Photographs Is A Clever Puzzle Game With A Disturbing, Misguided Story

Screenshot: EightyEight Games

For the first two hours I spent with it, Photographs came close to being one of my favourite puzzle games of the year. It was everything I could want: Aesthetically beguiling, with a surprising story and puzzles that offered the perfect amount of challenge. Then the story took a turn that was so screwed up that it soured me on the entire game in seconds.

Photographs is a collection of five short stories to be played through in order, each with their own kind of puzzle game elegantly themed to match the corresponding narrative.

“The Alchemist” tells a story about a man who lives alone with his daughter in the woods, selling cures out of his home. You guide figures representing the Alchemist and his daughter through a garden that becomes more dangerous as the little girl falls ill.

In “The Preventer”, a young woman at a school for wizards who toys with time to prevent disaster falls in love, and in her story you play match-3 puzzles as she learns the work — and danger — of using magic to save people.

Another story, “The Journalist”, tells a generational tale of a man who started a newspaper, and his grandson’s efforts to keep it afloat.

For this story, the puzzles are all mazes that require the player to trace a path from one point to another. As the story progresses, the puzzles get harder as more hazards get introduced, such as erasers that follow preset routes and will erase the line you’re drawing, forcing you to go back.

Image: EightyEight Games

Details big and small give these puzzles character. To continue using “The Journalist” as an example, the mazes are all styled to look like the front page of a newspaper, and the line you are drawing is traced by an on-screen ballpoint pen. As you move your line through the maze, the date on the front page ticks up rapidly, conveying the passage of time.

The visual economy and spare storytelling at work in Photographs is tremendous, and extends through the narrative parts of its short stories, which are conveyed in first-person narration by their protagonists while an ever-changing diorama appears on-screen.

So, in our example level, you see the modest newspaper building as desks are added, floors are rented out, and technology changes with the times.

Paying attention to the diorama is also how you advance the story: In the narrative portions of Photographs, you have a camera that you peer through by touching or clicking on the screen; across the bottom of the viewfinder you’ll see a clue indicating where you should focus in order to snap a photo and continue the story with another puzzle.

When all of this comes together, Photographs feels really special — such as in its first story, about a man’s desperate struggle to save his daughter from an unknown illness.

There’s so much to appreciate: The lovely art, the tender score, the clever twists in the puzzles, which involve navigating a garden with increasingly complex hazards. It all feels considered, like there isn’t a single extraneous pixel.

Were it not for what happened at the end of “The Journalist”, I would have recommended Photographs to anyone expecting something unusual and sad with an aesthetic largely used for what you might call “indie game whimsy”.

However, in its final two hours, Photographs became something else entirely to me — misguided in its ambition, and perhaps even reckless. It wanted to tell me a tragedy, but I doubt the one I walked away with was what it intended. It’s a shame that the stories Photographs tells take such an alarming left turn that’s hard to get past.

“The Journalist” is a straightforward enough tale at first, but this is a game about details, and the details in this story might make you raise an eyebrow.

The grandfather names his paper The Uplift and the narrator, his grandson, talks about the paper’s mission to tell “good news”. Since “The Journalist” is the fourth of the game’s five stories, at this point in the game you’ll have a solid grasp of the game’s dramatic leanings, and guess where it’s going.

Screenshot: App Unwrapper/EightyEight Games, YouTube

As the years go by, readers start to lose interest in The Uplift, and instead are drawn to a new paper, The Daily Hate, which shamelessly chases readers with mean-spirited bad news and vapid gossip. The Daily Hate is so successful that The Uplift cannot compete, and the journalist has to fire some employees.

Later, “tired of firing people”, he sells Uplift to Daily Hate. “I wasn’t thinking about the effect we were having on the world,” he says. Later, we see a picture of one of the fired employees, a man wearing a prominent red baseball cap, reading Daily Hate and getting angry.

Shortly afterwards, the man visits The Uplift’s office, which now belongs to The Daily Hate, and sets off two bombs inside it.

The static diorama immediately before this moment suggests the office is nearly empty, although the narration is dire. From what we can see, there’s a woman on the very top floor working. Below that, the protagonist seems to be alone with the bomber, after retreating to contemplate his regrets.

“I made the world a worse place,” he laments as the bomber comes up to confront him after placing the explosives one floor down. “I doomed all my employees,” he says, just before the bombs go off.

This is all, Photographs unambiguously argues, the journalist’s fault for selling his paper to The Daily Hate, and the Daily Hate’s fault for publishing mean news.

