Few games find ways to elegantly blend their environmental storytelling with their actual gameplay. Great environment design and art direction can tell a story in the margins of an experience, but calling attention to those details is a delicate art. Immersive sims like Bioshock or Prey often use audio logs, documents, and other threads of history to contextualize their environment. This works, but sometimes feels contrived or overbearing.
To some extent, Umurangi Generation does a similar thing with graffiti, posters, and signs. But it’s brimming with so many more subtle details surrounding them and filling in context. While some of the other games I mentioned are filled with thoughtful, subtle details, they also have difficulty drawing players’ attention to them. At some point, the act of fighting enemies and navigating the environment wrestles for players’ attention.
But Umurangi Generation is a game about photography. And in aligning its core mechanic so fundamentally with observation and attention to detail, it can excel at storytelling with very few words. Spectacular art direction and level design can be given the full attention they deserve, and the stories written between the lines of the world come into focus.
Finding the Details
Umurangi gives players a set of photo bounties for each level. The level can be completed when all photo bounties have been acquired. Bonus objectives will require players to truly scour the space and often do a bit of platforming to get the right angles and find all the secrets.
Official promotional material describes the game’s world as “the shitty future”, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The way Umurangi’s world falls into place, piece by piece, makes its hopelessness and vibrancy so much more potent. I can’t bring myself to spoil why this future is so shitty, but suffice it to say that it approaches it with nuance, detail, and real commitment.
For the developer, Umurangi Generation began with a simple concept: teaching someone how to use a DSLR camera. But the world of the game has more to it than that. Interviews with the developer highlight some of the Maōri cultural references appear in visual and thematic elements of the game, and the story in the game revolves around themes of climate change, state violence, and colonialism.
Art for the Sake of Art
Umurangi isn’t just a game about taking a specific set of pictures; it’s also a photography simulator. Throughout the game, achieving bonus objectives will unlock additional gear for your camera: lenses, post-processing adjustment sliders, and other gadgets like a flash attachment. None of the extra equipment is required to progress through future levels. However, it gives the player a wealth of new tools for expressivity, and on-ramps to understand what they do in real-life photography.
In order to make money during each level and complete the bonus objectives, the player can try to achieve certain stylistic details that the game awards extra points for. These details, generally, kind of feel like bullshit. I think this is intentional. The monetary value it places on art is deeply arbitrary, and I think Umurangi wants players to feel that.
Given the dire circumstances of the world of Umurangi Generation, it would be easy to imagine that your photographic efforts would be in service of some heroic or archival effort. But your photos aren’t going to save anyone. Most of the time, the bounties won’t even feel like they’re exposing or documenting much of anything either, often feeling superficial or arbitrary.
And ultimately, the bounties are only a means to an end, a job to be completed. The process of making art, and of viewing the world through an artistic lens, has inherent value. It’s hard to play through Umurangi Generation without getting the impression that it truly believes this. The photos taken in the game all automatically save into a folder on your computer for easier sharing. It’s clear that Umurangi Generation wants the art it facilitates to be shared, discussed, and explored communally. Art is a means of communication, and this is evident both in the world itself and in the culture fostered around the game.
Similar to my adoration of Paradise Killer, the appeal of Umurangi Generation is also inextricably linked to its sense of place. It’s a game that both invites scrutiny and holds up to it, even becomes better for it. And it’s a game that instills a deep familiarity with the spaces it depicts. It probably can’t make me a good photographer, but it did make me feel like one. And more importantly, it put me in places that oozed with trauma, hopelessness, bitterness, and righteous anger. These emotional threads implored me to capture and interpret them through the lens of the camera. That’s something that I think Umurangi wants to convey: a need to communicate through art.