We all have moments we regret. Whether these moments are big or small, consequences result either way. Photographs is a narrative puzzle game (from the creator of mobile hits 10000000 and You Must Build A Boat) that expands on this concept beautifully. It introduces characters who have to live with heartbreaking choices, and we witness their worlds shift during these pivotal junctures in their lives.
Photographs is composed of five unique scenarios that mix puzzles with a character-driven narrative. Every sequence is focused on different characters, and their associated puzzle types are drastically different. One character uses a match-three format, but with the added difficulty of combining items on the board. Another involves sliding puzzles in which two characters move at the same time on a 5x5 grid and must be slotted into different holes to win. As each scenario progresses, the puzzles become more challenging within it, representing the increasingly difficult situations the characters confront. However, they are rarely too hard or obtuse, and the variety means you are never dealing with one type of puzzle for long.
Between the puzzles, Photographs tells stories through short vignettes with voiceover, text, and pictures. Although it has welcoming warm colors, Photographs is cleverly deceiving. The pixelated environments draw you in, but bleakness and despair hide underneath; every story revolves around regret, and each tragic tale feels sincere. The narratives follow a predictable structure by using similar narrative devices to twist the events into chaos, but the experience is less about surprise and more about the fascinating characters and their eventual plights. I won’t spoil any specifics, but with multiple endings, I felt that I had some agency (albeit limited) in how the tales concluded.
The ending I chose appropriately continued the somber story of an old alchemist without being a complete fix to his problems. Still, parts of it felt shallow. I was happy to see a satisfying conclusion for my character, but I wondered about the other characters I left behind and what became of them. One ending unifies the stories in a creative and gratifying way, but I just wish this was the case for more of them.
What I love most about Photographs is how the stories and gameplay are married to feel like one uniform experience. For example, during a section about a journalist, the puzzle format features aesthetic elements like a marker, erasers, and paper that feel appropriate to the world. You have to successfully draw a path with your marker towards a splotch of ink without being hit by an eraser that deletes your progress.
An overarching mechanic ties everything together with the use of a camera. I enjoyed having to zoom into gorgeous pixelated dioramas that change over time, such as a landscape that deteriorates from a drought. Between story moments and puzzles, you zoom into the diorama to search for a certain object or person with the guidance of a one-word clue. While this basic pixel hunting is seen in a lot of adventure games, Photographs makes it interesting with fantastic visual storytelling, such as zooming into a deadly plant that made a young girl fall ill, or noticing a beat-up vehicle turn into an expensive sports car when a character becomes successful.
My main gripe has to do with the puzzle type involving a girl on a diving team. It presents pinball-like puzzles where you shoot a ball that ricochets off platforms and walls as you attempt to fling it into a pool of water. To shoot the ball, you use a few dials to change the angle of how it’s thrown, but the dials were frequently difficult to adjust due to imprecise controls. While this is annoying, it’s a minor issue since you have unlimited tries.
Photographs is a beautiful adventure that isn’t afraid of tackling difficult themes, and it doesn’t come across melodramatic or disingenuous. It isn’t a happy game, but there’s a lot to love with how it introduces sympathetic characters, worlds that are ripe with detail, and puzzles that bring a satisfying challenge.