I don't think I've ever fallen in love with a game quite as quickly as I fell in love with Umurangi Generation. Set in Tauranga during a "crisis event", the game sees you playing as a parcel courier who has a sideline taking photos. What this amounts to is a photography game that plays out in intricate and characterful chunks of levels - levels that are filled with colour, storytelling and plenty of stuff to take snaps of.
The sense of being immersed in the youthful culture of Tauranga is wonderful. The first level sees you up on some rooftops, graffiti on the walls, a skate ramp set up in an alley. There's a long list of things you have to get pictures of to complete the levels, and another list of optional extras. I spent a long time hunting for certain items - a disposable camera at first seemed impossible to locate and then I found two - and a couple of challenges are more a question of framing than anything else. Birds are everywhere, but where do I stand to get seven in a single picture?
While I was doing all of this, I was enjoying the atmosphere that the game creates - people taking it easy, listening to music, making little spaces of the world their own. Later levels pile on the storytelling - it turns out that hunting around for details in a scene is a pretty excellent way of letting the player make sense of a narrative - but for now in this first level I got to enjoy a lazy day with new friends.
Umurangi Generation is brilliant about photography. The camera is a lovely chunky, mechanical thing, even before you start to get new lenses and bits of kit. It's fun to focus and see how the frame changes your view of the world, carving a scene into little vignettes. The game is also pretty great about how it grades photos. It doesn't really want to tell you what a good or bad picture is. It wants you to get the pictures you have to get, but it also wants you to express yourself.
This game is the work of just two people - Naphtali Faulkner, a Ngai Te Rangi designer living in Australia, and ThorHighHeels, the composer, who is from Holland. Faulkner's mum's house was burned down in the Australian fires at the end of last year so he channeled a lot of his emotions into making the game. He was also inspired by teaching his younger cousin to use a DSLR.
Umurangi Generation is out on Steam now and it's a total treat. I will continue to snap awful pictures and to marvel at the pictures that the wider community is taking. It's the perfect game for the current moment.