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I am old enough to remember a time when we had to wait days, if not weeks to see what we took pictures of. I had a 35mm Instamatic camera that required sticking a flash cube into the top. The film came in a cartridge that looked like the modern day equivalent of the voice mail symbol on your phone. You pointed, shot the picture, then had to manually advance the film by a dial on the top that clicked when in place. You got maybe 24 pictures and had to mail the film away to be processed unless you went to a Fotomat in the mall parking lot, which would still take days. There was no cloud. We didn’t have filters. We didn’t have ears and noses to stick on our faces. We didn’t even know if we blinked. It was all a mystery to be figured out weeks later. And we didn’t seem to mind. Nowadays, we have selfie sticks and Snapchats and Instagrams and weird shit that makes our faces look like fun house mirrors. And now we also take pictures in games.
Now, to be fair, taking a picture of your gameplay in a video game isn’t a new concept. Long before sharing or screenshotting became a thing, some games required you to send in proof that you accomplished some feat or achievement. Somewhere in a shoe box, is a blurry photo of my high score from Atari 2600 Decathlon, taken prior to 1984. Again, the ability for us to snap a perfectly framed, in focus, picture with 70s/80s photographic technology was very low and the game would have been turned off or the television would have been burned out before the developed photo ever came back. But if you were lucky to achieve something so grand as getting over 10,000 points in Decathlon or 20,000 points in Pitfall. Activision had this thing called Activison Patches which they would send to you in exchange for photographic proof that you finished or attained a particular score in one of their games. They were these sew on patches you could put on your jean jacket or backpack. The 80s equivalent to Xbox achievements or PS4 Trophies. But those were photos of you playing the game. Then, something happened. We added taking photos in the game.
Games like the Sims or Second Life took taking photos of your monitor or television and put the power of the photo op into the game. Minecraft gave players a screenshot feature so that they could share their epic builds or biggest fails with other players. And other games offered the feature as part of the basic settings, some tongue in cheek like GTA V, complete with selfie mode, filters and sharing capabilities. Others were more about sharing the environment like Uncharted 4. But, when you are immersed into a game like Uncharted or even GTA, having to stop and take time to set up a photo op to capture a moment seems counter intuitive to the game itself. When Uncharted 4 came out, it brought new gameplay features to the decade old franchise. The first and last title on the 8th generation console wanted to tout the advanced graphics of the PS4 with the opportunity for players to take a moment to stop and look around at their environment, snapping a picture and adding filters and other added effects. It’s a nice little thing to do but again, it takes away from the rough and tumble, puzzle solving action of the game. Cinematically, it was on par with the 2nd game which seamlessly blended cutscenes and in game action, but touting the newest bell and whistle brought to the table as being able to Instagram your treasure hunt buried my interest in the game.
But, that’s not to say that in game photography isn’t without merit. I mean, part of the initial gameplay of No Man’s Sky is to scan and observe your surroundings, discovering new species of flora and fauna. It only makes sense to enhance that initial offering by adding in the ability to put in documenting of your journey into the great wide open by taking some pics. After all, even though we’re unknown travelers, caught in some weird metaphysical, philosophical mind screw about will and destiny, we’re still tourists, exploring the universe.
The overall aesthetic of No Man’s Sky is based in that kitschy retro-futuristic science fiction art along the vein of Christopher Foss and Ralph McQuarrie. Those angles and flared pieces of architecture and the animals that look like they were placed in the Cantina scene, straight out of central casting from the Jim Henson’s creature workshop. Odd shaped necks and horns and flying fish dragons beg to be captured on film. Caves that resemble overgrown maws and throats, ready to devour you. The skyscape, streaked with jet comtrails from other travelers dividing the space from atmosphere. It all looks so pretty. And now, with multiplayer added, Hello Games has given players the ability to gesture in order to help you communicate… or perhaps pose for a selfie. Saying Thank you or Help or just sitting among the flowing stalks of grass as you contemplate your place in the whole story of Nada and Polo or Atlas. You thoughts flash towards the meaning of all this… hashtag pensive hashtag Thoughts before falling asleep.