Indie Game of the Month – Umerangi Generation is an amazing video game photography experience

It’s interesting to think of how much video games depend on camerawork and yet rarely actually portray using a camera. Sure we sometimes have AAA games with a photo mode, specifically designed to allow you to gawk at their beautiful graphics, and every so often we will get a sidequest that involves you taking flat pictures of something.

We never actually consider what camerawork is all about. “Camera” in videogames usually just means a flat viewing window but cameras in real life are infinitely more complicated. There’s framing to consider, shot angles, lighting, focal points, different kinds of lenses, and much more. And look, I’m talking about this as someone who took a few photography classes and college and has a friend who won’t stop showing me his cool camera gear. I’m barely qualified to talk about camerawork, and even I know that the selfie mode in Breath of the Wild is a far cry from real photography.

Which is why I find Umerangi Generation so interesting. It’s a game that’s actually about photography. It’s a bit like Pokémon Snap, but not on rails. The basic concept is the same. You wander around different locales looking for photos of specific things and being graded on the quality of those photos. Better photos get you more cash and more cash gets you more gear. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The thing is, a lot of these photos and goals aren’t as simple as “get two things in frame.” In fact, many of these goals aren’t completable at all with the simple lens you have at the beginning of the game.  You’ll eventually have to spend money to upgrade your gear, which lets you take more complex pictures. Maybe you’ll want to use a fish-eye lens to get a wide shot with an up-close focus. Or maybe you just have to adjust the focal point to make sure that your subject is really the hallmark of your picture.

Or maybe it’s not your gear. Maybe it’s the shot. Throughout Umerangi Generation you will find yourself climbing up buildings, jumping over barricades, and squeezing yourself into tight spaces just to get the right shot, and this is one of Umerangi Generation’s most interesting quirks of gameplay.

You see, Umerangi Generation is an atmospheric game. Its narrative isn’t exactly spoonfed to you. In fact, it’s barely told to you at all. Instead, it’s something you discover. It’s actually rather poignant considering the civil unrest we are currently going through. Umerangi Generation tells a tale of a society that’s broken down, an oppressive government, and a people that are fighting back, and it does it all through atmosphere. It’s dark stuff, especially for the light and stylized graphical style.

There are really two ways to play Umerangi Generation. You can either wander around, soaking in the environment, trying to get the best shot possible, and unfolding the story. Or you can speedrun it. This isn’t just advice. Several missions are timed and ask you to complete your goals as quickly as possible, and you look at the game very differently when you play it this way.

You have to plan effective routes through your environment to get the best shot as quickly as possible. You have to change your gear along the way. You have to make sure you get everything in one shot, because repositioning is going to cost you precious seconds. I can’t want to see this run at a GDQ.

The only issue I have with Umerangi Generation is that the environments don’t change a lot. Yes, there are people in it, doing small actions, but for the most part, you are an observer in a kind of shadowbox. Time doesn’t really pass in any meaningful way other than for completion of some goals. You don’t have to go to a certain place at a certain time to photograph a fight between a person and a guard, for example. It would have been nice to see them toy with this mechanic a little bit. After all, Pokémon Snap did.

But otherwise, I really found Umerangi Generation to be an amazing experimental practice in video game photography, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other photographic skills and concepts that Umerangi Generation doesn’t play with, like f-stop, and it’d be interesting to see it fool around with this in an update or sequel. Either way, it’s $15 for a truly unique experience, and that’s enough to give it indie of the month in my book.