Armed with our virtual cameras in our virtual worlds, we can create the images we want to believe in.
Illustration by Erica Lahaie
Welcome to Waypoint's Pantheon of Games , a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of 2017's most significant trends.
“In your lifetime, virtual worlds will be just as important as the real world.”
It’s a message I got a lot growing up. From technologists in the pages of Newsweek, it came in waves of paranoia and exhilaration. From creators like Richard Bartle, with a playful curiosity. The message was repeated in movies, books, cartoons, and comics. My mother, who only understands the “Add 30 Seconds” button on the microwave, would talk over dinner about how we’d all be uploaded to an immortal, perfect, simulated world.
While I doubt we’ll achieve the Kurzweilian scenario of living as purely digital consciousness, the premonitions of my childhood have borne out in a way. Sony’s early slogan for the Playstation encouraging “Live in your world, play in ours” seems quaint—we live and play in both now. But many of these are still new worlds, and like all early human civilizations in the real world, and in times of advancement or change, we will need ways of understanding and interacting with these worlds in meaningful and generative ways. We need our own myths and our own images.
In this respect, 2017 delivered.
As I watched my friends and colleagues stress over their end of the year lists, I immediately opted out. Because amidst all the great games this year, what mattered most to me was clear—this was the Year of the Photo Mode.
From Horizon Zero Dawn’s release in February all the way to Mario Odyssey and Assassin’s Creed Origins in late October, it’s almost easier to list the games that didn’t include a photo mode.
Smaller games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and big ones like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy let players take shots of their worlds. Two games from last year, No Man’s Sky and Final Fantasy XV, received updates that included player-directed photo modes. Even the Shadow of War wants you to take time out of fantasy enslavement to take photos of scenic Mordor. And they weren't just talked about and forgotten. This was the year of articles about photo modes too. The year when sharing these creations on social media blew up.
Like traditional photography, game photography has had a long (but accelerated) history. From murky low resolution images through complicated and seemingly arcane processes to point and shoots, game photography has moved to a world where discrete “share” buttons exist on every controller. And nearly every game that featured a photo mode this year was powerful enough on its own but also intuitive and simple enough for a new user. 2017 set a new standard. Stunning, expressive game photography is for everyone now. No Photoshop or specialized hardware needed.
Just as Instagram and the ubiquity of affordable smartphones had a democratizing effect on who created and owned images, 2017’s photo modes had the same effect on game photography. Marginalized people who maybe never held a camera or created a game narrative finally had tools to create the images and their own stories now.
This is crucial for folks whose lives may be filled with received images and stories of the status quo, of how we “should” be. For folks whose lives have been exploited through dominant lenses. Even in games that don’t necessarily include them, they could find means of expression, of creation. They are making images that reflected them, and their beliefs, sometimes counter to developer desires.
And that’s really fucking rad.
The common argument against game photography is that “it’s all set up by the developers and artists” (which was never a valid argument) becomes moot as our virtual worlds become more “real” (not photoreal). As scripting becomes more complex, and systems bump up against systems, and the worlds themselves become richer, player-photographers will uncover more unique experiences and create many all their own.
As I watched the year unfold on Twitter, between tragedy and dire prophecies, people taking action, stories of loss and triumph, and the beginnings of some social change—other, smaller stories unfolded in shared postcards from virtual worlds. I added my own. As releases came, went, and resurged, more people shared their photos. And I delighted as we told each other the stories of ourselves, our explorations and criticisms, our grief and joy, our precious discoveries and moments of “simulated” humanity from these digital realms.
We were finding the warmth and beauty we needed in worlds that were expressly ours.
Horizon Zero Dawn, already a lush and gorgeous world that players (even without extensive photographic backgrounds) took to documenting more lovingly and expertly than a decade of Natural Geographic. But it is the ability to shift the time of day that allows players the chance to control the very environment they are photographing. There’s no need to wait for the perfect lighting or remember a vista and travel back to it in time later—the image the player wanted can be created in an instant. An entire series of photographs can be shot over “the course of a day” in a matter of minutes.
No Man’s Sky, a beautiful game about exploration of celestial bodies and the creatures who inhabit them became even more with the Path Finder update. Not only did players gain a camera mode, No Man’s Sky’s photo mode gives players a level of environmental control that most gods don’t possess.
That’s right. You can straight up move the sun.
Control over the environment is a powerful thing. Outside of games, even experienced photographers constantly grapple with light and the elements. Even with a firm grasp on the basics of composition, many novice photographers are discouraged when the images they wish to create are thwarted by the sun’s rays (or lack thereof). But within our virtual worlds, we can transcend those limits. We can dictate light and time. We can create our ideal moment rather than wait endlessly for what might never come.
Of all the games this year, nothing impressed me quite like Assassin’s Creed Origins’ photo mode.