You might think that this is nitpicking at a story that offends me because I am a journalist and predisposed to finding this kind of story offensive. The problem, however, isn’t just with “The Journalist”, but the way its ending brings the central worldview of all of its stories into sharper focus.

The chief lament of all the characters in Photographs seems to be “if only”. If only they had been more careful, or not looked somewhere they shouldn’t have been looking, or paid more attention to the impact they were having on the world around them.

On their face, stories that advocate for empathy and personal responsibility — even stories that use uncomfortable and arresting means to do so — are a good thing.

However, they’re only as good as the context they’re placed in, and the narrow scope of Photographs makes its arguments seem less like a call for empathy nestled in a tale of regret, and more like cloying admonishment, creating a victim willing to accept blame for the crimes of their killer.


Comments

    So the author doesn't like it because it demonstrates that sometimes those in the media have to share responsibility for how their reporting affects people's judgement, thoughts, and lives. In today's highly polarised and politicised media landscape, journalists absolutely should be mindful and held to account for what they push when they 'report' on things - even more so for opinion pieces.

      Well said. From memory we work in fields where we make decisions that will define people's futures. Imagine if we didn't have to take responsibility for those decisions!

    While I get the point your making, we live in a time of unrealistic ideologies thrust unnaturally upon us by politicians, corporations and yes, the media.
    It is a time of propaganda, of ignorance and as I've said here plenty of times, an agenda driven post truth era where people flock to the "truth" they want to hear above facts and reason. (No "side" is innocent in this)
    The world is not black and white, it's not left or right and it's not easy to simply place blame when those very dynamics are force fed down the throats of a scared society that looks only to blame and never take responsibility itself.

    Clearly the killer is to blame, but do you honestly not see how somebody who has such an impact on how people think wouldn't find themselves feeling guilt?
    Doesn't mean they are to blame, it just means they are human and at least willing to stop pointing fingers for a second and reflect.

    The author seems to have a narrow view of what the story was trying to convey. If you put aside the obvious commentary on journalism today and it's love of pushing an agenda for the clicks, it's also a familiar story about the consequences of pushing aside your integrity and lowering yourself to someone else's standards.

    Not only that, it's also asking who is to blame when someone else does something bad. Did the protagonist really make the world a worse place or was it an inevitability of reality? If they let their company die would it have changed anything? There's always going to be another "Daily Hate", another person who feels that the world has a personal grudge against them and they need to punish everyone. For all he knew, it would have just been someone else ending up the victim.

    Yes, the protagonist blames himself but that's just another facet of the story. We all do things we regret, but it's what comes out of that that the story looks at. It's two sides of the same coin staring each other in the face at the very end. You have the protagonist regretting his actions and blaming himself for the consequences, and you have the bomber, blaming everyone else but himself for his actions and their consequences.

    You might think that this is nitpicking at a story that offends me because I am a journalist and predisposed to finding this kind of story offensive.

    I don't just think this, I believe it! Journalists should be held accountable for the articles they produce. An example of this is that Covington kid who is now suing because no one actually researched the incident before taking a vjdeo at face value and it turned out it wasn't as originally reported.

    But it started a conversation and that's what really matters...

    Journalists should absolutely take responsibility for what they put out into the world, as well as how they do it. Let's be honest now, asking that little of people who call themselves journalists is being extremely generous given how many of them will immediately jump to condemn others based on accusations and nothing more.

    I actually think in a lot of cases there should be severe legal ramifications for spreading false and/or even simply misleading information in the case of news.

    In such a position if they don't actually know what you're spreading as news is accurate and verifiable, then they're really no better than the Youtube news channels the fancy pants 'professional journalists' love to look down on.

    Huh. Weird flex but OK.
    I didn't get that out of it at all. Just that people who are victims of tragedy outside of their control will - unfairly, incorrectly - blame themselves.

    Off-topic from the hand-wringing about interpretation of the final vignette:

    One of the little touches I loved about the puzzles in the Alchemist is that the the maze-puzzle where little girl and old man move as one overwhelmingly requires that the old man moves around the board in such a way that the little girl gets placed in safety first, taking care of himself after. If you take the simplest route to place the old man in safety first, it usually becomes impossible to get the little girl slotted in her spot. It was a nice touch. Message through mechanics.

    The chief lament of all the characters in Photographs seems to be “if only”.Isn't that literally what "lament" means? To express regret? To think "If only I did things differently"?

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