The desire to take screenshots is as old as video games. It’s the urge to create something permanent and static from an art form that’s often ephemeral and kinetic. And while there’s an admirable lo-fi quality to the old “take a Polaroid of yourself next to the high-score screen” method, a number of games have gone a step further and woven photography into the play itself. BioShock does so by way of the Research Camera, a box camera that resembles Kodak’s classic Brownie Hawkeye model. While your snapshots are ostensibly intended for research on the violent denizens of BioShock’s underwater dystopia, the game’s scoring system betrays the real aim: to capture cheap thrills, obviously. Take a picture of a genetically mangled Splicer after you’ve laid him to waste, and you’ll never get anything better than a “C” grade for your efforts—no matter how scientifically useful that corpse might seem. But snap that same Splicer while he’s very much alive, and lunging at you with steel hooks? That’s grade-A material.
As the ultimate high-school-delinquent simulator, Rockstar’s Bully went all out in populating its curriculum with the sort of easy-A electives that hooligans cherish. So of course photography was one of those classes, and one the game treated with the apathy of a teacher who has spent the last 20 years grading close-ups of camera straps and thumbs. Just like real life, taking a photo of the correct thing and getting it reasonably in frame was all that was necessary to pass, allowing you to get back to the hoodlum’s real business of finding the best hiding spots in the girl’s dorm and calculating optimal lawn-mowing paths.
3-4. The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker
The developers of these Zelda games likely introduced the Pictograph Box—a camera that can only hold one photo at a time in Majora’s Mask and three in Wind Waker—so you had no choice but to appreciate the fine work of their graphics department. In Majora’s Mask, Link receives his camera before taking a boat cruise through a swamp, and the vendor instructs Link to photograph “something special” during his ride. Aside from colorful plant life and occasional monkey, Link is forced to home in on small details during his trip: the way the purple poisonous water lights up the night sky, or a tiny smiling frog bouncing on a log. The Pictograph challenge happens early in the game, opening your eyes to the world’s various shades, even when the moon is moments from crashing to the ground and destroying everyone.
The Wind Waker’s Pictobox challenges are focused on the people who inhabit the game’s many islands. For example, you have to photograph “two secret lovers exchanging glances,” which happens just once a day as two townsfolk “happen” to walk by one another, and only for a fleeting moment. In another, you must photograph someone mailing unwanted love letters, forcing you to camp out near a mailbox hoping to catch someone’s secret shame-face. It’s one of the pervier aspects of a Zelda game.
5. Dead Rising
Frank West lays out his photojournalist cred in Dead Rising’s first few seconds as he snaps shots of the zombie outbreak in Willamete, Colorado. Zombies? Whatever. The guy has covered wars. Then he drops inside a shopping mall and runs around in his underpants, hitting the dead with golf clubs and loaves of bread. Dead Rising typically leans towards the silly when striking its trademark blend of terror and comedy, but your role as photographer is an even mix of both. The game doles out experience points for photos that fall into five categories. “Horror” has you snapping picks of encroaching mobs, for instance, while “brutality” calls for a grisly death scene. The barrier of the camera, forcing you to focus, makes these scenes resonate. Then there’s “outtakes” and “erotica.” Want outtake and erotica points? Put a big yellow servbot mask on a zombie and then get a shot of its crotch.
6. Beyond Good & Evil
Michael Ancel’s Beyond Good & Evil has its share of violence, but almost everything you do as protagonist Jade is done for the common good, and the most change is affected through her camera. Jade’s a selfless gal, running an orphanage for children whose parents were kidnapped by the alien DomZ (the game’s chief bad guys), and she works as a photographer to support it. Her two primary gigs are both dangerous and civil-minded. The first is conservation work: You compile a wildlife photo census, ferreting out rare bugs and snapping pics of awesome creatures like a mythic space whale. Then there’s Jade’s main job, putting together splashy photographic features for the revolutionary IRIS network. Most of the game’s central missions see you infiltrating facilities run by a private military contractor to get photographic evidence of their collusion with the DomZ. Many games would simply have you bash the monsters on the head, but here your job is to expose them to the people.
