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The Imaginary Worlds of In-Game Photography

For the past ten years, virtual photography has been gaining momentum in the world of video games, making its way into social networks and art galleries. A generation of enthusiasts is revealing its artistic potential through screenshots that showcase the gameplay environment: whether it’s architecture, an object, a quality of light, humanity, or a reality.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (Ubisoft, 2020) © Screenshots Nicolas Alpach

While the advent of photography changed the way we see the world, artists have always used technical and technological advances to express their vision. With the rise of smartphones and social networks, images have now invaded the sphere of everyday life and anyone can harness the photographic medium. Video games have become a part of it thanks to increasingly realistic virtual worlds which have given rise to “in-game photography.” From Pokemon Snap (1999) to New Pokemon Snap (2021), which take users on photographic safaris, the integration of the “photo mode” and various intra-diegetic tools (i.e. tools embedded in the story) has become an established feature of most AAA titles in recent years, such as Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, The Last of Us, and Spider-Man. Thanks to the sophisticated work of designers, powerful consoles and computers, the world of video games is becoming a space of entertainment, creativity, and experience where the depth of field, lighting, angle, focal length, and texture rule the day.

In the beginning there was a screenshot

Highlighting the beauty of human imagination by bridging photography and video games is the recurring theme among these keen, passionate observers. Setting aside the marketing objectives of the publishers, gaming visuals occupy an increasingly important place in what is known as “post-photography,” bringing in new technologies, reappropriation, and instant sharing. Screenshotters paved the way for a new art form which soon seduced galleries and cultural institutions. These new artists, including British Duncan Harris (DeadEndThrills), known for his fine sense of virtual tourism and Dutch Robert Overweg, who considers virtual universes as extensions of reality, were exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2015.

Jill Valentine, Resident Evil 3 (Capcom, 2000), “I sometimes try to suppress the original context in my story. I like to take pictures during commutes, especially during late nights on the subway when the car is empty.” © Screenshots Leonardo Sang
Battlefield (DICE, 2002), “In-game photography was in its “infancy,” and I wanted to use this game as a sort of “photographic remastering” of World War I by revisiting old battlefields via “modern” perspectives, details, and colors.” © Screenshots Leonardo Sang

Brazilian Leonardo Sang also draws inspiration from his work. His project of Virtual Reality Photography (VRP), as he calls it, explores multiple possibilities across diverse video games: from architecture (Battlefield, Counter Strike Source) and interiors (Control) to objects (such as shoes) and characters (Resident Evil 3). Sang has worked for major game publishers, including Nvidia and Activision. As he points out, “this exploratory approach has made great strides since 2011, but one of the big turning points was the 2016 launch of Nvidia Ansel, the first universal photo mode added to a variety of games. Today, we have some incredible artists who are also developing their own custom camera tools, like Frans Bouma and Matti Hietanen.”

For Sang, whose work has been shown in London, Los Angeles but also in Spain, any open-world game offers the same opportunity as the real world. “Having a seasoned video game photographer helps bring out the beauty of video games in different ways: either by presenting stunning graphics or creating art outside the game, with the help of unique techniques or tools like ReShade, which allows to circumvent copyright thanks to fair use.” Whether fashioning realistic replicas of the real world will catch on among the next gen of developers remains to be seen. Sang thinks it’s problematic, “because most of the time it’s boring and ugly. If we possess the power to imagine realistic visuals, we can create unrealism that then looks realistic.”

Plants, Control (505 Games, 2017) © Screenshots Elise Aubisse
The “Shoes” series, “Game artists spend a lot of time perfecting their models, I’m always surprised by the styles, like the detail of in-game shoes.”
© Screenshots Leonardo Sang
Control (505 Games, 2017), “This game features one of my favorite architectural styles, Brutalism, also very present in São Paulo. The geometric shapes are perfect for these perspectives.” © Screenshots Leonardo Sang

The influence of iconic photographers

American Kent Sheely, another veteran digital artist specializing in new media, has transcended the approach in his DoD series, inspired by war photographer Robert Capa. Day of Defeat is a full-color, multiplayer first-person shooter (FPS) video game set during World War II. The idea came to him after taking a photography class about Capa’s work and seeing, among other things, his famous D-Day series. “I wondered what would happen if I decided not to take part in the game’s battles but to document them like a journalist. So I changed the control settings and the files, so that the ‘trigger’ button would take a screenshot and my character would be unarmed, and I hid the overlays for ammo, health, team score…” His final move was then to run his screenshots through a set of filters created in Photoshop to lend them a surreal, grainy, black-and-white look.

The Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, one of the first art centers to exhibit in-game photography, showcased Sheely’s work in 2016. For Sheely, the technical and artistic evolution of the practice goes through cycles. He recalls how screenshotters first focused on the novelty of simulating traditional photography in video games: “The framing mimicked how an artist would approach it in the real world. They then experimented with the medium, with photos that would have been impossible to take in real life or that drew attention to the simulated nature of the virtual world (glitches in the graphics, weird geometry, images of places the player wasn’t supposed to see…).” Today, it is more about a return to the practice of simulation, blurring the boundaries between virtuality and reality.

