App Reviewed on: iPhone XR
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Luca Redwood, the man at the helm of EightyEight Games, has a great track record when it comes to mobile releases. 10000000 and You Must Build a Boat are two of the most revered puzzle games on the App Store today, despite the fact they’ve been out for years at this point. Given this history, it should come as no surprise that Redwood’s latest game, entitled Photographs, is yet another well designed puzzle game that works well on the small screen. What you wouldn’t expect though is that it’s also a gut-wrenching and powerful narrative experience as well.
Five stories, five games
Photographs is a game about regret. It tells the story of five different people in entirely different situations who make decisions they wish they could take back. The game leads you through these stories using evolving pixel-art dioramas and mini interstitial voiceovers.
To reveal these narrative moments, Photographs gives you puzzles to solve, and these puzzles are different based on which of the five stories you’re playing. The game starts with the story of The Alchemist, and his puzzles are basically sliding block puzzles (think Red’s Kingdom), whereas other stories down the line contain Pachinko-style mechanics, quasi-tangram puzzles, and more.
Flashes of brilliance
No matter which story you're playing in Photographs, the game moves in a predictable pattern. A diorama sets the stage, you poke through it for a specific object, you get a micro dose of story, and then a puzzle pops up for you to complete. Similarly, each vignette in the game follows the same rhythm of story beats: Things start out humble and happy before taking a turn for the worse, and the main character is forced to make a decision that ultimately has a huge negative impact on the rest of their life.
Despite this rigid structure, there's no moment in Photographs that feels rote or repetitive. This is thanks in part to the game's clever and varied puzzles design, but–perhaps more importantly–the stories themselves are all smart, sharp, and tied directly to the puzzles you're completing. Similar to something like Florence, there are moments in each vignette where the puzzles aren't just a harder version of what you've been doing before. Mechanics are added, or get inverted, or even break, in ways that aren't just creative or novel–they're also incredibly moving.
It's worth noting that the stories in Photographs aren't just tales of personal tragedy. They also grapple with larger ideas and examine subjects like the responsibility of media and the psychological trauma of colonization. Although this could make Photographs's stories sound like simple fables on issues from humanity's past, present, and future, the game actually manages to weave its tales in a way that gets its ideas across without feeling overly preachy.
Everything still feels personal because Photographs ties you, the player, to these characters through the intermingling of puzzle and story. You don't feel disconnected from what's happening on screen while the game philosophizes at you. Rather, you feel the same push and pull that each character does, and you understand and relate to why they are doing what they're doing, partially because you are the agent driving them forward on this path. It's remarkable when a game can do this kind of thing at all, but Photographs is able to do it so well on a small screen format and in a really short amount of time (each story takes about 30 minutes), and that's perhaps the game's greatest trick of all.
The bottom line
In case I haven't driven this home enough, Photographs is an incredible game. It's moving, challenging, satisfying, atmospheric, and smart at every turn. Photographs feels and plays like a singular creative vision that's been distilled into a potent little puzzle game. You absolutely must play it.