Photographs is a narrative puzzle game that journeys through five tragic stories. Each vignette explores how doing the right thing can lead to loss, heartbreak, and devastation. The game’s charming pixel art aesthetic drew me into each story, but it was how the game used simple puzzles to further its storytelling, that broke my heart each time.
Each of the five tales you play through in Photographs begins with an optimistic introduction to a main character. Their lives start simply enough: The alchemist studies cures alongside his plucky daughter; a young man inherits a local newspaper from his father; a mage studies the magic that will allow her to prevent tragedies. I get glimpses of their life through photographs and voice overs that help me learn about their motivations and ambitions. As I learn more about them, the backdrop for each level evolves. The alchemist’s shop grows in size or the mage turns her former school into her new home. Each evolution in their story is accompanied by a unique type of puzzle.
These puzzles are custom tailored to the individual story of the characters, often mirroring what their story is about. In the story of the young athlete, I follow along as she trains to be a successful diver. To solve her puzzles, I must carefully aim and shoot a ball to ricochet it into a pool of water. As she becomes more skilled, the solutions to her puzzles get more complicated. When her teammates become a part of the story, I also need to shoot a ball into a pool for them as well. Since they are all at different skill levels, some of them are harder than others.
Photographs’ puzzles ease me into each of these stories and act as vehicles to help me understand each character. Eventually, the puzzles begin to mimic a looming tragedy.
An early and subtle example happens during the tale of the alchemist. To advance that narrative, I need to solve puzzles that require me to slide icons that represent him and his daughter around a grid. I control both of them at the same time and I have to figure out how to get both of them into their individual goals. However, in the middle of the alchemist’s story, his daughter gets sick. He rushes to create a cure that works in the short term, but has devastating effects on her down the line. She isn’t sick anymore, but she’s not the same. In the next puzzle I play, I can control the alchemist normally, but his daughter’s controls become reversed. It’s a slight twist to the mechanics, but my heart broke when I realized why.
All five stories manipulate their puzzle’s mechanics to further that tale’s message. They are all cruel twists of fate, but I had no clue that the final trick was going to be played on me. Throughout my entire time playing Photographs, I thought I would just be a witness to each story, solving small puzzles along the way. What I didn’t expect was how the game would use my time with each character against me in the end. The final task felt cruel at first, but in the end, left me with a bittersweet ending I was happy to take part in.
Photographs is short; each tale lasts about 30 minutes, but its impact is lasting. Each story explores how a simple decision, especially one made with the best intentions, can go wrong. It examines how circumstances can cloud our better judgment. Each story shows the painful consequences of trying too hard to be right. While I may never experience the same dire situations this game’s characters face, witnessing their tales as a third party taught me a valuable lesson. In dark moments, we may rush to the first solution that might fix it all. However, it may be helpful to step back from the situation and view it objectively, much like a photograph of someone else’s life. Given time, we may learn that the tough choice, not the most immediate choice, is the right one to make.