7. Mass Effect 3
In Mass Effect, the debut of BioWare’s epic sci-fi series, punching a reporter for her “snide insinuations” is often the extent of your galactic media outreach. In Mass Effect 2, perhaps suffering from brain damage brought on by that savage right cross, the same reporter again goads you into a potentially violent rage. The third installment, though, requires hero Commander Shepard to forge alliances among the different alien species of the galaxy. This necessitates propaganda efforts that go beyond fisticuffs with mouthy journalists (although that’s still an option). One mission, offered by a hapless war documentarian, tasks the Commander with acquiring footage of sad-faced refugees living in space’s biggest shanty town. This isn’t about composing the shots, given that you don’t even have a camera. (You’re supposedly filming with the futuristic-Swiss-army-knife “omni-tool” strapped to your arm.) Instead, it’s about finding suitable subjects that will tug at the audience’s heartstrings and pursestrings. Footage of an armor-clad Turian getting a candy bar from a vending machine isn’t going to cut it. Fortunately, there are plenty of miserable, nomadic aliens strewn about the dock in various states of misery and decrepitude. Giving these planet-less ragamuffins a few moments of screen time will have those war bonds selling like hotcakes.
8-10. Skate series
There’s a moment in Super Mario 64 when a stroll past a mirror reveals that all of Mario’s moves are being filmed. The cameraman is Lakitu, one of those bespectacled turtles that float on a cloud. The Skate series is one of the few other instances of game makers contriving a backstory for the ever-present virtual “camera” that follows the player’s actions in any game. In the first two entries of the skateboarding series, that unseen but frequently heard cameraman is Giovanni Reda, a real-world skate filmer. Reda is replaced by the fictional, less talkative Shingo in Skate 3. But their purpose is the same: to constantly capture footage that can be edited down and shared on the web. A number of skater games have featured missions that challenge the player to make it into the pages of Thrasher of Transworld, as the skateboarding subculture long relied on magazines and low-budget videos to capture amazing feats and create stars. But Skate tapped into that impulse and created, if only momentarily, a vibrant online community where pretending to skateboard felt almost as cool as actually kicking a board around.
11. The Amazon Trail
The success of edu-tainment classic The Oregon Trail inspired developer MECC to create a spinoff that taught kids about saving the rainforest and the history of Western colonization. While you and your native guide can be injured, get sick, or lose supplies to hazards, The Amazon Trail is far less brutal than its progenitor, which may be why it’s faded into relative obscurity. Rather than focus on base survival, the game puts you in the shoes of a naturalist. You collect and identify photos of all the plants and animals you encounter along your journey. The more complete your album, the better your final score. Players can also chat with Henry Ford and go spear fishing, but the main takeaway is that you’ll know what an ocelot is and why it’s endangered.
12. Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Nathan Drake always has the answer. While his fortune-hunting buddies Sully and Elena ponder a confounding Persian obelisk, Drake’s all too happy to say, “Aha! It’s referring to Prince Akbar’s lost caravan of mystic spices—I have a photo of the relevant charcoal rubbings right here in my diary.” When did Drake ever find the time to compile that waterproof, bulletproof, seemingly omniscient tome? Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the PlayStation Vita prequel to Drake’s many adventures, makes scrapbooking part of the game, as you gather photos of ancient architecture and forgotten mysteries into Drake’s diary. Being a Vita game, the photography involves some tactile delights: You move the device around to frame your shot and zoom in by sliding your finger over the unit’s rear touchscreen. There’s not much challenge, since the game shows you precisely what to photograph ahead of time, but the notion of Drake lining up a snapshot like a mere tourist does give the impossibly heroic character a refreshing air of humanity.
13. Yakuza 3
Kazuma Kiryu is a man out of time. It’s part of what makes the Japanese mobster so likable as the protagonist of the Yakuza series. Kazuma’s anachronistic sensibilities also provide comic relief when he bumps up against something modern. Photoblogging, for example. In Yakuza 3, Kaz meets a young photog named Mack who teaches him about “revelations.” People are strange and wonderful, says Mack, so keep your cell phone handy to photograph their lives and blog about it—you’ll learn something about yourself in the process. A nice thought, but in practice, these revelations aren’t so profound. When Mack tips you off to a promising photo subject, you just show up to the prescribed place and respond to button-press prompts as a miniature skit plays out. Then comes the life lesson. What does Kazuma learn when he captures a guy taking a hit in the jewels at the Kamurocho batting cages? He learns a ground roll, testicle-head-butting maneuver for street fights. This is what happens when an ex-con with a heart of gold discovers Tumblr.
