How can a camera change your view of the world? This is the fundamental question of photography, but also an increasing number of photocentric games, including the highly anticipated PS5 and PC road trip adventure season.
The season is part of a recent wave of games that are making photography their cornerstone, rather than a pinned bonus mode. Some, such as Umurangi generation, present the past as an urban art form, a tool to reclaim space through documentation. Others, like the classic Japanese horror game Fatal framework, use the camera as a weapon capable of dispelling demonic presences.
But as members of the season The development team told us in an exclusive interview that their game is different. It’s a quieter, more thoughtful title that rewards careful observation. And his virtual camera, which is rooted in the meditative charm of film photography, is intended to promote intimacy between the player and the environment.
An analogous approach
In the season Reveal trailer, we see a young protagonist cycling through a beautiful Studio Ghibli-esque world. “Our grandparents lived a thousand years and our parents had a century to themselves,” she says wistfully. “But we have a season.”
The world as she knows it is on the verge of collapse, and to make the most of the last few days, she sets out on a bike to capture its beauty. We catch a glimpse of a sketchbook full of drawings of a ruinous monument, a tape recorder that captures the delicate sound of a dragonfly’s wings, and most importantly a camera pointed at a glowing primate.
“Everything in the game is about what photography is about,” said Kevin Sullivan, creative director and author of Season. “What it means to take a picture, what it says about the photographer, the fact that we can freeze time in pictures, these incomplete glimpses of the past. It fits so much with the topics we want to show the player, ”he adds.
Season, developed by Montreal-based studio Scavengers, has been worked on in one role or another since 2016, when it was just an idea from Sullivan inspired by his travels in Southeast Asia. Before anything was programmed at all, he created video essays for the team and even a functional board game to demonstrate how it could work in practice.
Now that production of the game is in full swing, its form is a bit clearer. There’s a world to discover that’s full of people to talk to and of course a bike to get around. You can pull out your camera at various points to document your surroundings – animals certainly and panoramic views, but also architecture and graffiti, all of which give the place something special before the “mysterious catastrophe washes everything away”.
In fact, photography is in season has changed a lot since the first trailer for 2020. Camera enthusiasts may discover a machine that resembles a retro Bolex-style video camera (above), but this one has turned into a simpler movie camera, says Stephen Tucker, senior VFX artist.
What has not changed is the emphasis on the “older forms” of documentation. As an avid photographer, he mentions his own Polaroid camera, the pleasing artifacts of using vintage film with an analog camera, and the relative “lack of control” on offers. “You don’t have a zoom range of 10mm to 300mm or so,” he continues. “You need to be roughly where you need to be to take the photo you want.” Ultimately, the goal is to create a device that feels “structural”.
depth of field
Tucker isn’t the only photography enthusiast on the Season development team. Sullivan’s father was an aerial photographer, which meant that his family’s basement was essentially a giant darkroom. Then, in college, he took an interest in analog film processing while working on friends’ super 16 and 35mm film projects.
There’s also Irwin Chiu Hau, a 3D programmer at Season who once worked as a professional wedding photographer. He has his own collection of DSLRs and now makes landscape and macro photography a pleasure. The latter, essentially extreme close-ups, flows directly into Season. “There are many little things in the world to photograph,” says Chiu Hau temptingly.
But outside of real-world devices, previous video games have helped shape the season‘S Camera in the game.
Tucker points to the single-use camera from the 1980s that was used in the 2016 first-person drama Fire watch. In this game you can take photos of the beautiful Wyoming forest and mountains, which are shrouded in bright orange sun in different places. Another is the 2017 first-person adventure What remains of Edith Finch?, which provides players with an old school camera for the duration of a rainy hunting trip. “I love the feel of the cameras in these two games,” says Tucker.
Firewatch and what remains of Edith Finch? came before video game photography became really popular as an in-game mechanic. More recently, Mud life and the award-winning Umurangi generation have cast players as photographers in various cyberpunk futures. And just a few months ago, the cult classic Pokémon Snap celebrated its long-awaited return for players looking forward to carding their favorite make-up creatures.
There are also two titles on the horizon that promise to give the burgeoning micro-genre its own twist. Toem is a cute looking adventure with anthropomorphic characters while Martha is dead (above) leads the camera with its Italian horror story from the 1940s into generally more creepy terrain.
Photography as a mechanic is apparently in poor health, but none of these games offer the rousing, melancholy beauty of Season – the feeling that the present slips through our fingers and needs to be remembered in some way.
A change of focus
Regardless of the tone or mood, however, each of these games offers a way to interact with the world without blowing up it or its residents.
The camera can be a useful means of structuring the gaze – to give the simple act of looking a mechanical dimension for players who always want to do something.
Perhaps most importantly, as smartphones made the pastime popular, it’s intuitive for most people. In other words, everyone knows what to do. “The moment you take out a camera, you start composing,” says Chiu Hau, “you begin to frame the subject.”
While photography is increasingly being integrated into the gameplay of indie titles, for many blockbusters it exists as a stand-alone ‘Photo mode‘, separate from the game itself. All the player has to do is pause the action at a particularly captivating moment and start composing his shot.
In popular, eye-catching action titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, and The Last of Us Part II, there’s almost an entire post-production suite folded into its photo modes, from lighting to focus to field of view. Often times, there are options to change the environment, including the time of day, the weather, and even the actual props in the shot.
Although these tools are now flexible, they are part of a tradition that is almost as old as gaming itself – that of so-called “screenshotting”, the forerunner of modern video game photography.
During the pandemic, Tucker says he enjoyed blockbuster video games as a means of vicarious travel and photographed his way through their stories and worlds as if he were on one of his own adventure vacations.
The lush vegetation and the strikingly ruinous surroundings of The Last of Us Part II offered a worthy subject, so much so that he started printing out in-game photos from the Instax Mini Link.
For Sullivan, season has manifested in the real world in the difficult past eighteen months. “I rode my bike in Montreal and took photos to learn more about it,” he says. “I feel like there is a strange back and forth between the things we do to influence the game and the feeling of being influenced by the game itself – just with certain activities and attention. The season feels like it has flowed into my real life more than I expected when I started. “
Sullivan’s own experiences are exactly what makes Season and his in-game photography so appealing. Gamers looking for all the bells and whistles of “Photo Modes” may be disappointed, and those hoping for all of the controls on a modern DSLR will be disappointed.
However, anyone who wants to experience the emotional essence of photography, especially the simplicity and immediacy of an analog camera format, is well served here. By giving players a tool from the past, Season can provoke a whole new perspective on the world.