Playing the Photographer

in The Last of Us Remastered: a New Frontier of Digital Photography?

Essay - Playing the Photographer

Jason Lajoie is a PhD student at the University of Waterloo. When he’s not scribbling essays he’s contemplating digitally mediated existence. He often partakes in technological abstinence and spends too much money on Criterion Collection blueray box sets, which he watches in excess.

“[G]ames are dramatic modes of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions”

—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

The photo editor mode offered in The Last of Us Remastered (TLOUR), Naughty Dog’s 2014 PlayStation 4 port of their 2013 PlayStation 3 game, offers players the means to take a photo at any point in the game. This option alters and can also elevate user engagement within the game. This feature can also make statements about self-expression through gameplay, as notably illustrated by conflict photographer Ashley Gilbertson, who applied the same techniques he acquired on real world conflict zones to the fictitious battlegrounds in the game. Though he used the process to reflect critically on what he described as the desensitizing nature of the gameplay on the player and spectators (Rabb and Gilberston), this accounts for only a small part of the issues raised by the photo editor mode. The photo editor mode enables new ways for players and designers to think about game design, and offers new and innovative means for game designers to express their ideas. It is also a way for players to interact with these ideas in a creative game space.

In-game screenshots are by no means a new phenomenon; publishers have long used the techniques of live-action photography to capture scenes of their video games for use as advertising materials. So too have gamers had the opportunity to take screenshots during play for later reflection and sharing. The photo editor mode in TLOUR is unique in that it does not require technological literacy, such as modding or coding, to operate this feature. A player does not need specialized skills beyond the ability to play the game in order to take photos. This democratization of game photography may be another commercial impetus, a means of Naughty Dog to get more people creating promotional content for their game, but it also enables a new means of play and self-expression.

Reasserting Choice

This rhetoric of self-expression through play and photography is achieved perhaps most forcefully in the game’s conclusion, where players can use the photo mode to reassert control over a situation in which the game forces them to shoot a doctor in order to complete the game. Though the game offers players no choice but to kill the first doctor brandishing a scalpel at them, players do have a choice whether to execute the other two unarmed doctors in the room, and so can decide whether to intensify what could be justified as aggravated self-defence into cold-blooded murder. The moment has prompted a broader discussion amongst people, player and spectator alike, with many offering their rationale for either killing or sparing the other doctors. Even the necessity of killing the first doctor sparked controversy for some games journalists, especially Forbes contributor Carol Pinchefsky, who declared that the scripted ending broke the game for her. Pinchefsky points out that the game is designed in such a way that the player has no other choice other than to kill the doctor—she describes firing warning shots, waiting, and even throwing a brick at the doctor, who remains undeterred by any of these actions. Pinchefsky describes trying to wound the doctor by shooting him in the foot, an injury which instantly kills him, much to Pinchefsky’s frustration. Even if the player attempts to walk past the doctor, this triggers a pre-scripted moment in which Joel, the main character, stabs the doctor with his own scalpel.

Using the photo editor mode allows the player to pause the action mid-attack, and to focus on the expression of Joel’s face as he stabs the doctor, a view that is otherwise obscured by the game’s default, over-the-shoulder camera angle. The ability for players to see and decide whether Joel’s face registers the death of one or more of these doctors in any significant way restores some measure of choice in a decision they otherwise have no control over. Having the opportunity to freeze the action and observe it in detail moves the player closer to understanding this emphasis. Nonetheless, that one of the doctors calls Joel a “fucking animal” after he kills the doctor shows that the game designers are at least cognizant of the moral conflict if Joel is not.

The Post-Human Photographer

The ability to photograph a moment of killing and to submit that photograph into the broader panoptic gaze of internet users prompts further concerns. I attempted to address these with the photo series I created in which I had Joel point his gun at Ellie, a fourteen year old girl. The use of guns in this game is one design mechanic that could be examined, the ability to point a gun at a girl seems more pressing.

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While some games automatically force the arms of the player controlled character up when the target reticule veers too close to a friendly character and will not allow the player to fire, this game lacks consequence of any kind. Indeed, the game does not allow the player to fire on a friendly character, even if the trigger is squeezed. The lack of response, either verbal or gestural from the characters who are being targeted as a result of this action is troubling, since the intent is not acknowledged but rather entirely ignored by the game design. While the player can threaten violence to friendly characters, the characters themselves are not programmed to respond. The various means of dissemination offered by the PlayStation 4 system makes these concerns potentially more troubling. After selecting a video or snapshot of their gameplay, players are then able choose a means for transmission: Facebook, Twitter, or instant messaging between other PlayStation users (content can also be easily uploaded to Twitch or Youtube within the PS4 system). No matter the option, the content is associated with the player’s account, which may not be a personal account, but is nonetheless an account that bears the stamp of its creator. Even if the account does not include the player’s name and personal identity, it is nonetheless associated with a player. The photo editor mode thus allows players to produce a material culture of objects within a synthetic game world that can hold very real implications in the real world. What can be inferred about a player who not only points a gun at a virtual child, but tries to pull the trigger? What more can be inferred about a player who takes a picture or a video of this and decides to post it online?

