I: This Is Art, Right?

The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it. Art is the transforming experience. — Joseph Campbell

The number of people who don’t consider games as “art” is declining, but it’s still common for me to get laughs when I talk about game photography. I challenge these same people to look at the Cities: Skylines photos below side-to-side with a similar picture of real life and ask themselves if the one rendered in Cities: Skylines (2015) is seriously that much less valuable as a piece of art than the one taken of the city of Vancouver. At the end of the day, they’re both showcasing the same kinds of things, and I think they should be spoken about in a similar way as the works produced by so-called “real photographers.”

Who says that murals on the sides of buildings are more valuable, culturally than the collective man-hours used to construct a nontrivial video game’s renders? The line is pretty arbitrary, and I’d argue that anybody who thinks otherwise should take a few minutes to look up screenshots from the following games:

While a real-life photographer might reposition objects in their environment to frame a better image, so too can game photographers reposition their camera in time & space to improve the resulting image.

I.I: Where To Draw The Line

There’s a fine line to walk, here. A game has to be non-trivial enough that a random sample of images taken from the said game does not look alike. An example pf this would be a game like BioShock (2007), where any given screenshot of that game might look the same because every player will see and do the same things. Every game photographer would be showing off the same picture of a Big Daddy. Nothing too special.

The “best” kinds of games for game photography tend to be those that let the player construct something out of a set of provided assets. This isn’t a strict requirement, but it’s a good rule-of-thumb. [1]

Art inherently assumes creativity from the artist, after all, so taking the same pictures of the same cutscenes is perceived as derivative. It’s the same reason everybody hates photographs of your local fireworks display or a plate of food you thought looked nice. Everyone has the same picture from roughly the same angle; it’s no different in any meaningful way, and as a result, it’s not valued by most consumers. On the other hand, the photographer doesn’t want to come across as lazy, because art is usually quite good when artists put in a substantial amount of effort, so one might avoid taking pictures of things like cutscenes for fear of being devalued in the minds of others.

II: Prerequisites To Photography

Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. — Berthold Brecht

I’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of requirements a game needs to satisfy to be used for game photography (effectively):

Using this list, we can start to compile a list of games that might produce unique screenshots. Games like:

Again, this isn’t a non-exhaustive list; honestly, these mostly came from what I’ve been playing lately. But, it’s a solid stepping-off point.

II.I: Helpful Mechanics

One minor feature all games of this type should have is a button that disables the HUD. This isn’t necessary, I guess, but it facilitates the taking of screenshots bu removing anything that might look tacky or dated. The HUD is only really useful for you, the player, as you play the game. So, I’d say it’s a minor requirement that you can be able to disable HUD elements.

Fig.1 Switch Pro Controller's capture button

It also helps if the platform you’re playing on has some kind of dedicated screenshot button! Steam’s overlay allows players to take screenshots of their games. So do the PS4 and Switch controllers; I prefer the Switch’s capture button because it doesn’t open a menu to process the image.

Show-and-tell time! Here are some screenshots I’m particularly proud of. (And yes, this article is an obvious excuse for me to show off some my photographs). I hope these inspire someone to take some pictures of the games they like. I find the process of taking photos for these articles and reviews to be highly therapeutic.

Ex.1 Devil Daggers (2016), before the chaos

This one is minimalist. It also (kindof) breaks one of my loosely-outlined rules by being the first thing players see when they press “Play” for the first time. Everyone will see this in pretty much the same way. However, this is just too clean and pristine to exclude.

Ex.2 Parkitect (2018), mountain-side park

Theme park management games always produce the prettiest screenshots, and Parkitect is no exception. The game’s isometric view helps to frame the park in an aesthetically pleasing way. The multitude of customization options means you’ll rarely see two parks that look the same.

Ex.3 Cities: Skylines (2015), forest spire

Theme park management games always produce the prettiest screenshots, and Parkitect is no exception. The game’s isometric view helps to frame the park in an aesthetically pleasing way. The multitude of customization options means you’ll rarely see two parks that look the same.


[1] Games like The Elder Scrolls just barely meet these requirements. Their procedural world and the ever-changing time and spacial variables of the player character can lead to some pretty nature pictures. Getting to the top of a mountain and snapping a pic of the landscape boasts enough effort, creativity, and uniqueness that it probably won’t lead to your invalidation.