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How some indies are approaching photography mechanics in their games

How some indies are approaching photography mechanics in their games

April 2, 2021 | By Jack Yarwood

April 2, 2021 | By Jack Yarwood
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Art, Design



Photography games have had a huge resurgence over the last decade: from adventure games like Beasts of Maravilla Island, and Alba: a Wildlife Adventure, to sci-fi dystopias like Cellular Harvest and Umurangi Generation.

The majority of these games feature photography as a diegetic element within the world, letting you document aspects of your environment with either a smartphone or DSLR. But while the goal of these mechanics is typically the same -- to capture the freedom and creativity of real-world photography -- the way these games implement these cameras varies significantly. 

Some games, for instance, opt for a simpler approach that treats the camera primarily as a scanner to identify and document creatures. Meanwhile, others offer a greater variety and depth, giving you a finer mastery over your photography.

We interviewed several indie developers who are using Unity to create their own photography games. They told us more about their influences, the techniques they used, and the challenges they had to overcome.  

Where The Wild Things Are

The creative director of Beasts of Maravilla Island, Michelle Olson, first came up with the idea to develop a 3D photography game after daydreaming on a trip to Norway. While looking at a beautiful lake, she imagined what she would do if a monster were to breach the surface of the water and realized that she’d probably instinctively reach for a camera in order to take a picture.

Returning home, she realized this could form the basis for an interesting video game idea -- one where you would explore an island and take pictures of mythical creatures as a young wildlife photographer. This idea soon became Beasts of Maravilla Island -- a title which began life as a University of Southern California advanced game project before transforming into a commercial venture, with backing of publisher Whitethorn Games.

“I wanted to see how we could remix [the Pokémon Snap] formula to author more moments of wonder,” says Olson. “To try and capture that silly monster anecdote. We also really wanted to create a game that felt peaceful and respectful to the environment you’re in. Because even though we love Pokémon Snap, it’s not good to throw noxious gas balls at wild animals; it’s not even good to throw food at wild animals.”

Before hiring engineers, Olson originally worked on the camera system by herself with the help of the Unity forums. These forums taught her how to capture a rendered texture from the screen and write that to a raw image that she could then display onscreen as a photograph.

Rather than attempting to score the photos players take, the developers on the game instead task them with locating and identifying 60 creatures spread across the island. Progression therefore is not based on some subjective criteria but on the objective task of collecting photographs. Once players take a picture, they can view images inside an item called the photobook. One of the big challenges they found with this approach was how to weight detection in photos with several animals.

As Olson explains, “If you’re trying to take a photo of one thing and then in the background some banana birds decide to fly [past], how do we create a hierarchy of things to actually anticipate what the player is actually trying to take a picture of? A lot of it was just observing playtests/playing the game ourselves, and iterating on what the weight of those detection values felt like. If we found that when we were trying to take a photo of a bird, and it kept detecting the plants around it instead, then that was a good sign that we needed to tweak [some] values!”

The outcome of this approach is that it leans heavily on the player’s intrinsic motivation to take beautiful photos. Players are encouraged to take multiple photos of each creature, not to hit an arbitrary points threshold, but to better decorate their photobook with enticing images. So far, this approach has worked.

Birdwatching

UsTwo Games’ Alba: a Wildlife Adventure is similar in a lot of ways to Beasts of Maravilla Island. Both games are 3D adventures that put an emphasis on exploration and the natural environment. In Alba, you control the titular character, as she explores a Mediterranean island taking photographs of the local wildlife with her smartphone and cleaning up the environment. 

According to Manesh Mistry, lead programmer on Alba: a Wildlife Adventure, the idea originally came from the childhood experiences of the director David Fernández Huerta and programmer Kirsty Keatch, both of whom grew up around the Mediterranean. 

Together Huerta and Keatch had worked together on the initial prototype for mobile devices. This early version of the game had the player using a camera, as opposed to a smartphone. The decision to change this came later with the developers realizing more people are familiar with using a smartphone to take pictures than they were using a DSLR. It also fit in perfectly with a key feature from the prototype – the ability to turn your device on its side and start taking photos in first-person. 

“I think that was one of the most magical moments of the initial prototype,” says Mistry. “And it’s one of the main reasons that’s stayed right through to the end. It’s something people know how to do now. You can just point your phone around at something and you understand you can take a picture of it.”

But this presented problems. The first of these was how to transition smoothly between the third-person and first-person view. For this, they used Cinemachine for Unity – a suite of camera tools that give you greater control over dynamic cameras. This is a tool also used on Beasts of Maravilla Island for the same purpose. As for the view on Alba’s smartphone, that is simply the standard Unity camera rendered to a RenderTexture and nested inside a World Space UI Canvas. This is then placed in the right place on the mesh for Alba’s phone. 

