Photo Opportunities in Video Games

There is a curious and complex relationship between film and photography. Film theorist Peter Wollen describes the two arts respectively as fire and ice. While films are “all light and shadow, incessant motion, transience, flicker,” photographs freeze their subjects in place (“Fire and Ice”, Photographies 4, April 1984). As Wollen describes them, “photographs appear as devices for stopping time and preserving fragments of the past, like flies in amber.” Within film, the depiction of photographs creates a bizarre linkage between stillness and movement. Video games that use cameras as a core mechanic also create a strange paradox that alters the relationship between player and game world.

For a photographer gazing through a viewfinder, reality is mediated by the camera. Some describe a distancing sensation, one in which the photographer is disengaged from a situation. For many, this phenomenon raises ethical concerns. The oft cited case of Marc Halevi, who captured on film a woman being swept out to sea while merely observing a failed rescue attempt, is a prime example. Paradoxically, the same dissociating effect of observing the real world through a camera envelops and immerses players in a game world.

The fictional realm of a video game, in relation to the players of that game, is always mediated by a television or computer screen. Players ingest a game’s visuals through the viewfinder that is their screen. Complete game immersion would be the removal of this mediating presence, freeing gamers from the photographer’s dissociative dilemma. By adding an additional mediating object, in game cameras actually serve to immerse players into a game world in a peculiar way.

There are three notable examples of in game cameras that we might keep in mind. The first is Pokémon Snap, released in 1999 and developed by HAL Laboratory. The second is Fatal Frame (also known as Project Zero), released in 2001 and developed by Tecmo. The third is Afrika (or Hakuna Matata in Asia), released in 2008 and developed by Rhino Studios. Each of these games differ dramatically. While Pokémon Snap is on rails, Fatal Frame and its subsequent sequels adopt a third-person perspective while controlling an onscreen avatar. While Fatal Frame is a horror game, Afrika is an African safari simulator. Regardless, the core mechanic of all three titles consists of observing a subject through a camera’s viewfinder and taking a picture.

Perceiving a game environment through a lens diminishes the dissociative effect of perceiving a game environment through a screen. The ghosts of Fatal Frame and the pokémon of Pokémon Snap are not solely rendered by a television set but also by the camera. Any distortions or low visual fidelity can be explained by the effects of the camera. A giraffe photographed in Africa might be black and white not because of the limits of the television screen but because the camera makes it so. Imagine a game world captured and transmitted to the player via an in game object rather than a screen. In a way, cameras extend the game space outside the confines of the television. Players gaze upon a world not through a screen, but through an in-game object, placing them within its fictional realm.

Enemies in Fatal Frame can only be harmed when photos are taken of them. From a first-person view, players must isolate these phantoms within the viewfinder and harm them by taking better and often more frightening photos. These haunts are substantiated by viewing them through a camera, making the game world more physically and perceptively real. Even pokémon seem less artificial when captured in photographs. Their two-dimensionality and bloated character models become less jarring. Similarly, the quality of a photograph in Afrika depends entirely on how the game’s camera operates. Depending on shutter speed, lens type, and positioning of the sixaxis (which controls the orientation of the camera as though it were the camera itself), an animal in motion may be blurry, off center, or seemingly still. The game world is perceived from within via the camera, not just from outside via the screen. In game cameras immerse players in a unique way.

At the same time, the mechanics of camera use in games place a spotlight on the artificiality of a game world. Pokémon Snap, Fatal Frame, and Afrika all judge the player’s photographs in some way. Professor Oak rewards points to pokémon photographers based on a pokémon’s pose, size, and centering within the frame and proximity. Damage in Fatal Frame is calculated by a photo’s accuracy, timing, proximity, and type of film used. Afrika adds depth by rewarding players money based upon the specific goals of a mission, as well as angle, target, distance to the subject, and technique (likely a combination of depth of field, exposure, and camera shake). For a brief moment, movement stops while an image is dissected into its component parts and judged accordingly. At this point, the game reveals itself for what it is — a digital fiction — without displacing the player outside the game world.

French film critic and theorist Raymond Bellour comments on this same paradox in film in his essay “The Pensive Spectator.” According to Bellour, a photograph shown during a film uproots viewers, while simultaneously situating them in relation to it:

The photo subtracts me from the fiction of the cinema, even if it forms a part of the film, even if it adds to it. Creating a distance, another time, the photograph permits me to reflect on cinema. Permits me, that is, to reflect that I am at the cinema. In short, the presence of the photo permits me to invest more freely in what I am seeing. It helps me to close my eyes, yet keep them wide open… Though drawn more deeply into the flow of the film, the spectator is simultaneously able to reflect on it with a maximum intensity. (“The Pensive Spectator”, Wide Angle 9.1, 1987)

Video game photography creates a similar phenomenon. An in game camera can immerse players in an environment, putting them right next to a pokémon, ghost, or African gazelle. At the same time, photographs taken within this realm force players to prod and examine the game world as a game. A black and white giraffe becomes a digitally quantifiable object. The pixilated contours of pikachu seem both real and bound by the Nintendo 64’s rendering capabilities. The camera as a game world object immerses players in a fictional realm and requires them to reflect upon it as such.

The sensation of feeling natural within a decidedly unnatural world is not necessarily a negative paradox. Bellour concludes by privileging the photograph “over all other effects that make the spectator of cinema, this hurried spectator, a pensive one as well.” We can similarly praise in game photography with creating a unique kind of immersion. Cameras can make specters more unsettling and elephants more majestic, while simultaneously drawing a player’s eyes to their fictional creation — capturing the two in a hypnotizing blend of ice and fire.