Perhaps you, like me, have someone in your life who is not as well versed in video games as you. Perhaps you might try to hand them a controller sometimes, after they’ve expressed an interest in what you’re playing. Suddenly, problems arise. Chiefly with camera control. They don’t know how to look where they ought to be looking while moving where they ought to be moving. The camera juts up toward the sky, and then, just as suddenly, the ground. They appeal for help, and you try to explain, struggling for metaphors. The, uh, left stick is the body? And the right stick is the head? This does not help. They pass the controller back to you. In your hands, the game looks like a movie again, and not an art house flick meant to elicit motion sickness.
After a while, the basics of controlling a first-person game, shooter or otherwise, feel as natural as riding a bike. They’re not something you actively think about. (They’re certainly not something you mention in your intro for Polygon dot com.) But while playing Viewfinder, the first game from developer Sad Owl Studios, the particulars of first-person camera controls were all I could think about.
Viewfinder is a first-person puzzle game that tasks you with placing photographs over existing geography to modify your terrain, allowing you to reach the stage’s exit.
Like all great puzzle games, it starts simple: It hands you a premade photograph of a bridge and shunts you in the direction of a place where a bridge might go. You raise the photograph, line it up roughly with where you’d like it to be, then, wham, presto change-o, you’ve got a real bridge, out of the photo and into the traversable world with the press of a button.
Quickly, of course, Viewfinder introduces complications. The exit now requires a battery. Simple enough: Here’s a photo of a battery. Place it in the scenery, and now it’s yours. Ah, well, now you need two batteries. Easy. There’s a conveniently placed photocopier that will allow you to make a copy of a similarly convenient photo of a single battery. Eventually, you take possession of a camera, thus unlocking Viewfinder’s true potential: the game’s laser focus on the act of observing, searching for what needs to be replicated in order to proceed.
[Ed. note: Early-game spoilers for Viewfinder follow.]
Comparisons to Portal arise, especially as the game shows its narrative hand. Early on, you accidentally create an error within the simulation that reveals the true setting. Gone are the warm locales dotted with sofas and snacks. As you’re extracted from the simulation, you now find yourself wandering a cold, brutalist structure overlooking a city skyline blanketed in red, dusty air. The game is set in a future where Earth has been beset by the effects of climate change. For this East Coast writer, the choice of the red-tinged sky was made all the more haunting by the ongoing wildfires in Canada and their downstream effects on air quality across the Eastern Seaboard. Also brought to mind were the images of the day the sky turned orange in San Francisco in 2020. This is all to say: Viewfinder is sci-fi, but nearer to realism than one might want to acknowledge.
You quickly fix the problem that ejected you from the simulation and return to the world of photographs and bridges. You’re not engaging in VR for escapist reasons, however. Somewhere in this digital world, you are told, is the solution to the climate crisis.
It’s a fairly dramatic setup, reinforced with copious notebooks to read and audio logs to listen to, as is typical for this kind of game. There’s also a talking cat named Cait, a Cheshire-like figure, who chats with you throughout your journey. (Yes, you can pet the cat.) It’s an engaging enough narrative shell, but it was the puzzles that pulled me through.
If Portal is about creating apertures by which to traverse the world, Viewfinder is about creating the worlds by which to traverse apertures. By the game’s conclusion, levels go far beyond the simple “make a bridge with a picture of a bridge” and into much more complicated — and satisfying — territory.
I got stumped by one puzzle that involved a sphere, some geography that could not be photographed, and a slope. I stared at it for 10 minutes, totally baffled, when, finally, I laughed as the lightbulb went off in my head. Without spoiling anything, the solution involved turning what would usually be a mistake of photo placement into a solution. It’s a clever game that teaches you to play it not only through your successes, but your mistakes as well.
Viewfinder leaves you wanting more. I hoped, as the credits rolled, that there might be some additional challenge levels unlocked, but alas, I’d done all there was to be done. Still, I suspect there’s more lurking inside the game. Outside of the early required simulation breakage, wherein you discover the red-sky world you call home, I found another opportunity to break out of the game’s intended boundaries. What I encountered was odd, magical, and physically impossible. It made me grin a big stupid grin. Immediately, I wanted to go back and play it all again, sure that there must be other such geometries waiting for me to ask, “What if I tried this?”
Viewfinder is puzzle game heaven. You’ll never look at a Polaroid the same way again, if you’ve ever looked at a Polaroid at all.
Viewfinder will be released on July 18 on PlayStation 5 and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Thunderful. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.