Having two cameras rendering the world at the same time, however, proved problematic for performance. “It was really most evident on the lowest end devices,” says Mistry. “For those, we get around this by capturing a cubemap of the surrounding area, applying some blur to it and then rendering it by itself as a skybox for the environment. This means that the vast majority of rendering effort for that frame is done for Alba's phone screen, with only a fake cubemap skybox behind it!”

According to Mistry, the solution they came up with isn’t necessarily 100% effective as it is still only a static skybox. For instance, if an animal were to fly out of shot, you won’t necessarily see that reflected in the real world surrounding the camera as it will remain static. Nevertheless, it achieved the effect they were going for.

Cellular Harvest 

Compared to the previous games mentioned, Redact Games’ Cellular Harvest makes for a somewhat dramatic contrast; at least, thematically. It has you playing as a photographer in the employ of a corporation that wants to exploit and harvest the animals you’re identifying and taking pictures of. 

You’ll explore a strange alien world from the first-person perspective and will have to take multiple photographs of different species, in order to gather more information about their possible applications back home. The game developer Nate Berens and narrative designer Xalavier Nelson Jr. are the ones responsible for this sinister take on the genre, with the project initially starting production as a chill exploration game before taking on a more menacing subtext. 

According to Berens, he didn’t want this unique approach to be a shocking third-act twist, but instead wanted the players to be constantly reminded of what they were doing and why. As a result, whenever you take a photograph of a specimen, an AI will communicate further information to the player on behalf of your employers.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about The Last of Us and other games that are like ‘Don’t you feel really bad about the thing we made you do’. So it was intentional on our part that we were like we’re going to tell you up front what the situation is, we’re going to let you do it, and then let you think about it.”

As for the photography mechanic itself, it is fairly simple. There were essentially two separate processes involved, according to Berens, with the first being to take a portion of the camera's view and convert it into a 2D bitmap texture before saving it. The next part meanwhile was about finding all objects tagged 'photographable' in the camera's viewfinder frustum, checking for line of sight to them, and then looping through one by one to check to see if they had already been photographed. 

“Our challenge was in evoking something a little bit bigger than it actually is,” says Berens. “The whole thing was made in like three months, which is a very quick turnaround for a game. There’s a version of this game that…wouldn’t have been out for another three years, where it does have more AI elements, more interaction between the creatures, multiple biomes, and I would have loved to do that. But we were like we want to try and hit this vibe more than anything.”

Post-processing

Cellular Harvest isn’t alone in its subversion of the genre’s more wholesome expectations. Origame Digital’s Umurangi Generation (‘umurangi’ being the Te Reo Maori word for ‘red sky’) is another fine example of this. Primarily the work of New Zealand game developer Naphtali Faulkner (better known by his screen name Veselekov), the game is set against the background of an impending crisis, which serves as an allegory for the devastating 2019/2020 bushfires in Australia.

According to Faulkner, the idea to make a photography game originally came out of his experiences of teaching his little cousin how to take photos on a DSLR. As he explains, “What ended up happening was I was showing him how to use my DLSR camera and I ended up explaining it to him like a video game tutorial...So it didn’t necessarily come out of [other] video game photography stuff.”

At its root, Umurangi Generation is a series of scavenger hunts spread across different locations and events that take place before, during, and after a calamity. Upon starting each stage, your employers at the Tauranga Express will give you a checklist of prompts for the photos you need to take; this could be anything from taking a picture of some graffiti in the environment to photographing several spray cans. You’re then free to approach these however you want, with the open design of the environments typically allowing for more than one solution. 

One of the big differences seen in Umurangi Generation compared to the other games is the number of options for taking and editing photos. Not only can players switch their lenses, but after snapping a photo they are able to edit their shots, changing the hue, bloom, and exposure, among other things. How this editing is achieved is that the game allows players to take advantage of Unity’s post processing stack, altering values with a set of sliders.

“To understand what this is, all modern games have one usually built into the ground floor or the engine,” says Faulkner. “With Umurangi Generation we gave players direct access to a range of these modifiers and let them go quite extreme with them. The trade-off is some players may take a photo of the ground and under expose it to make it completely black but others will use this range to shoot a photo and have that extended range and create some really awesome stuff.”

To alleviate this problem, Faulkner chose not to let players have all these options from the outset. After completing each stage, players will unlock a new ability to expand their vocabulary. The objectives in the next mission then lean into this unlock, to encourage the player to experiment. 

However, there was also another issue. Unlike these other games, Umurangi Generation has a grading system, which meant having to come up with a specific set of criteria that wouldn’t stifle player creativity.  The solution Faulkner came up with was to judge photos based on three criteria – color, content, and composition – with those criteria automatically adapting if the player wants to take a moodier photo or a more saturated image. Judging from the variety in the photography being posted by the game’s community, arguably they succeeded. 

Right now, photography games are arguably enjoying a boom period. Developers are taking advantage of the increased accessibility of tools, to experiment with and develop the format from the on-rail experience of games like Pokémon Snap. These are just a small sample of the games being developed too, with countless other developers also having to overcome the same obstacles to place a camera in the player’s hands.



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