Despite Ancient Egypt being a deep well of Orientalism, the care and craft Ubisoft’s team put into their vision of Ptolemaic Egypt is astounding. Many games can be described as sandboxes. But too often the worlds feel empty, hollow, the pieces are there, but they loop too obviously, there’s no real sense of discovery.
Their joy is that of chaotic action or deliberate restraint on the player’s part. Origins wants us to feel free to engage in those ways, should we choose. But Ubisoft has armed us not only with swords and hippos—we have a camera, and a world full of life and nuance. It’s a world that invites our patience and drive to understand more than it asks us to master it.
What enraptured me with Origins isn’t the beautiful vistas. It’s the people. Yes, you heard me. Not NPCs or AIs. While they may be virtual, the vitality of Origins’ Egypt is such that I lost hours playing Bayek less as rampaging warrior, and instead as Daido Moriyama or Cartier-Bresson. I plunged deep into the humanity of this world.
I ran across three children sitting idly as I wandered the dusty streets of Alexandria. I was trying to hide from guards, but there they were, just bored brown kids seeking refuge from the heat under a palm.
When was the last time I could find brown kids just getting to be brown kids in a game?
In Origins, people go to the market, they chat and do business. Sometimes they have crises, sometimes they go home after a long day. As I wandered, I realized I was doing exactly what I do every night when I wander Philadelphia, a hand on the camera in my pocket. There are stories within stories, hidden away, waiting to be found outside of the main quest, and even side missions. Stories that only we the players can find and tell.
And yes, there’s a lot to discuss about what all that means.
While Origins is set to receive an update that will enable a “Tourist mode,” Super Mario Odyssey is literally a game about tourism. It’s photo mode doesn’t just allow us to explore the uninhibited world Nintendo has dreamed up from a mix of fantasy and real cultures—it intensifies the issues the game has with orientalism, gaze, and consumption.
In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture.”
Hey, Mario. What’s good?
Odyssey’s photo mode by design wants us to experience things as wide-eyed and exuberantly as a bounding Mario. Which is a wonderful intention, but even in our virtual worlds, we need room for circumspection. Within Odyssey, by engaging with the photo mode, we are given a real chance to understand our needs to accumulate experiences as objects, consume culture, and keep others at the distance of a telephoto lens. It's Odyssey’s very own camera allows us to engage with those hard questions of what it is we’re creating and sharing.
Our real world is a one of images. Since mass produced cameras and film, we’ve been creating and sharing photographs at a pace that has only accelerated. Most of the images in our world from before the advent of affordable digital cameras came from a largely white, largely male, predominantly heterosexual middle and upper class. They enforce strict ideas about beauty and class, gender expectations and racial hegemony. These are images that still reinforce toxic cultural mythologies about who and what is truly worthy. And because many of our virtual worlds are created by people who were born under these mythological messages, they struggle to resist them.
Breath of the Wild has problems with gender, queerness, the notion of who gets to be a hero in society, and what a hero even is.
But when I showed my mom Breath of the Wild, she simply said, “This is the game of me watching you playing Link in the backyard when you were six.”
And to be honest, that's exactly how I felt in my brief time with the game. And why I was so disappointed with the actual game camera’s inability to share photos.
Despite the limitations of the photo mode, the drive to create and share stories from this world is too strong. Players have taken advantage of the poorly named “Pro HUD” and the Switch’s fixed screenshot button to capture not just breathtaking photos of Hyrule, but Zelda’s respect (and often thirst) for the indomitable Gerudo champion (and definitely girlfriend) Urbosa. And, of course, the blossoming love between Link and his totally canon shark boyfriend, Prince Sidon (You're not the boss of us, Nintendo).
The world as Nintendo created it may be unalterable. The politics that informed it may not align with our own. But you’re damn right we will take advantage of the powerful abilities that photography has to subvert the hell out of Nintendo’s world. We’ll make every last person in Hyrule gay, and we’ll have the honeymoon photos that make it real.
Susan Sontag concludes On Photography by saying this:
“But the force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality—for turning it into a shadow. Images are more real than anyone could have supposed.”
Armed with our virtual cameras in our virtual worlds, we can create the images we want to believe in.
Our tools and our worlds will no doubt grow in the years ahead. And I hope more games and more players embrace them both. But for me, 2017 will always be a landmark year for game photography, and its power as a tool for storytelling and mythmaking.
How many hours have I spent inside these virtual worlds just this year? How many hours have we spent collectively? For decades, many of us simply received our experiences from these worlds. At best visiting them through avatars with limited verbsets.
We're embracing these worlds more fully than ever. We’re creating narratives that didn’t exist in them before. We're queering the shit out of worlds made for us to play in by companies that may not reflect who we are.
These are no longer Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft’s worlds—they are ours.
And we will live in them expressly on our terms.