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Toem is a video game built entirely around a photo mode

A small adventure in an overwhelmingly interesting world

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Many big-budget video games come with a dedicated photo mode these days — a tool designed specifically for capturing a game within a single frame. There’s no real standard for photo modes: Most come with zoom and camera movement, but no two are the same, allowing players to take a breath to capture something with a shutter click. In Toem, developer Something We Made’s game is built around the idea of a photography mode. That’s the whole game.

It’s part of a growing number of photography games that use the act of capturing photos — and noticing environments around the player — as the main function of the game. Before Toem, Umurangi Generation used photography to tell a story of a decaying world; Alba: A Wildlife Adventure used the practice in its feel-good story about saving and appreciating natural environments; and, of course, there’s New Pokémon Snap, a game using photographs to test your perfect timing. Toem is the next iteration of the photography game. It perfectly uses the snap of a camera shutter to evoke a cozy, lived-in world.

a photo mode screen with options to zoom or flip the camera. the subject is taking a selfie with a bear Image: Something We Made

When Toem begins, you’re given a camera with some basic functions, letting you zoom and take selfies, and you set out on a journey to the top of a mountain to photograph something called the toem. The camera is essential not only in capturing that trip, but actually traveling through the different cities and towns, too. Bus trips to each of Toem’s locations require a bunch of stamps on the bus pass, each of which can be earned by helping out locals. Mostly, helping means taking photos, but it sometimes means whimsical and silly tasks, like taking a ghost on a date. The simple mechanics of stopping to snap a photo — sometimes with light puzzles that include a tripod or horn to surprise subjects — work so perfectly with the goofy charm of Toem’s towns. The game itself is small, just over three hours to complete, but manages to pack so many sweet moments into its concise world.

It’s the sort of game that I want more of, but I’m thankful the developers stopped when they did: Every new discovery and world feels fresh and fulfilling, and not a single moment felt overwrought. There’s just enough in Toem that I want to (and actually can) uncover all the secrets. It feels similar in this way to Adam Robinson-Yu’s A Short Hike, the indie breakout from 2019, despite the two games being nothing alike mechanically and visually. Like in A Short Hike, getting to the top of Toem’s mountain as fast as possible is not the point, because the sheer joy of these worlds is built to be savored.

Toem was released Sept. 17 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC via Steam.

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