Quite a great deal it seems, according to Katherine Hayles. In “Semiotics of Virtuality: Mapping the Posthuman,” Hayles notes that our identities are constituted in a legal and ethical sense by a myriad of “information networks” that have little to do with our traditional sense of selfhood.  As Hayles puts it bluntly, “humans create objects, which in turn help to shape humans” (132). Indeed, Hayles contends that the post-human self is only fully achieved through constant interrogation of the dialectical positions of being (between pattern/randomness and presence/absence)—a process literally at play in the videogame realm of TLOUR.

A similar notion of displacement and reconstitution occurs throughout the creation of a photographic material in the TLOUR. Photography in this game requires a meta-logic of gameplay. In addition to having to decide when and what to photograph, players must also decide how the photograph will look. Each facet adds a new level of signification to the photograph to ensure that no two photographs between players may ever look quite the same, even if they are following a preset narrative. Thus, the information transmitted and stored by these materials is more than just the mere proof of a player having played the game; rather, these materials leave a trace of their creators. For example, I chose to conclude the photo series with a point of view shot from Ellie’s perspective looking up at Joel and the loaded gun pointed at the lens (Ellie’s face). In the background behind Joel is a sign that reads FICTION.

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The series was taken in a dilapidated bookstore, so the environment served in this shot as both information about the setting and my own ironic critique of the photograph, a gesture that was meticulously staged and composed by myself.

These design choices also manifest in the programmed interactions between NPCs and the environment, and this design I tried to capture, especially the shot in which Joel stands over the beheaded corpse of an infected person he has slain, while Ellie, the catalyst for this carnage, looks away from both. Though this may be a limitation of the hardware—an inability for the programmers to make Ellie focus on the defeated enemies—it is nonetheless a curious design choice given the progression of Ellie’s character. At the start, Ellie is a passive spectator in the game’s action.

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In moments of combat she either hides or is attacked (which triggers a countdown window for Joel to save her). As the game progresses, after Joel has killed a great number of people in front of Ellie to save her, Ellie begins to participate in the conflict, even throwing objects at enemies. When she acquires a switchblade midway through the game, she even begins to attack some human enemies, stabbing them in the back if they are choking Joel for instance. The dynamic between Joel and Ellie reverses by the game’s conclusion, in which Ellie takes on the role of protector and must kill numerous waves of human enemies to save herself and Joel by extension. However, at this early point in the game, Ellie will only focus on elements in the environment, but she won’t notice the bodies. In the latter chapters of the game, players take control of Ellie, and they now have the choice of making her see the defeated enemies, whom she herself has killed. The photo editor mode conscripts the player into a conspicuous awareness of the game mechanics in order to compose photographs.

Conclusion

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich describes how new media changes the significations of old media through computerization. The result is that “[t]he computerization of culture not only leads to the emergence of new cultural forms such as computer games and virtual worlds; it redefines existing ones such as photography and cinema” (35). In the case of the photo editor mode, computerized redefinition of two media (photography and computer games) borders on the creation of another, as yet undefined form. The photo editor mode does so by transposing the operations of traditional photography (players can choose lens features such as zoom, focal length and depth of field) and the new media operations of image-processing software (the ability to adjust colour and contrast) into game options, thus enabling an inauguration of users who are players, photographers and directors of a virtual space.

The implementation of this photo editor mode into Sony’s upcoming PS4 port of their flagship PS3 action game God of War 3, as well as the mode’s implementation into puzzle games like Resogun and a similar mode in the blockbuster action-RPG Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, will offer even further areas for investigation into the rhetoric of video game photography in the future. The reaction to TLOUR’s ending suggests, however, that a game mode which enables and in some cases enjoins players to seek out such sites of conflict embedded in games and render them in photographic objects will open up greater possibilities for game studies. The moral and ethical consideration of gameplay shifts from the gameplay itself to the capture and dissemination of these moments, be it through words or through in-game photography. One area in which to explore the degree to which the photo editor mode enables new and greater degrees of narrative and emotive flexibility for game designers and players alike would be to consider the degree to which the human agent is constituted and conveyed by these photographic practices. This raises questions that cross between both game and photography studies, which would require exploration in the intended mode of display of these photographs, be they as snapshots, archive, collection or series, and to consider the ways in which this design choice alters composition and technique. The photo series I created tried to emphasize precisely these alterations to photographic practice (both to show the flexibility of the mode and to prompt reflection about what this flexibility might suggest for future game photography). Just as the decision to kill or not kill NPCs has prompted sustained debate between players, spectators and journalists, the decision regarding what to photograph or not—between what to document or overlook, disregard or avoid—may become more crucial to the moral and ethical dilemmas a game raises than the gameplay itself.

Works Cited

Hayles, Katherine. “Computing the Human.” Theory, Culture & Society 22.1 (2005): 131-51. JSTOR.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT, 2000. Print.

Naughty Dog. The Last of Us Remastered. 2014. PS4.

Pinchefsky, Carol. “The Real Reason ‘The Last of Us’ Deserves An 8 Out Of 10 (Spoilers).” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 17 June 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Rabb, Josh, and Ashley Gilbertson. “A War Photographer Embeds Himself Inside a Video Game.” Time. Time, 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.