Viewfinder is all about playing with your perception and giving you the tools to do so yourself. It belongs to the difficult-to-define sub-genre of video games popularized by Portal, where you have access to a mind-blowing ability in order to solve puzzles. The danger with giving the player these kinds of god tools to get them to their destination is sometimes the well of creativity can run dry by the end, or it all just gets so complicated that the fun disappears. Viewfinder thankfully falls into neither of these traps, presenting a series of engaging puzzles that frequently ask you to rethink what you’ve learned in ways that never get so complicated to become frustrating.
The core puzzle mechanic of Viewfinder is immediately visually fascinating. By superimposing a photograph over the environment, you essentially bring what you see in the photo into the location you’re standing in. Its most straightforward application is using a picture of a bridge to place a walkable path between two platforms. Impressively, Viewfinder moves past that simple implementation quickly to create more interesting puzzles before even leaving the first collection of levels.
Viewfinder also does a good job of ramping up the abilities. Early puzzles amount to finding photographs in the environment and using them to progress, but it doesn’t take long for you to start using stationary cameras to take photos, a photocopier to multiply needed objects, and eventually getting a camera to take pictures of anything you want. It never lingers on the same mechanic for too long and introduces new ideas up to even the final level.
The final puzzle is the only timed puzzle in the game, but it forces you to take everything you learned up to that point and implement it quickly to get to the end in time. I usually abhor timers in puzzle games like this, but its implementation here was exciting and made me feel like I was breaking the game to arrive at solutions quickly and ended up being a highlight of the whole experience.
Several optional, more difficult puzzles litter the experience, and one of the highest compliments I can offer is that I willingly completed each one. I wanted to see what creative new ways the tools could be used in more challenging scenarios, and I was not disappointed.
Behind all the creative puzzles and perception-bending gameplay does exist a story about a world struggling with a climate crisis and a potential cure that may exist inside of wherever you are. Conversation recordings are found in nearly every level, as well as a handler who speaks to you occasionally, and an ethereal cat named Cait who witnesses and compliments your progression. I ultimately liked its simple narrative conclusion but did engage much with the characters or their interpersonal relationships. It didn’t help that sometimes recordings would play while my handler or Cait was talking to me, which made parsing what was happening (or had happened in the past) difficult to figure out. Ultimately, I am glad a small narrative exists to help contextualize what was happening, but the highlight here is the gameplay and puzzle design.
The entirety of Viewfinder, including completing its optional puzzles, only takes a few hours, but its brevity is a strength. The game has no unnecessary fat where you use familiar solutions to solve slight variations of puzzles you’ve already completed. Every level feels like it is trying out a new idea based on the core concept making it a consistently novel experience throughout.