Howdy, Gameologiganders, and welcome to our weekly thread for the discussion of weekend plans and random gaming odds and ends. We implore you to share your gaming schemes and off-topic thoughts down in the comments. As for me, I’m not sure what I’ll be playing this weekend—probably some more Hearthstone and Bayonetta 2. I did want to talk about something I played this week, however, and that’s the early playable build of Lucas Pope’s Return Of The Obra Dinn. I wrote about the sneak peek a few days ago, but I avoided some key details so as not to ruin the surprise for anyone. I’m going to delve into those here, so if you haven’t played this free 15-minute demo and would like to experience it for yourself, I would suggest you grab it from itch.io before reading on.
There’s a feature in Return Of The Obra Dinn that, when I first read about its inclusion, seemed like an odd one. The game has a screengrab function built into it, triggered by hitting the “P” key. This isn’t the kind of game that I typically associate with screenshotting. It has abstract, black-and-white, “1-bit-inspired” graphics (as the developer describes it). The moments I tend to capture in games are either more traditionally photogenic or odd. I spent an inordinate amount of time, for example, composing snapshots in BioShock Infinite’s Columbia (you know, before its constant golden magic-hour lighting was replaced by a thick bloody haze) and recording bizarre glitches in Fallout 3. (If you’d like to see some crazy stuff, kill an enemy while “no clip mode” is turned on, a feat achieved by entering “tcl” into the console brought up by hitting the “~” key.) More recently, I relished the opportunity to return to the Washington, D.C. wastes and snap some pics of Megaton for our recent Special Topics In Gameology article on the town.
Obra Dinn doesn’t immediately present itself as the kind of game that plays into my (and I would assume most people’s) desire to capture a game’s sights. You’re just a dude on a boat. Everything is black and white and fuzzy. Then, you get this pocket watch with a skull on it. (The perfect present for the 19th-century goth kid in your life!) Turns out, it allows you to interface with a dead body’s past. You activate it near a skeleton and the moment of its former self’s death is recreated, frozen in time like a gory art installation. These violent scenes are carefully detailed and composed, with a playful use of space and lighting. What’s more, they capitalize on the game’s everything-is-made-of-dots art style, using individual, suspended pixels to craft the finer points of blood fountains and the fiery plume surrounding a recently discharged flintlock pistol. They’re dramatic and artful, and upon seeing them, I immediately understood why Obra Dinn has a screenshot function. At that point, I became the world’s luckiest crime-scene photographer, fluttering around the room, trying to capture these acts from the most cinematic angles possible.
I’m clearly not alone in this love of in-game photography, and I’m glad to see it’s becoming a more common feature. PC users have been able to easily take their own screenshots for many years. (Playing games on Steam made that easier than ever. Just press “F12.”) The PlayStation 4 has screenshotting built right into the system (although it compresses your images to hell and back), and it’s coming to the Xbox One at some still-unannounced point. Much like Obra Dinn, individual games have also been adding photography functions—Grand Theft Auto V, Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, InFamous: Second Son, and Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor among them.
These are not revolutionary additions, but they—along with a willing, keen eye—encourage us to slow down, explore, and appreciate the impossible spaces we inhabit in games. Art design, especially environmental design, so often goes underappreciated, but these are often wondrous sights, worthy of scrutiny and celebration. If, like me, you enjoy taking in-game photography, I’d love for you to share some of your favorite work down in the comments (along with your weekend plans, of course). And if you’d like to fill your day with some of the most beautiful screengrabs on the net, I’d suggest a trip to Dead End Thrills, where you can take in the work of Duncan Harris, a professional screenshot artist.