Day of Defeat (Valve, 2005) © Screenshots Kent Sheely
Day of Defeat (Valve, 2003) © Screenshots Kent Sheely

The human in the virtual

In-game photography offers a plethora of approaches in terms of framing, composition, lighting, atmosphere, and topography, all of which require time and reflection. For French photographer Elise Aubisse, who works for Nacon, a company specialized in gaming peripherals, the camera remains at the heart of her creative process: “I find myself drawn to video games because I can tackle any theme, like war reports, except that here the Geneva Convention no longer applies,” she notes wryly. “Afterwards I always apply a photographic technique to bring in some imperfection.” Like, for instance, in Star Wars Battlefront, where Aubisse tried to highlight the human expressions of the helmeted stormtroopers. She shot in bursts, on the go. She then selected her screenshots and photographed them using her digital camera before reworking the file.

To obtain starker authenticity, she also gives free rein to her love for the medium by shooting analog film. Fallout 4, set in a post-apocalyptic world, allows the game to be put on pause: “I captured a gallery of non-playable characters (NPCs), like this dog, our first companion. No matter what we do, he’s always there. I chose to have him with this touching look on his face and his head slightly tilted. Next I photographed my screen using black-and-white film camera which I developed with caffenol.”

Stormtroopers, Star Wars: Battlefront (DICE, 2015) © Screenshots
Dogmeat, Fallout 4 (Bethesda Softworks, 2015) © Screenshots Elise Aubisse

Eventually, this twenty-year-old would like to exhibit in galleries, to see the gaming universe gain credibility and find its place in the art world. For her, it is an artistic movement: “It is really about the underlying intention. That’s why I call it ‘neo-pictorialism.’ Pictorialism was born out of the desire to show that photography was an art form in its own right.” In-game photography thus follows the same reasoning, as a natural development.

Between two worlds

The design of 3D structures, inspired by the real world or by a historical reconstruction, remains one of the key elements. Not necessarily linked to the constraints of the gameplay, for some it becomes the culminating attraction of their exploration, constantly seeking the real in the virtual. This is evidenced in the photos by Nicolas Alpach, a French digital communication manager, who focuses on the scenery, architectural and geometric details, and all sorts of objects often overlooked by gamers. “I consider myself to be a gamer,” he says. “I love to wander around and capture my gaming memories. Even if I’m not a photographer, I try to keep an aesthetic eye. I proceed in automatic mode, without retouching, because the final destiny of my images is being shared on social networks.”

Capturing unreal environments thus remains one of Alpach’s hobbies on Twitter and Instagram. With Judgment, and more recently Yakuza 7, the photo mode has allowed him to switch to a first-person view using a phone set up for total immersion. “I walk around the streets of Tokyo crowded with people taking pictures, and the world keeps moving because everything interacts with the player. Having had the chance to go there, I encounter the sounds of opening store doors, the perpetual soundtrack.” Conversely, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which benefits from the pause mode, gives him the opportunity to capture the effects of light in a universe of oneiric antiquity. “These virtual games are so alive, you take a picture like you would compose a tableau. There is no interference or road signs. We feel like good photographers because the worlds are beautiful.”

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (Ubisoft, 2020) © Screenshots Nicolas Alpach
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (Ubisoft, 2020) © Screenshots Nicolas Alpach

Pascal Greco’s Place(s), a series which gave rise to a book publication (out December 8 in France), transcends the concept of place by way of landscape. This Swiss photographer and video artist was supposed to travel to Iceland in 2020 for a photographic project, but his plans fell through because of the pandemic. Out of the blue, the action game Death Stranding allowed him to examine the changing notions of place, space, and travel using photo mode and post-production tools. His Polaroid snapshots evoke a mystical and idealized Iceland, questioning at their most extreme the points of convergence between virtual spaces and traditional photography.

In-game photography thus reveals its multifaceted potential, yet to be explored via real possibilities, beyond the virtual, in order to keep alive this ideal of an alternative world as open as ours.

By Nathalie Dassa

Nathalie Dassia is the editor-in-chief of and a cultural journalist.

Ghost of Tsushima (Sucker Punch, 2020) © Screenshots Nicolas Alpach
Photographe, Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2018), “I love metalinguistics. Images are forms of communication, and there are many ways to do that.” © Screenshots Leonardo Sang
Hangar, Battlefield 4 (DICE, 2013), “This image is a classic Kubrickian pointer, my favorite kind of composition.” © Screenshots Leonardo Sang
Watch Dogs: Legion (Ubisoft, 2020) © Screenshots Nicolas Alpach
Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Sega, 2020) © Screenshots Nicolas Alpach
The “Backseats” series, “This image was edited by artist Eron Rauch for his Screen Knowledges exhibition in Los Angeles. A snapshot of road travel taken from the back of the car, just looking at the view, even though it’s a racing game.” © Screenshots Leonardo Sang

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