It’s just weather
It’s just earthquakes
It’s just kaiju
It’s just the end of the world.
There’s something about photo modes in video games that always attract my attention. I know nothing about color balance or the proper use of light when capturing pictures, and while I always remain curious and will hopefully learn more about it at some point, photography is a mere hobby I don’t get to practice much. Photo modes allow people like me to flex that non-existing muscle, and Umurangi Generation might be the most innovative iteration of this idea.
On paper, it introduces itself as an urban and vibrant take on Pokémon Snap, set in Tauranga Aotearoa, a region in New Zealand. But it’s much more than that. It’s a story told through environments and still, living moments that we inhabit for as long as we want, exploring surroundings and trying to piece clues about an upcoming disaster. It’s a tale about Ngāi Te Rangi, a depiction of the Māori, and a glimpse about a fictional disaster built upon real life fears, concerns, and realities.
I highly recommend reading Dan Taipua’s review at The Spinoff to obtain a much clearer and necessary perspective about the many themes underneath this story. This review, instead, focuses on how I discovered these stories bit by bit during my 5 hours with the game without any prior knowledge. And the lasting impression they have left on me.
Umurangi Generation starts on a fairly simple premise. You’re wandering on top of a building who’s been turned into a skate park of sorts. Your friends are there, moving to the music. There’s empty graffiti scans and boomboxes everywhere, phrases written on the walls with flashy colors, and a beautiful sunset that sets the scene. You only have a camera in your hands, as well as a 10 minutes timer and a checklist of places and objects of interest to photograph or find scattered in the level. Get close enough to one of your friends, and a prompt will ask you if you want to change their pose. After you take a picture, there’s many sliders to edit it on the go, with many more that unlock over time. It’s whimsical beginning, set itself between a restful coziness and a rebellious sense of style. But everything becomes far more darker and complicated from there.
I must say I wasn’t immediately sold on the general idea. The first environment, as gorgeous as it was, was presented as a mere transitory place. It was the timer, really, that made me rush as much as possible, retrying the level a handful times until I had marked as many items on the checklist as possible (there’s a primary and a secondary list, and the overall score is dictated by the shots you took and how much money they all made up for). I didn’t pick up the game until a couple days after that first session, and was immediately put off by the prospect of having to rush myself again. In turn, I just began to ignore it. I wasn’t going to obtain perfect errands, but it was fine by me. It’s a game that is enjoyed best by keeping the UI at its minimum (a welcomed setting in the options menu), and I found it to be the perfect way to see all of it through.
Objectives vary depending on the level. They seem straightforward enough, but even if the scopes of each scenario tend to be really different between each other, I still spent a lot of time trying to complete as many as possible before moving to the next area. There’s a sheer excitement in fulfilling all the available tasks before delivering the parcel, and that feeling never wore off. You can edit photos just by moving a few sliders to obtain the desired result, and they will be saved automatically on your PC. While compositions matter, there’s an encouragement for experimentation and trying out different angles that I personally wouldn’t have imagined pursuing in real life, and that’s exciting. Over time you unlock more lenses and effects to play around with, and by the time I was close to the end, I was already thinking on revisiting the levels again just to try them all out.
What I found the most interesting is how levels are structured, and presented, to the player. These are living, breathable worlds – your friends do gestures, there’s the occasional group of people dancing, you can see coworkers taking a break and birds resting often. During the beginning you can only hear the (incredible) soundtrack, but there’s sounds that begin to mix in as you venture further. All of this constitute to a particular moment in time. You won’t see people walking or actively reacting to your actions. They all move on a fixated place that loops endlessly – it’s kind of an ideal playground for a photographer, the opportunity to never miss the perfect photo because suddenly the world stops and waits for you to take it.
And the moments are mesmerizing for many reasons. Umurangi Generation begins with a couple folks hanging out in the middle of nowhere, and it turns unexpectedly grim from there. The second area already shifts the landscape from the sunny haven in that rooftop to a United Nations outpost, graffiti cans and boomboxes slowly being replaced by shipments with guns. An impeding danger draws near in every level, until it suddenly appears with a bang. The calamity is represented in an invasion of otherworldly creatures. All of the sudden you see your same group of friends carrying machine guns and helping tending to the injured. Everything is still frozen in time, but you suddenly feel in an unease state. In those moments, I wish I could have been of help, to try and snap these familiar faces out of their trance and tell them things would be okay in the end. But it was not an option, as much as it’s not an option to prevent what happens in the later levels.
It’s a story that represents a world long gone, and how people do the most to endure despite knowing what’s coming. It’s a spirit best represented in the The Strand, a later level that is under lockdown, surrounded by a barrier. It’s by far the most populated area in the game, and the most lively as well, even under its conditions. You see parents and their kids wearing masks, people sitting on the floor lost inside VR headsets – but there’s also people who have taken over the streets and turned them into a massive dancefloor, or underground passages who are one with neon lights, presenting themselves as urban galleries with colored chairs hanging from the ceiling and drawings on the walls.
But it’s also a reflection of our current state, living through a global pandemic that many choose to ignore, or have simply decided it just ceased to exist. It’s a reflection of the fires that have taken place worldwide ever since the year began, and many years prior to 2020. It showcases a fictional threat, but the reactions and the damage it causes hit too close to home. People leave their thoughts on the walls because they’ve grown tired of screaming them at the people in charge, each graffiti a personal mark of someone who saw all of this coming, and received nothing in response when they asked for help. People that are, instead, left confined in their own spaces, ending up having each other’s backs even when the odds are far from equal. The camera is a mere tool to try and record all of this, to try and tell the story one last time, before it all disappears.
Perhaps the 10 minutes counter in Umurangi Generation isn’t targeted towards the player. Perhaps, it’s a constant reminder that we’re running out of time.