By The Washington Post · Mikhail Klimentov · ENTERTAINMENT, SPORTS
Then, once the story beat is exhausted, play resumes. We can learn things about characters from play, but in a lot of cases, the repetitive nature of tasks in a game map poorly to human character. Plot often takes a back seat to the foremost aim of many games, which is not to be a vehicle for story but largely just to be fun to sit with. A bad plot can be endured, and even sometimes enjoyed. Bad gameplay is a stone in your shoe - deeply and immediately felt.
What really helps bridge this game-story gap is when a game's environments do their share of lifting on the storytelling front. Here, "Umurangi Generation" exceeds all expectations.
One of the classic tools in the video game storytelling tool kit is environmental storytelling. This often takes the form of little scenes, dioramas that hint at a deeper world outside of the protagonist's view. A reliable standard of the genre is the chair with some drinks and light reading scattered around. "Wow," the player might think. "Before this place was overrun by mutants/irradiated by nuclear fallout/shattered by war, someone sat here and relaxed." In a zombie or pandemic game, it might be a bit of graffiti, scrawled onto a wall beside a corpse: "Starting to not feel so good. It's probably nothing. Just going to rest here a while."
"Umurangi Generation," a photography game by Origame Digital, is all environmental storytelling. It works like a dream - quite literally. So many games today have made a bizarre trade: By obscuring their mechanics and systems in pursuit of immersion and more closely resembling cinema, they've only made more obvious the fundamental game-y-ness of "push the box to reach a ledge" and "kill 40 identical enemies before moving out of this room."
"Umurangi Generation" has achieved the opposite. It feels a lot like games do. The jump is wobbly and inconsistent. Its visuals and music call back to a different era of game development. Prompts to press certain buttons flash on screen. The game has no apparent cinematic aspirations. And yet, these mechanics are so good at calling the player's attention to the environment that, much like a dream, you know you're playing a game and still it feels like you're inhabiting an inescapably real space.
"Umurangi Generation" is made up of a series of explorable maquettes. Across a handful of levels, you're tasked with collecting photo bounties: Take a picture of X with lens Y. Completing these assignments gives players more control over their photo editing suite (unlocking sliders like saturation and bloom). There are also timed objectives, which reward the player with new lenses and features like flash. These assignments can feel like pixel hunting at times, but the prompts are mostly meant to inspire. The point isn't really to just take the bounty pictures; it's to find other stuff you'd like to take a picture of while searching.
One of the big joys of "Umurangi Generation" is the sensation of seeing a scene in the game, and having the mirage of a perfect picture appear in your mind, if only for a second. It's impossible (at least for a photographer of my caliber) to visualize and capture it as-imagined, which opens up a second game within the game: one of curation. A no-less-enjoyable part of my "Umurangi" experience was scouring my file folder (the game saves all of your shots) after completing a level and being both repulsed and pleasantly surprised by what I'd created. The game reveals certain things about your aesthetic priorities. I preferred vertical images to horizontal ones, and I leaned toward overexposure and a blue tint in many of my photos, mirroring a sort of mid-2010s Bloomberg Businessweek aesthetic. Some of these pictures were, predictably, duds. Others sang in ways that I hadn't noticed while setting up the shot.
There's a lot of snap-worthy material in "Umurangi Generation." The game is overflowing with stuff that is ostensibly of the "cool future" set: Neon lights, city blocks, sharp angles, punks, dancers, workers in jumpsuits, military personnel, guns, cars, trains, fighter jets, VR, wood pallets and shipping crates, graffiti, kaiju and mechs, bright colors and vortex-like tunnels, skyscrapers, fog, nighttimes and sunsets. But beyond even what happens in the game's "plot," closer examination reveals that this future isn't cool. It sucks!
Throughout the first few chapters, players will notice signs of an implied crisis. The UN has stationed armed personnel throughout Tauranga, New Zealand, where the game is set. A massive concrete wall, erected around the city, looms over the peacekeepers and punks alike. Newspapers litter the environment; The stodgy, institutional ones make reference to warlike pronouncements from political leaders, detached in spirit from the goings-on about town. Meanwhile, street art, local papers and makeshift memorials name the dead. And because you've got photo bounties to collect, these details cannot be ignored.
There is a meme I've come to love recently about the "cool future." In it, a dopey face, mouth agape, looks at a futuristic character in a trench coat, sporting a robot arm and pointing a gun in the air. The dopey face's response to the character it's looking at is to say "cool future!" Meanwhile, the gun is shooting messages up into the air, in an arc over the dopey head: "Class disparity is bad"; "We should probably stop our hedonistic expansion before it destroys the planet"; "We should improve society somewhat." These are the intended warnings of the cybernetically enhanced character - and they're going unheeded.
Another example of this sort of meme has recently cropped up on Twitter: the villain versus the real villain. In this meme, one character is positioned as the villain as described by a media property - they're the stated chief antagonist. But the real villain is supposed to be a counterintuitive choice; someone whose role we've reevaluated over time, or whose mistakes or misdeeds catalyze the bad things that unfold. Chancellor Palpatine may be the villain of the Star Wars prequels, but the real villain, according to one of these memes, might be the Jedi Council, for stirring up latent anger in Anakin Skywalker.
The subtext of these kinds of memes is that media consumers are ignoring the critical parts of the content they enjoy - the stuff that the show or movie or game or book is really saying - in favor of surface level readings. In the mind of the average dullard, the meme says, "Breaking Bad's" Walter White is the good guy because he's the protagonist and he's smart. Likewise, piloting a giant robot would be cool because you'd get to have a big gun or sword.
The reality is probably more banal. People react to media with "cool future!" or fail to discern the real villain because that's how the text is telling them to react. Often, people who make media don't know what they're saying. When it comes to AAA games, many of them are written and created by committee, intentionally or otherwise. There are two ways of looking at games like this: The way they often want to be looked at ("cool future!") or by scouring the world, as one does the world of "Umurangi Generation," and attempting to piece together the thinking behind the creation.
In "The Division 2," a game about restoring order to Washington, D.C., after the world suffers a massive pandemic and subsequent societal breakdown, the world is littered with inoffensive world-building graffiti, stuff like "RIP the system," "The world is broken," and "We are not going to take this anymore!" The intended environmental storytelling on the part of the developers is "Wow, Washington D.C. is not looking good!" But the more searching read, inspired by photos of graffiti taken after real protests, which usually feature hyper-specific slogans like "Defund the police," would be: "I don't understand what actually happened in this setting because 'RIP the system' doesn't really mean anything."
One of "Umurangi Generation's" great qualities is that it is unambiguous in its storytelling, and forces you to confront that story through its key mechanics: exploration and photo-taking. The UN, the big institutional newspapers, the film and advertising industry, they're all inattentive (at best) or hostile (at worst) to the needs of the people threatened by the game's big crisis. The point of view is not subtle, but it's not unsubtle or graceless. It's realistic, because the world has a point of view. Too many other games ignore this.