14-17. Fatal Frame series
Fatal Frame figures that if you buy the fabled superstition that a photograph can capture your soul, then surely a camera would make a great ghost-busting tool. So goes the tacit premise of all four games in producer Keisuke Kikuchi’s signature series of horror games. Each game has its own story, but the setup is always the same: A lone girl is trapped in a haunted place, and the lost, angry spirits will kill her if she doesn’t stop them with the Camera Obscura, an antique shutter box that exorcises ghosts. Fatal Frame uses the camera to cripple the player. You can’t see the ghosts clearly unless you’re looking through the lens, but that also forces you to stand still as the specter of a leering farmer bears down on you with a shovel. Staring into the face of death is the only way to avoid it.
18. Lost: Via Domus
Perhaps aware that this slapdash game would do nothing to bolster the reputation of their show, the Lost executive producers instead tried to ensure that it would at least do no harm. To that end, players of Lost: Via Domus are not allowed to control any of the complex, engaging characters they’ve seen on TV. Instead they’re saddled with some mope named Elliott Maslow who was invented for the game. Afflicted with amnesia after the crash of Oceanic 815, Maslow is a freelance photojournalist, which explains (sort of) why you use his camera during flashback sequences to jog his memory. It’s hard to tell why taking a picture of, say, the sign in a secondhand shop would be any more therapeutic than simply looking at it, but the game tacitly demands we accept this contrivance. Given such clumsy storytelling, it’s no wonder that the TV show’s producers declared Via Domus to be non-canonical. Otherwise, Elliott Maslow could have introduced a flaw into the otherwise perfect diamond of narrative logic that Lost constructed in the course of its six seasons.
19. Pokémon Snap
Why is that Pikachu so damn happy, anyway? Being a Pokémon is a hassle, at least judging by Pokémon Snap. Even when the little pocket monsters aren’t being forced into cross-species cockfights, they’re being poked at by some guy named Todd Snap who won’t stop taking their picture. You play as Todd, riding across seven small ecosystems on an island inhabited by Pokémon. You’re on a set path through each of the environments, so the game actually evokes some of the methodical, you-only-get-one-shot magic of snapping real photos in the wild. Of course, this illusion is broken by the fact that you can replay a stage and the Pokémon are all in the exact same spots as before, waiting for their closeup. Not the most conscientious nature photographer, Todd annoys Pokémon with items like the Poké-Flute to wake them up, or make them dance, or just to piss them off. Another gadget in the arsenal? Pester Balls.
Often, video game simulations draw more attention to the gulf between games and reality than the similarities. That’s the case with Afrika, a Pokémon Snap-like affair that casts the player as a freelance photojournalist on the African savannah. The trouble with this real-world setting is that it’s hard for clunky 3D animal models to reproduce the enthralling speed and majesty of a cheetah bearing down on an antelope. Yet in one respect, Afrika offers a more convincing verisimilitude. Its camera and lens options are the most expansive and detailed of any game on this list. Players find themselves awash in equipment, and the result is a reasonably accurate simulation of camera nuts’ favorite pastime: tinkering with their gear.
(Note: Video is mildly NSFW.) Don’t let its title fool you—Paparazzi (titled The Camera Kozou in its native Japan) is not a filthy and despicable game where you follow half-dead celebrities and try to take pictures up their skirts. Instead, it’s a completely different filthy game where you take pictures of models who have consented to your upskirt photos. They might not even be drunk, though the only parts of their bodies that don’t move in lethargic slow motion are their breasts, whose bounciness and defiance of gravity are ludicrous even by video game standards. Get the model’s attention by clapping or dancing, shout an order at her, and start snapping away. The game scores your photos based on if you “caught her eye” and other rules based partially on photographic principles but mostly on the shape and position of the coquette’s body parts. For obvious reasons, this game never made it to the United States. For somewhat less obvious reasons, when Paparazzi was released in Europe, the European ratings board deemed it suitable for three-year-olds. Cultural differences!