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Umurangi Generation is an Ode to a Beautiful, Broken World

Click. There's the world, loose in my hand.

I haven’t spent long enough in this neighborhood to love it right . Not yet. In spite of this, I climb a fire escape to the place where the world isn’t. My bag snags on the old brick wall. It’s not enough to provide much resistance — just enough to remind me what it would feel like to touch it. Rough-warm and familiar. I reach the top and swing my leg over the railing. Now, standing on a flimsy sign advertising private security, I squirm the bag from my back. I could’ve done so earlier, but I never do. Almost falling has become part of the ritual. Bag finally off, my back hits the “COPS ARE DIRTY” graffiti on the wall. I pretend having something behind me makes it less likely to fall. I look out on the city: taller buildings, protective walls, and a choked red sky bouncing off red brick. Below me, a man’s jacket glows. I’ve always wondered how. I raise the viewfinder of my camera and pan the city until it happens. It all falls away, layer by layer, block by block. Flat light pours in, but not on the world. No new shadows are cast; no colors become clearer. There is just more white. This little hole in what is. Click. I wonder how the void appears on film. I realize that this is what will be when I’m gone. This is why I love Umurangi Generation.

Released earlier this year by Origami Digital, Umurangi Generation is a first-person photography game set at the end of the world. You explore heavily stylized environments in city at the end of the world to catalog the lives of the people and places therein. It is one of my favorite  video games ever. Though I haven’t actually finished it yet. That’s surprising given how long I’ve sung its praises. To be clear, I’m not the kind of person who hates endings. I don’t put off finishing things I love. But Umurangi Generation is best experienced in short bursts a few days apart. I immerse myself in a space, find the stories I want to tell there, then leave. That’s enough for me right now.

To just call it a photography game is a bit of an understatement. It’s fairer to say it’s a simulator. It represents many of the various functions of a real camera. You have manual control over lens choice, focus, zoom, saturation, contrast, exposure, hue, bloom, and tone. The tiny, fiddly functions add up to what feels like a material object in space, which is one of my favorite things about the game. For example, to use flash in your photos you have to manually add an external light to your camera via a long animation .

This same physicality applies to the game’s movement. Umurangi Generation treats you like a body in space, and you move through it as such. That’s a big deal when it comes to virtual photography. It’s a genre both more expansive and more limiting than anything you could do in the real world. How you understand an image depends on how each game facilitates the act of taking a picture.

There are two primary methods for virtual photography: dedicated photo modes and screenshots. Photo modes give an unparalleled degree of control over images by allowing in-engine image adjustments, filters, and impossible camera angles (or at least impossible without a helicopter ). Photo modes encourage you to use your own aesthetic in conjunction with the content the game itself provides.

Screenshots, on the other hand, are deeply restrictive. You’re wholly locked into the game’s default aesthetic. Without image adjustments, you’re relegated to a single color palette. Without using console commands, you’re also locked to the player character, often forcing you to jam them into awkward angles to get the camera just right for the shot you want. Regardless of the content, photos taken this way represent a tension between the player’s vision and that of the game, and that’s where the additional meaning comes from.

Umurangi Generation takes the best parts of both techniques and fuses them into a cohesive visual language. By combining the image adjustment techniques of a photo mode with the material nature of your character’s body, it forces you to develop an intimate relationship with each of the game’s nine  locations before you can start taking the pictures you want. Getting any particular photo requires maneuvering your body in space. This act alone often exposes you to newer and more interesting shots.

The developing relationship with the people and places you’re photographing is what I love most about Umurangi Generation. Collectible, consumable film canisters make this take this a step further. You have 24 shots per canister. After that you have to find a new film in the environment —exploring it as you go. If you want to represent this place, you have to understand it first.

That exploration drove me to find my favorite place in the entire game. The third level, the Walled City, hides a fire escape next to an old sign for a private security firm. When you climb onto it, you can position the camera in just such a way that the environment breaks around you. Void pours in and the world you knew disappears.

Umurangi Generation Glitch
This is what will be when I’m gone.

Virtual spaces are constructed by people. That means they’re imperfect and ambitious. There are spots where they break. That’s okay. It’s more than okay! In a game set at the end of the world, reality breaking in your camera’s lens just feels right. In fact, the fallibility of virtual spaces is part of what makes in-game photography so fun. Find where the world breaks, then expose games as weird and messy and beautiful. This is what sets virtual photography apart from its real-world counterpart. You can warp perspective in ways that challenge how we perceive the world, but you can’t actually shatter it like this. And while breaking the world may not always make the most interesting pictures (let’s be honest, though, it usually does) it always feels like a revelation. Like my body on the sign, the image itself holds that magic in place just a little longer.

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