I have argued that video games are their own art form. But are there other forms of art linked to video games that should be examined more? In this post, I will be looking at some examples of photographs that can be captured during gameplay, and consider whether such images could be considered as art. To demonstrate the capacity of in-game photography I will be using images taken by myself and other gamers.
Before we consider if the images can be considered art, let us consider the nature of a photograph and if it applies to video game images. At the dawn of photography Daguerrotypes were described as “the spontaneous reproduction of the images of nature obtained in the camera obscura”, the process hinging on the importance of light and the chemical processes that produce the image. In the 21st century, this core statement on photography still holds true, even if the camera obscura is now replaced with digital cameras and smartphones. As Graham Clarke also notes, a photograph is “dependent on the contexts within which we ‘read’ it” (Clarke, G 1997 p.13) – we will “read” a black and white image differently from that of colour, or a large image different to a small one. So whilst the technique and medium may vary between photographs, the core notion of a spontaneous reproduction is quite central.
Consider also the person taking the image. When we engage with a beautifully captured image, we will often comment on the “eye” of the photographer. We can confidently assume that the photographer has certain criteria in mind – location, composition, lighting and so on – when looking for a moment to take the photograph. This is also largely dependent on the context. A street photographer will likely take an image in a fraction of the time than a portrait photographer, and yet both will exhibit the same “eye” that is drawn to capturing a “spontaneous reproduction” of their chosen subject.
With these basic principles in mind, let us move onto some images taken from video games. The first two examples are taken with the “screenshot” function – an instantaneous copy of a specific frame of the game taken by pressing a button. The other two examples utilise “Photo Mode” – a newly introduced feature to many games that allows the user to pause the game and utilise a variety of tools for the user to adjust the image to their liking before capturing the image. Put simply, this feature provides a camera and a post-production suite rolled into a single function.
The first screenshot was taken in the 2021 Capcom game Resident Evil 8: Village (2021, Capcom). The image is reminiscent of landscape photography as the focus is the environment of the game; the almost photorealistic graphic style complements this particular type of image. Emerging from a dark wood to see the titular village covered in winter snows below and Castle Dimitrescu looming in the background prompted my decision to capture the image at this frame. The weather, lighting and natural environment are pre-determined by the game’s script, though I was able to adjust the centre of the image as seen through my character’s vision.
The second image is from the game Life is Strange (2015, Dontnod entertainment), which captures a moment where the player character Max and a non-playable character, her childhood friend Chloe, are walking along a train line, hand in hand. Unlike the previous image, the composition of this image is staged as the picture is taken during a cut scene – a break away from active gameplay where the gamer is shown a cinematic clip. These cut-scenes occur in most games as a way for the game director to push the gamer through certain essential plot-points of the story in which the direction, lighting, composition and so on are all pre-determined by the game’s director. My choices were limited but taking images of staged events in game (much like cinematic stills) still entails personal artistic choices.
The third example is taken using the “Photo Mode” feature in the game Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018, Square Enix). Emerging from a dark, narrow cavern system, the player character Lara Croft emerges into a vase cavern which houses a 17th century Spanish galleon – unexpected in a Peruvian jungle. I wanted to highlight the sense of scale provided by the game, and the majesty of the derelict ship that is being lit from a passage in the rock above. For Photo Mode, I was able to pause the game at a specific time of my choosing, and then use the in-game sliders to adjust the image to my liking. I selected a soft grey filter to remove most of the colour and adjusted the focus, so the ship and Lara are both clear. This mode also allows me to adjust the position of the camera in order to offset Lara to one side of the image, making the ship and the lighting above the main focus of the image, whilst still retaining the link to Lara herself.
For the final example, also using “Photo Mode”, I requested images from a gaming group on the social app for gamers, Discord. One user, Revelowy, sent me the above image which he took in the game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (2020, Ubisoft). This image interested me as it is a photograph of a fairly mundane background object. As the image is close-up on background assets, we can clearly see the parchment is oddly shaped and the flame from the candle cuts off due to the processing of the computer engine. But this is not important to the person who took the image. I asked what prompted Revelowy to take this image and he stated that it was due to the atmosphere and drama of the location. Interestingly as well, he noted that he attempted to use “a golden ratio trick”, placing the candle in a mostly central location with each side framed with parchment. If we look back at the image I took in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, we can potentially see a Fibonacci Spiral in the composition of that particular image as well.
Now, whether either of us was successful in applying these principles is another matter, but that artistic principles are being considered when capturing and editing the images shows an attempt towards an artistic aesthetic. We are making that aforementioned spontaneous reproduction of a moment in time. However, and unlike real-life photography, gamers have the advantage of stopping time, and indeed revisiting any subject at any time in a different play-through. Thus, some appreciation can be gained from the images we have seen as examples and throughout the many examples of video game photography that can be found online. As such, we can see the aesthetic appeal in video game imagery, we can gain understanding of the medium and of the techniques, and we can find emotive appreciation in certain images.
I believe that, much as in my essay on whether video games are art, there are clear links to photography in images taken inside video games. That said, the process is different enough from standard photography so I do not think we can call anyone taking such images a “photographer”. Importantly however, unlike my essay I cannot cite any examples of “masterpieces” in video game “photography” – they simply do not exist. Despite existing for decades in screenshot form, the ability to take and edit higher quality images in game through Photo Mode is still relatively new, and there has been no serious academic discussion over such images, though there is a small but passionate base of gamers who take Photo Mode very seriously. But I would argue there is potential for these images to become an art form of their own, one that can and should be taken on its own merit. In an age where we accept an AI can make paintings, who is to say we cannot have an exhibition of video game photography?
Clarke, G. 1997. The Photograph. Available at: https://monoskop.org/File:Clarke_Graham_The_Photograph_1997.pdf (Accessed 16/08/21)