out its story and retell it, to wonder over the possibilities. Every photograph is a chance to discover not only what the photographer found meaningful, but in trying to understand a photograph, it can help us discover what we find meaningful as well.
And when we are the photographer, the images we create define what matters to us in a moment, a body of these images can illuminate our development: how we changed, grew, and what is at the core of who we are. Our photographs no matter their method of creation provide us with breadcrumbs to who we were, and where we've been.
Last year, around this time, I was fixated on the mythopoetic possibilities of photography, how other people were bringing these photo modes to bear on creating their own stories, breaking the very notion of canonicity, in exploring these digital worlds and characters. This year has become one of personal reflection, taking stock of my own life, my experiences with (and inside of) games.
All year, I kept running into games that I wanted to photograph which challenged my own beliefs, training, and understanding both of game photography, and the purpose of photography in general. Instead of being attached to what a game permitted me to make with its official photo modes (or lack thereof), I found myself interested in what was possible using only the immediately available tools.
Naked Eye Reflex
For years, game photographers on PCs have taken to modding games and using external tools to photograph these virtual worlds. Stripping graphical overlays, arresting time and movement, giving themselves the option to traverse this frozen space to frame their shot—establishing a virtual photography studio for their virtual worlds.
Last year, I argued that games like Nier: Automata, Breath of the Wild, and Destiny 2 needed a “proper” photo mode. If there was a game, I had found a way to graft a photo mode onto it (PC game photographers, yes, you are allowed to snicker here). But confronted with the addition of a first person view mode in Yakuza Kiwami 2, and the evocative photographs of digital Sotenbori from Kiriyu’s own “eyes,” I realized I’d been overzealous and missed a critical point—a screenshot button is all the shutter release player-photographers really need.
With “real” photo modes, a large degree of control is given to players. A quick press on the thumbsticks and time and movement become frozen. Players are then able to rotate, zoom, and change exposure. Maybe they can pose characters, vehicles, or props, or even erase them all together. But what is gained in technical control can, and often does, come at the cost of emotional immediacy and honesty.
In the documentary Near Equal, Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama discusses his wish to move beyond the Single Lens Reflex camera. In one instance, he describes his feeling of how the nature of holding a large camera to one’s face, observing prescribed technique, and finally committing to the photograph interrupts the photographer’s emotions. The photograph taken captures something different than intended, because the gestures and thought create a gulf between the impulse to preserve the image and corresponding emotional landscape. It’s why he ultimately turned to compact cameras—giving up control for velocity.
In games that allow navigation in first person, players are able to accomplish in a sense what Moriyama refers to as “Naked Eye Reflex.” Kiwami 2 allows us to inhabit the space of movement through virtual Tokyo. We can brusquely or solemnly walk those streets, sweeping our eyes before blinking off a memory of something that engages us, with a single button press.
We can do it as quickly and as often as the buffer on the console allows.
It’s hard giving up that control at first, moving from a dedicated mode to a game without. It’s hard being honest and vulnerable—it’s hard bearing witness, instead of meticulously composing perfection.
Allowing the moment to just exist exactly as it is, more reactive than interjective. But with the advent of a dedicated screenshot button on every console, we’ve opened up the possibility of every moment as a photograph. And because of that, we can accomplish something truly interesting, we can share our relationship to the characters’ whose bodies we borrow to enter into the worlds in conjunction with their relation to their world itself.
The Screen Is Already a Viewfinder
I once aggressively argued that Nier: Automata needed a dedicated photo mode. But this year, I realized that it already had its own method for bearing witness, and that the addition of a photo mode would, in essence destabilize the game both mechanically and thematically. In a game about agency, identity, and one’s place and purpose—shouldn’t 2B, 9S, and A2 figure into these photographs?
As in many action RPGs, Automata’s player characters can gain skills as you progress through the game. Because they are androids, these skills take the form of “chips” that you can slot into their mechanical brains. While most of these chips are about doing more damage or dodging more effectively, there are also chips that provide the fundamental operating system for these androids.
If one strips the UI chips from their android OS, the screen becomes a clear portal. With no (or minimal) extradiegetic information on screen, players can become both actor and witness, preserving the relationship between player, character, and world Rather than dramatically staging these characters, we’re obligated to guide them, recording only actions we perform through them. To see through their eyes, we have to move them into positions that confound our satellite camera’s vantage (leaning up against objects and maneuvering until our sight can clip through their bodies). It’s sometimes difficult, but it again calls into focus our relationship to these bodies and these spaces.
In order to capture the image, we have to understand and witness those relationships for ourselves. Relationships that are core to these experiences and photography.
Someday You Might Remember This
Breath of the Wild is in many ways the fulfillment of a promise video games have made for a long time.
Running through the yards and parks behind my house, climbing trees, the occasional large rock, fences, and any scalable surface really. Swinging a fragile wooden sword at imaginary monsters. Dressed in a ramshackle Link costume my mother had made for halloween, I indulged in this fantasy. It was the expressive imaginative play that children do, often documented by parents with cameras, and my mother watched it all from the square plastic viewfinder of her camera. Tapping the shutter release when she felt like it.
It’s a revelation I have holding the Switch up to my face and watching this digital Link swinging a wooden tree branch at a Bokoblin. I slid my thumb down and took a photo. Any reservations I had about the lack of a real photo mode in Breath of the Wild fade away. These photos are rough, inconstant—they’re the result of trying to take photographs of a very animated child running lose.
In a bizarre and unexpected way, what I was doing was not really different from what my mother had done years before. I was watching myself play the Legend of Zelda, and I was photographing it happen, just as she had.
Deep in that box of old family photos, I found a four shot spread of the seasons puzzle from Secret of Mana. Behind the large black Mitsubishi television, and over top of a blue-grey silk couch with thin pale pink and lighter blue stripes there is snow outside the window. And without a date imprint, I know it’s Christmas, 1993.
“You couldn’t just take pictures in the game back then..."
A photo from across the room of me seated in reverie on maroon high-pile carpet in front of a colossal, wood-paneled CRT shrine to Simon's Quest, the titular Belmont locked in the clearly doomed trajectory of a jump.
They weren’t practiced photographs. Taken on various automatic compact cameras, some with embedded date stamps, flash bouncing off the glass of the television, always on Kodak Gold 400 (the foolproof workhorse of family snapshots)—they were messy, but evocative. Some capturing the reflection of our family’s golden retriever seated next to me, others with my own mother over my shoulder, her sleek black Olympus Stylus Infinity in hand.
Each had detail to extract, to reconstitute into personal meaning, extending back to Duck Hunt (standing in footie pajamas with the Zapper clicking against the glass of the TV) and as far forward as Final Fantasy VII (three moves later). Mixed with other photos of our family, it was a record of my life in games, bundled up with the rest of my childhood. Putting me in conjunction with the games I loved and played, the homes we lived in, and of course, with her—my mother, the photographer.
She couldn’t have possibly known that decades later, not only would she be right—that these recorded memories would be precious reminders, emotional puzzles to twist around and create meaning from, stories to reconstruct and tell, but that they’d end up shifting my view of game photography entirely off axis.
“You couldn’t just take pictures in the game back then, and I thought that someday you might want to remember this, or share them with your kids,” she told me.
It’s weird, thinking of my own mother as not only a game photographer decades before I’d find myself immersed in the subject, but also shooting right past my evolving thoughts on game photography to where I ended up in 2018.
But in a way, that’s the surprising thing about photography. It’s a medium designed to be shared, recovered, sat with in contemplation of where we were, where we’ve been, and what was (and perhaps still is) real and true for us. Snapshots of ourselves reflected in the world(s) that we cherish.