A camera is a powerful tool. In the hands of the right user, it can freeze moments in time, preserving them forever. Each decision the photographer makes, from what's in focus or not and how the shot is framed, can speak volumes.
I've found video game photography to be a different kind of experience from my own hobbyist ventures. Photo modes are absolutely wonderful, and they're also about you, the player. They provide a lot of cool options for framing the main character in really interesting ways. Yet when I take my camera out on a hike, into the city, or on vacation, the lens faces outward, not inward.
Umurangi Generation is a photography sim, made by a lone developer, Naphtali Faulkner—a.k.a. Veselekov. The title translates to "Red Sky Generation," and as you start playing, it becomes abundantly clear why. We'll circle back to that in a moment.
From the outset, Umurangi Generation hands you a camera and a list of objectives, and simply says "go." This isn't Pokemon Snap, where you sit in a tiny rover on a track, snapping pics as you merrily roll along. Each level of Umurangi Generation is, to some extent, open; you have the freedom to move around it however you'd like, getting whatever angles you can concoct for your shots.
The worlds then, at least in the base game, are sort of like still-lifes themselves. Things are certainly happening—teens are dancing, officers are moving people along designated routes, and bystanders are milling about. Your objectives might entail snapping a picture of a few seagulls, or a couple of stationary targets, or even just a word in whatever form you can find it. Complete them all within 10 minutes and you get a bonus, alongside any additional objectives you complete. Get paid, move on to the next level.
Camera work can feel fairly routine at first. The tasks you're asked to complete, with pictures being delivered in a parcel to end every stage, are all basic scenic photography. But with the number of tools available, you can really get into the mechanics of photography.
Anyone who's shot a DSLR camera before will feel immediately at home. There's a focus wheel, shutter speed, and aperture settings. The further in you get, the more lenses become available: a telephoto, wide-angle, fisheye and more soon join your basic kit lens. There are also some instant post-processing tools, where you can fiddle with settings like exposure or contrast.
It's a DSLR simulator in the truest sense, because you're essentially given a camera and let loose. It probably could've stopped at just that one element, and been a fine game. Umurangi Generation has a bit more going on, though.
In an interview with Indie Game Website, Faulkner says the mechanical inspiration for Umurangi Generation came from teaching their younger cousin to use a DSLR. The thematic inspiration, meanwhile, was the Australian brush fires.
Faulkner, a Maori developer living in Australia, says the government's "shit house response" to the brush fires earlier this year was the basis for the story of Umurangi Generation. The government had been aware of but ignored the effects of climate change for years, Faulkner says. Then, as the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread, that piled on top.
"For me, this game is about taking that underlying concept to its extreme, accelerating it with the future/cyberpunky setting to where the crisis in the game is something that was avoidable," Faulkner told Indie Game Website.
While avoiding spoilers in the game's storytelling, all of these concepts are fairly effortlessly communicated over the photography sim's short runtime. It will probably take you only a couple hours to see Umurangi Generation from start to finish by just targeting the main objectives, and yet in the base game alone, it will tell a full story about all this: a feeling of helplessness, impending dread, and frustration over a situation that could have been avoided.
It might sound like a dreadful time, but I found a lot of hope in Umurangi Generation. One of the key principles throughout is the impact community can have. Throughout each level, your friends tag along; through thick and thin, they are present and with you for everything. There is always a bonus objective to take a picture of the group together. They're often shown hanging out as a unit, but also talking with and aiding others outside the group.
Extending into the Macro DLC, you can start to see the ways that communities can form and boost each other in lieu of help from a larger entity. A poignant level is set during a protest—you actually get chided for taking pictures where a protestor's face is too clearly visible, and you get to walk around the space as people demonstrate. It's not chaos; it's people speaking out, speaking to each other, sharing art and dance to act out against the problems apparent in Umurangi Generation's world, a situation quite prescient in the modern day too.
It's in those moments that the camera feels like such a powerful tool. You get to decide how these moments are framed. Are you going to focus on the angry art, or a calm discussion between two people? Should a person look imposing or vulnerable, solely through the angle in which you capture them? In one area, I was taken in by a quiet moment of zen that two characters were sharing. Every level is a moment frozen in time that you get to discretely unpack and turn into a visual log of what will transpire in this world.
Eventually, it ends. It all does. Time will continually roll on, and these photos become records of what once was. Speaking to Vista Magazine, Faulkner says they chose Umurangi, or Red Sky, Generation because, someday, there will be a "last" generation.
"A generation who is in the position we’re in at the moment," Faulkner says. "They’re going to have to just sit by and watch. There’s going to be a point where we can’t fix it. A generation that won’t have that same hope that I have at the moment."
The game explores all of that, and the answer can be frustrating, because it might not even be clear at times. There's a comfort in turning existential threats into something we can rationalize, put a physical form on, and take a picture of. With some real-world issues, that isn't always the case. So, like in Umurangi, we have to capture their experience; what happens to the people and the world around them over the course of time.
If you wanted to ignore all that, you easily could, and just find a lot of fun to be had with a genuinely fantastic photography simulator, much like Jet Set Radio can simply be a fun skating game. There's a lot more at work here though. It's an earnest game, with a lot of the creator's own effort and identity poured into it—Faulkner's Maori artwork and cultural influence is another element that lends Umurangi Generation its own personal style, distinct from other games and inspirations.
It's the game that got me to pick my camera back up, making me more carefully consider how we tell our stories. Photos will tell future generations what happened, and Umurangi Generation can sometimes feel like a futile effort to save some record in spite of a looming apocalypse. To capture the ways in which humanity can find joy as much as sorrow, and hope as much as despair, even in what Faulkner describes as the "shitty future."
It's not just one of the most impactful indie games this year. Umurangi Generation is an absolute must-play for how it speaks to the year we've lived in, and the years to come. And did I mention the camera rules?