I am tremendously sorry to report that last time (which I imagine was only a week or two ago), you decided that unit designers are better than handcrafted art styles. This one hurts, I must say. But this is a collaborative process, and if we’re to find the single best thing I will need to watch many of my loves be fed into an industrial shredder. Pick yourself up, Alice, dust yourself off, and continue the search. So. This time, it’s a question of things you want to screenshot versus a way of taking screenshots. Reader dear, what’s better: parody in-game brands, or photo modes?
If you’ve played a video game set in a world even remotely resembling our own, you may have seen a drinks machine selling lurid green cans of refreshing Mountain Who. Or maybe the machine was decorated with the red and white swooshes of Grog, or Nuka Cola, or it sold Dr Pooper, or Sprunk, or Poopsi, or Bepis Max. Or maybe you you heard radio ads for Pißwasser, or used an iFruit phone. Point is, you will likely have encountered an in-game brand which tries to avoid trademark problems while remaining familiar by parodying a real-world brand. The developers don’t have to make parody brands, of course (and we might return to this on a future face-off), but few can resist the opportunity to slip in a wee wdaft joke. Are they funny? Not usually, no. But I still appreciate them.
The reason video game worlds feel unreal isn’t anything to do with graphics technology, it’s because they’re missing the brands which constantly fill our eyes. A world without familiar brands just feels weird, which is a distressing thought. It might look like a place you know, people might speak the language you know and use the slang you know, but something is just off. Like if New York were secretly moved to France and its cultural markers shifted: the giant pizza slice replaced with Pissaladière, the subway referred to as the “metro”, and the Yankees and Mets ignored to hype up a football rivalry between New York City FC and the NY Red Bulls. Eerie.
Knock-off brands can make a game world feel more real if you only catch the flash of colour out the corner of your eye. But if you look closely, maybe it’ll feel even less real, so clearly wrong. And I think that’s something I really like about video games: the tension between “Wow I’m really here!” and “Oh god what is this horrible trick?”
But if artists are putting so much care and love in these worlds, how are we to share and enjoy them? It’s hard to appreciate the small details when violence, motor vehicles, and jetpacks are whooshing you past them at great speed. Thank goodness, then, for the development of the photo mode.
I am always appreciative when a game lets me pause the action and examine a world at my own pace, from my own angles. Explore, focus, change lenses and exposures, then share discoveries and pretties with your pals. Or, like me, just grow a vast screenshot folder you really keep meaning to organise and tidy sometime. Half my time in Cyberpunk 2077 was spent doing landscape and crowd photography. Photo modes also gently encourage people to see games with a broader perspective, in new and more playful ways, which I always welcome. They can be an introduction to real-world photography too, inviting people to take pictures of dramatic scenes in a safe environment, and some even use photographic concepts like lens apeture and exposure.
I do also appreciate selfie modes in games like GTA 5, Yakuza 6, and that Doom mod:
But which is better?
I’m surprised to find myself saying this, given my gigabytes of screenshots, but: my vote is for parody brands. I quite enjoy the mechanical challenge of trying to take good screenshots without the luxury of photo mode, the same way I enjoy trying to take good photos on my phone without loads of kit. It’s an interesting constraint to work within, requiring creative solutions (I was delighted to discover tricks to taking clean Destiny 2 screenshots, even if I did then maybe kinda hold up raids). And the Video Game Soda Machine Project is one of the best archival projects in gaming.
Pick your winner, make your case in the comments, and we’ll reconvene later to see who stands – and pose another conundrum