The Art of Video Game Photography
Meet the “in-game photographers” and “screenshotters” who run the virtual frontline.
Mortar strikes are falling behind our unit, dust from the bleached earth thrown above our heads. The attack chopper that had been providing our team covering support was now a charred and scorched shell in front of us. We're the last line of defence for our checkpoint. The enemy's advance is relentless, suppressing us constantly.
Low ammunition is keeping us cautious, but one person in our squad is getting trigger happy. He's a completely different kind of shooter, a documentarian. He's an in-game photographer, our virtual Robert Capa.
Screenshotting is when a player documents a moment or scene from inside a virtual space. Players take a snapshot and usually, after a Photoshop edit, upload it to a dedicated blog. Some screenshotters are motivated purely by the beauty of the game, paying homage to the talent of the developers and designers. Other enthusiasts often explore specific or artistic themes, their work slightly more reflective.
Screenshotters explore and engage with video game worlds much like how artists of the past viewed the real world. Janet Murray, in her book Hamlet On The Holodeck, explains that "the experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place is pleasurable in itself, regardless of the fantasy content. We refer to this experience as immersion… the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality."
In moments of total immersion, some of us really do think Skyrim's brutal peaks are beautiful. We really do bond with non-player characters (NPCs) and quest companions. Should you be able to resist attacking the defenseless NPC, it is possible to feel a strange empathy for a virtual bum having a quiet drink under a bridge in Grand Theft Auto. Then there's the adrenaline junky war correspondents for the GTAMedia documenting carjackings, shoot outs and all kinds of wicked criminality.
"Rather than winning or losing, finding your way or being lost, these acts of meta-exploration are liberating and enrich our experience with both the systems and reality," screenshotter Eron Rauch wrote in a recent essay on the subject.
We've selected some of best examples of in-game photography below, allowing four of the internet's more established screenshotters to speak about this emergent subculture in their own words.
Duncan Harris, games journalist, is perhaps the most widely known screenshotter. His blog Dead End Thrills features a range of impressive video game moments, championing it as the work of highly talented programmers and designers.
My Steam profile says 114 hours of play time for Alien, 80 of which involved hacking it before taking anything at all. I still don't feel I've exhausted this incredible game. This particular shot involved freezing the creature's AI and animation before moving it several rooms away, which itself took several hours of replaying to find the right pose. [Alien: Isolation]
I think (almost) every game character has a soul, even if the developer doesn't realise it. Finding the right chemistry of lighting, pose, expression and anatomy is especially fun in a game like Skyrim where the results are so individual. [Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim]
CCP let me use its Jessica tools to build several scenes from scratch using its engine and assets, layering, scaling and manipulating effects purely for artistic ends. The tools are extremely volatile and arcane but the results speak for themselves. [EVE Online]
I hacked the post processing values of Unreal a few months ago, which was incredibly useful for making shots more dramatic. I love working with character portraits and going for the "movie poster" shots in any game—though Batman's low-res physicalised cape was a challenge here overcome using foreground depth of field, which coincidentally made the shot better. [Batman: Arkham City]
I like to let other people swarm over new games until the games are considered "done." The way I see it, if I can't do something unique at that point then what's the point of doing this at all? Dragon Age had been done to death but it was mostly just scenery, and I like the hunt for combat shots. I could spend hours looking for that 'moment' (which is what this one took despite hacking the positions of every character on screen). [Dragon Age: Origins]
Eron Rauch is a Los Angeles-based artist whose primary screenshotting panorama project A Land To Die In was shown both physically spanning a whole wall in a pop-up art show and also virtually as a many stories-high mural in Williams College's Second Life museum.
This panorama is made up of screenshots of every player corpse I came across while I levelled up my character in World of Warcraft. [World of Warcraft]
All of my work with video games is about providing new ways of exploring these environments and these inevitable corpses were a constant reminder of the masses of other people and their stories; some who conquered, some who fell, a million virtual Beowulfs. [World of Warcraft]
Starting as a regular screen shot this image from the "Travels" chapter of my World of Warcraft project was processed through a laser film burner and printed using a traditional gelatin silver chemical process so they looked like traditional 1800s view camera images. The prints were mounted in ornate gold frames and shown lit by lanterns in a grove of trees at night. [World of Warcraft]
Occasionally the graphics engine would glitch while I was playing/photographing and I soon grew fascinated by the way these moments of fracture made visible those normally hidden rules that governed the world. Here the air stopped being transparent, and has become a scintillating series of geometric waves. Printed many times larger than the screen, these forms start to take of the appearance of classic abstract art. [World of Warcraft]
Karl Smith's photographic incursions into GTA V's Los Santos and Blaine County region are inspired by the play of virtual lighting and the AIs that live under it. His work is curated on his blog Illsnapmatix.
Finding beauty in symmetry in games is rare, as obvious systems, repetition, and graphical frameworks often take us out of the realism of a game. The devil is in the detail. [GTA V]
The NPC is oblivious to me watching him as he passes by, but is Los Santos watching me in return? [GTA V]
Loneliness, darkness, abandonment, despair—these are constructs in a game. We project our understanding of our own world onto the screen. At what point is it OK for these feelings become real? [GTA V]
Who owns this boat? There's a story here. A lost dream, adrift in the desert. The sun sets again. [GTA V]
This is a photo that combined some of my personal composition choices. The one point perspective, the patterns made out of light and shadow and I really enjoy corridors or alleys. Plus, it has this Mediterranean feeling, a little tapestry market. Somewhere worth a visit! [Dying Light]
GTA V is the closest it gets to what I do when I take photos in the "real world." Just walking around and snapping whatever looks nice to me. Gas stations at night are super cool, one of my favourite subjects. [GTA V]
This is from the early stages of Project CARS. It's a side-project inside VRP (if that makes any sense) called "backseats in videogames". It's a "pretend you are in a backseat during a road trip" thing and I like this one, it has a nice light and mood, but little facts like, this car (BMW M3 GT4) doesn't even have backseats, because racecar, and since it was an early alpha, the game didn't show the "driver's head", which was pretty cool for the composition actually. [Project CARS]