Point and shoot: Hijacking virtual spaces with games photography

A carelessly-tossed Molotov has set Kyrat’s foliage ablaze. Mixed in amongst the crackle of flames are gun shots, getting louder and more frequent, but I’m paying them no attention. Two elephants have just sauntered out of the trees ahead. So, naturally, I’m crouched looking down the lens of Far Cry 4‘s in-game camera, waiting for the perfect moment to squeeze the screenshot button.

As the light hits the exquisite rough texture of the elephants’ hides, a tiger emerges from the treeline and, like a game of golf ruining a good walk, proceeds to tear me to shreds. But it doesn’t matter. I got the shot.

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(Above: Far Cry 4. Credit: Author)

Playing games this way – not for the advertised experience, but for the pictures I can get out of them – is a habit I picked up this year when an online sale furnished me with both a PS4 and DSLR camera. In the months since, I suspect I’ve actually taken more photos with the former than the latter.

You don’t need to look far online to realise that I’m not alone in this. Look at Dead End Thrills, a deep archive of gorgeously high-res screenshots taken by Duncan Harris, or Other Places, a video series by Andy Kelly filled with the kind of lingering aerials shots you’d expect to hear David Attenborough narrating over.

“I first did it with GTA V on the PS3 because they had the Snapmatic camera,” says Gary Dooton, a games photographer whose work has appeared on Vice and Midnight Resistance. “Seeing that there was so much attention to lighting actually working properly in the world, I thought: oh, I could just go and do a photoshoot in the game.

Dooton quickly encountered obstacles – any pics he took had to be shared through Rockstar’s Social Club, at a severely diminished resolution – but he wasn’t dissuaded. And as the tools on offer started to improve, he started to collect his pictures into photo essays on games as varied as Bloodborne and Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture.gary_dooton_everybodys_gone_to_the_rapture_2

(Above: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Credit: Gary Dooton)

For Dooton, like myself, the vital advance was the introduction of the PS4’s Share button, which puts the ability to take a screenshot front and centre on its controller. That’s just one of the many tools on offer to a budding games photographer, though, and the list is only getting longer.

In-game cameras are increasingly common, from GTA‘s Snapmatic to Firewatch‘s cardboard disposable camera to the selfie-ready picto box in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD. There are photo modes buried in the menus of Arkham Knight or The Last of Us that let players freeze the action and swivel the camera around freely in search of the perfect angle. PC chipmaker Nvidia recently unveiled Ansel, a game capture tool that promises to give players even more freedom in how they take their shots.

“Most photo modes in games are quite toy-like in function and output, and certainly not what a developer themselves would expect to use,” says Dead End Thrills’ Duncan Harris, who was brought in by Nvidia to advise on the Ansel project. “Any attempt to improve that situation and apply it to more games is worth pursuing.”

As you might be able to guess, Harris doesn’t rely on built-in tools for his shots. Instead, he plays around with the engines of games to create the right effect, a process that “can easily take 50-plus hours just to research and hack” for each game.

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(Above: The Witcher 3. Credit: Dead End Thrills)

If you don’t fancy meddling with games’ innards, though, there’s still great satisfaction to be had figuring out how to make a game work for you.

“I like working with limitations,” says Dooton. “There’s an analogue to real photography there. When you start out, you can’t always afford the best equipment, so you work with what you’ve got. If it’s too dark, you have to figure out how to solve that, whether by getting a friend to hold up a torch or a light on their phone or waiting till someone runs through a spotlight to take the right shot at the right time. And sometimes that creates more interesting unique photos.”

It’s the same story when you’re pushing against the grain of a game’s design. In games with a third-person camera, you have to work around their insistence on giving you a clear view of the character you’re controlling – useful in combat, but distracting if you’re trying to shoot a landscape. You’ll likely spend as much time crouching round a corner or walking face-first into a wall as lining up shots.

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(Above: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Credit: Gary Dooton)

Maybe that sounds like a nightmare to you, but maybe not. It depends on the kind of person – and videogame player – that you are. “In games, and in life as well, I’m just slightly stubborn,” admits Dooton. “I’ll want to do something or play something the wrong way, which is a bit of a perverse character trait of mine.”

It’s the same pleasure that I understand people get from parkour or graffiti. The joy of taking a space that’s been created for one purpose and, through your actions, turning it into something else entirely. And by breaking the rules, you can actually appreciate a game more fully.

The joy of taking a space that’s been created for one purpose and turning it into something else entirely.

“As a way of experiencing games, you could argue that screenshots are akin to ‘eating the whole cow’,” says Harris. “You’re not just speeding through them in an arbitrary way, but exploring every inch of the terrain, and the chemistry of individual effects and technologies. When you consider how much art and technology ships in a game, traditional gameplay is just a fraction of what’s actually there.”

Most games’ levels are designed to be a funnel, carrying the player from one place to the next as smoothly as possible. Taking the time to stop with your virtual camera changes the emphasis, from what you’re shown to what you can see. That should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever scrambled through foliage with a DSLR slung round their neck to get the perfect shot in real life.

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(Above: Dishonored. Credit: Dead End Thrills)

But how comparable are the two hobbies really? While Dooton, a portrait photographer in real life, believes that an understanding of the basics of photography – namely “lighting and composition and storytelling” – can be applied to games, Harris disagrees: “There are obvious similarities in terms of composition, but the challenge of finding the right subject and moment in real life is replaced in screenshots by the technical challenges of wrangling engines in ways that get results. I’d argue they’re more different than alike.”

While the nuts and bolts might be different, though, there is one thing that I think real-life and games photography undeniably have in common: the ability to make a moment last.

We are driven to collect objects that remind us of the places we’ve been. Souvenirs from holidays are, in many ways, akin to the achievements we get from completing certain tasks in games. They give us something to strive for but, looking back at them, they remind us of the moments we’ve had while playing. Photos are an extension of this – a more personalised way of creating something from a particular time and space.     

Firewatch took this idea to its logical extreme earlier this year, offering the ability to get your virtual photos developed and posted to you. But whether they’re printed out or Instagrammed to within an inch of their life, displayed in online galleries or just sitting on your hard-drive, the photos you take are a way of revisiting places you spent time in. Even if those places aren’t real.

Lead image: Mirror’s Edge. Credit: Dead End Thrills.

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