A photography game that really clicks
Photography is the sort of common magic it’s easy to take for granted. Imagine discovering the act of photography in a world where it didn’t exist: a single moment, captured near-perfectly, preserved forever on film or digital record. It’s inherently amazing. Trace visual media back far enough and there’s a long, curved line from the original camera obscura, through film, all the way to videogames. Viewfinder is a game that clearly understands the magic underpinning that journey – we’ve come from photos that capture a 2D representation of a moment in time to fully realised, explorable digital spaces. The two media collide here in an extremely interesting way – this is a game about turning those 2D flat images into explorable digital spaces.
Viewfinderis is built around a singular, phenomenal mechanic – it features a set of puzzles that must be solved by stamping photos onto the world, so that the implied depth of the image is rendered into the level. Insert a photo of a bridge between two islands, for example, and you’ll be able to cross it. Take a photo of the battery you can’t reach, and then have it – and the room it was in – appear next to you. Your photos truly come to life: you choose where to place them in the environment, and they snap into place based on your perspective. Early on you’re limited to photos you find within the levels, but before too long you’re given a camera and allowed to take the photos yourself, trying to find the right angles and images to proceed.
As you go, additional complications are introduced, including sections of the environment that the camera can’t photograph and fixed-point cameras that indicate areas you should manipulate. Sometimes paintings and graphs can be brought to life too, and some levels use point-of-view perspectives to craft cool movement puzzles.
But the game is always at its best when you’re free to find angles, to point and snap, and to make your photos come to life. This photo mechanic never gets old, and although the puzzles in the game are not particularly complicated, solving them remains satisfying all the way through. This is the sort of game that will make you marvel at the obvious design challenges that must have been encountered making it – stamping a photo onto the world can destroy whatever was in area you were looking at previously, and although there’s a handy rewind feature to undo the damage you cause, it’s hard not to think about how difficult these mechanics must have been to design.
There are a few things holding Viewfinder back from being a proper masterpiece. There’s a running narrative throughout the game – you’re exploring a VR simulation that may contain the key to a world-saving weather machine – but it feels disconnected from the mechanics, and never blooms into anything particularly compelling. A strong story can dramatically elevate a game like this (think Portal), but in Viewfinder the story feels like it’s in the way. I also had a niggling feeling throughout the entire game that this extraordinary photograph mechanic was better than the game surrounding it – the linear puzzle levels with solutions are enjoyable, but perhaps there’s more that could be done here. If I am imprinting photographs onto the world, I want to be able to explore the world I’m changing more meaningfully. The game is short, and once you’ve finished all the levels there’s not much reason to keep playing.
Viewfinder is not a perfect puzzle game, but it is a potent example of the magic videogames can achieve when they let you do the impossible. When we think about technological progress in games, as in photography, we often think about things in terms of fidelity and speed – which can be exciting, but not in the same way it’s exciting to experience something truly new. Viewfinder’s photo-stamping mechanicsuggests that there are still new ways for the evolving technology of videogames to truly surprise us, to offer us something we’ve never seen before, to re-examine the world through a new lens.
Viewfinder is available now on PC and PS5. A PS5 review copy was provided for review.
James O’Connor has been reviewing and writing about games since 2008.