During this year I’ve become very drawn to games that primarily focus on the player taking pictures as a main mechanic. Games such as Umurangi Generation, Sludge Life, Shutter Stroll and now Penko Park. Recently I’ve been trying to think why exactly I’ve become drawn to them, maybe because this year it’s been harder to explore to my hearts content. Maybe because those games can take me somewhere that’s unlike where I live. Maybe it’s because there is something fresh to me about these games as they aren’t something I have a history with. Maybe it’s a culmination of all of those aspects of what I like about them. However, the main aspect I adore is how these games inherently have a focus on the spaces they are based and demand that you look at them.
In a lot of games that have open worlds for the player to explore, info is commonly given through exposition. To truly learn you have books that have been left behind. It is a great way to learn since it rewards exploration with knowledge and allows the player to learn a lot more about the world they are moving through. It is not forced and gives the option to the player, respecting that choice. Another common way is through environmental storytelling, to look at the world and see the state of it, examine it and come to your own conclusions. Create theories and explore them. It gives players the space to imagine and can make the experience all the stronger if done right. Something as simple as a lone house can give ideas to the player to create. Being able to create within the game and outside makes for much stronger games.
Games such as Umurangi Generation focus solely on the environments as there is no exposition given through dialogue. Everything you see is what you get and from seeing you come to understand what the game is about. Its themes, world and story. There is a lot to adore about Umurangi Generation; its presentation, world, charm, soundtrack. It is beautiful thematically and visually. As the player you are given tasks in each level you explore. For example, take a picture that includes five (5) seagulls. These tasks force the player to explore, the environments act as puzzles and a game that might just seem about walking and taking pictures becomes a platformer. It is deceptive yet simple.
Those tasks get you exploring and get you looking at where you have been placed. It makes you look at every corner, every surface and got me to look at the world in a way other games haven’t done for me. In search for those pictures and the core mechanic of taking pictures, my sole focus was to look at the world and examine it. In that search I was discovering areas I might not have looked at if it wasn’t for the objectives, taking pictures of those areas, documenting them and thinking about them. The simple act of taking pictures made me think about how I am looking at the world and the best way I can compose a picture. Since you can earn money from pictures it makes you think about how you’re taking that picture and makes you examine and think about the world all the more. I look at the graffiti on the walls and understand why it was placed there. For many games graffiti exists as something to be there, not to mean anything as it does in our world. Not to show political action but more as lore, it is commodified, in Umurangi Generation is isn’t. It shows that actions and the distain for the cops.
Umurangi Generation is an evocative piece of art. It came out during a year of a global pandemic, bushfires, mass poverty, homelessness, a breaking world. it asks you to care about the world and rebel against the people, the corporations that are allowing it to be broken. It is a highly important piece of art that should be experienced by as many people as possible.
Sludge Life is similar in some aspects, it asks you to rebel. Graffiti the walls, tag them, show them they don’t belong to the corporations that are destroying the place and that you don’t care for the cops. To take pictures of the world you’re placed into. To document the injustice and take action against it. Fight the way you know best in a world that is seemingly dying at the hands of the brands. It is energetic, it is empowering. I saw the state of the world I’d been placed in, the strikes for the hopes of a better future for the workers. The cops who smack you in the face if you get too close. The very island that’s been industrialised, the water that has been turned to sludge. The apartment complex that is full of people who can only dream to have a bed. In a lot of ways it is a silly game, to show that there can still be fun in an end and despite that you should keep fighting for better.
Penko Park is a newly released photography game, set in a world full of little creatures. If you’ve played Pokemon Snap you will be familiar with the way the game works. You are put into a little machine that takes you through an environment and you can take those pictures as you are taken through it. It is extremely simple and from that simplicity creates an incredibly relaxing game to experience and despite it being one that has just released I am already heavily into.
You are given a three (3) star system when it comes to pictures which forces me to consider how I’m taking the pictures. Is the little friend fitting into the frame? Is there foliage in the way? If there are multiple of them is it easier to get three (3) stars? Taking all of that and using it to consider how I’m looking at everything. There are multiple states creatures can be in, some the first time you see them they will be sleeping and there is a symbol showing that they can be awake. Some show a glitter symbol. It creates an element of puzzle solving and allows you to further interact with the world. At the time of writing this I’ve unlocked an ability to throw a ball of flowers that some creatures like and some might not like as much. It further deepens the interactivity and sense of place within its incredibly whimsical world.
At the beginning I mentioned I was thinking about why I adore these types of games so much and I think it’s the perspective you are given and the presence of it all. In many other games you are given a photo mode to take pictures, the most prominent games now have this feature and whilst I’ve enjoyed the feature in the many games I’ve played to include it, there is something missing and it is that perspective. In Umurangi Generation, Sludge Life, Shutter Stroll and Penko Park you are still playing as a person who is controlling a camera. In a game such as Death Stranding you control the camera, it doesn’t create that sense of place the others do. I feel grounded in Umurangi Generation whereas I do not in Control.
A lot of the time it is an option to analyse the space you are put into, never forced to look. You may interact however you please. You could play an entire game ignoring the actual story of the world you’ve placed into if you please. However, sometimes it isn’t an option to look at the world for it is, for that option is to ignore its problems that plague and never fight for something better.