Most photographers ply their trade by capturing snapshots of reality and preserving them on film. Through careful framing, posing and a bit of luck, they seek to distill the essence of foreign lands, exotic vistas, war zones and even distant planets.
But what about the places we visit in video games? Games contain striking panoramas, impossible vistas and dramatic action, all of which a properly-equipped documentarian could theoretically capture with a flexibility that would make any real-world photographer green with envy. From machinima filmmakers to in-game photojournalists, a certain subset of gamer steps outside of the prescribed video game experience with an eye towards documentation.
Duncan Harris, the Chippenham, England-based games journalist who operates the website DeadEndThrills, is one such video game photographer. (In his twitter bio, he cheekily refers to himself as a "Videogame Pornographer.") DeadEndThrills presents a regularly updated collection of breathtaking screenshots (and I don't use that term lightly — this is some seriously beautiful stuff). Each one has been painstakingly captured from within heavily-modded PC versions of popular games; some of my favourites are in this post. Kotaku has shared several of his recent, hugely popular Skyrim shots, and his site has become a go-to destination for those searching for lovingly-crafted video game renditions and desktop backgrounds. Earlier this week, I chatted with Harris about his process and philosophy.
"I think what it boils down to is that there's just an awful lot of dumb shit in video games," he told me in an email, "much of it by necessity, underneath and between which is some truly stupendous art. We know, or at the very least suspect that it's there, but as players it's impossible to know its extent. A really bad analogy would be something like Mount Rushmore. An incredible and iconic feat of construction, a really commanding spectacle — but have you ever actually been there? The observation point's miles away! But then you watch North By Northwest or buy a postcard and it's magnificent again."
In addition to that, there's the distraction of the game itself. "Imagine the view from the Mount Rushmore lookout post," he said, "and put a man in fancy dress in front of it tea-bagging a mannequin, reading lines from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace like they were Shakespeare.".
At DeadEndThrills, Harris is very open about his process, which generally involves tweaking a game's PC build with a number of mods like FXAA injectors, texture enhancements and increased field-of-view. He often uses what's called a "debug camera," which untethers the in-game viewpoint from its usual place behind the protagonist (or within the protagonist's eyes) and lets him position it wherever he wants. Often, these tweaks will make the games unplayable — Skyrim normally lowers the quality of its far-off textures, but with a number of adjustments, Harris is able to push the game far past its normal stability point. Running with such huge swathes of the world fully loaded means that the game will frequently crash, but not before he's able to snag a couple of truly epic shots.
Harris says that stripping away the video game noise and distraction is the easy part. "Where things get fun is when you start tapping into what makes photography so interesting," he said, "like how you can create or embellish the narrative of a scene. What I want to do in Skyrim, for example, is stand on top of the tallest mountain in the driving snow, an epic vista in the background, going one-on-one with a dragon, fending off its fiery breath with one hand. Everyone who plays Skyrim has that image in their head of Gandalf versus the Balrog from the Lord of the Rings movies — the fire, the snowstorm, the widescreen landscapes."
"That happens in a regular Skyrim game, but not in any cinematic capacity. Skyrim doesn't really let me appreciate that I'm doing those things at all. I'm not facing the epic vista, I'm taking stupid amounts of damage from the flames in my face, I'm probably going to fall off the mountain and there's always the chance the dragon will fly backwards. Only in the screenshot can I really do those incredible things, then share them with the community because that's what those games are really all about. They're about saying, 'Look how fucking bad-arse I was today.' They're about pretending, one way or another."
Of course, video game screenshots are nothing new — we see promotional shots posted at gaming sites like this one every day. They're often released by companies as part of a game's pre-release campaign, and they are carefully chosen to show a game in its most flattering light. (Ubisoft, in particular, releases some exceptional screenshots for its Assassin's Creed games). But Harris is doing something different — in a great shot from Bulletstorm (above) that Harris calls "Crank", the character Trishka drops her boot into the side of a guy's head.
In the image's caption, Harris writes:
The problem with most official game screenshots is that the people taking them regard 95 per cent of the job as being more like five per cent. Getting Girl A to kick Bloke B in the chops is the hard part, right? Erm... actually, the hard parts of a shot like this include: getting the right ratio of light and shadow on both characters to flatter the models and make them foremost in the scene; spacing girl, bloke and muzzle flash in such a way as to balance everything from left to right; getting the muzzle flash 'right' (if a bit lo-res); making sure the foot isn't clipping through the neck, or the fingers through the gun; using foreground particles and background fog to convey 3D space; having the guy actually look like he's being kicked in that special place where Brock Lesnar tickled Randy Couture. A good screenshot, like a memory, is a liar by omission. I almost got this one right.
That caption gives a good sense of Harris's approach — focused and thoughtful, with a photographer's eye and a modder's gift for tweaking. I've been trying to put my finger on why Harris's screenshots, particularly his Skyrim shots, are so evocative. The biggest difference between what he's doing and the work of a National Geographic photographer is that every scene that Harris catalogues is a scene that any of us — anyone with a computer or game console can theoretically relive. He gives us a beautiful, carefully composed perspective on the same things we do every time we play games, and that allows us to see our gaming experiences in a welcome new light.
As he puts it: "I suppose it's like being handed a postcard of a place you've never seen photographed. If the only concept of a place you have is the view from the ground — from your own eyes — seeing it with those constraints removed can be pretty mindblowing."
It sure can.
DeadEndThrills [Duncan Harris]