Earlier this year, God of War added a photo mode.
It was far from the first game with this feature, but the update was noticeable because it felt like it should have been there the whole time. Third-person action games shipping without photo modes are quickly becoming the exception to the rule. And I couldn’t happier about it.
For the last three months I’ve tested photo modes in over 20 games and captured video in nearly as many. You can see the beautiful results in the video above.
I quickly discovered how ubiquitous photo mode has become. I played games on all three modern consoles and the PC. The oldest game I played was from 2014.
There’s no standard for photo modes
Different photo modes are like different camera models: they all have their quirks.
There are the standard features: zoom, field of view, some filters. Most let me move the camera around, though not always the way I want.
Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us won’t let the camera move forward like it’s on a dolly. Neither does Super Mario Odyssey. God of War’s photo mode lets you move the camera as you please, so long as it isn’t too far from Kratos. Infamous: Second Son’s controls separate backward and forward camera movements from rotation and horizontal camera movements.
Most of the games I played were third-person or racing games. What they have in common is that they feature a consistent subject that the player is always looking at: the car, or the player character. This makes them an obvious candidate for photo modes. But some first-person games do get in on the fun. Doom and No Man’s Sky are first-person games with photo modes, but they render the player character invisible.
The platonic ideal of photo mode
True camera freedom is what I want from a photo mode, but not just because I’m after that perfect angle. The ability to press a button (or two) in the middle of a game and instantly freeze time feels powerful. It felt like I was breaking the game. Sometimes I literally was.
While most photo modes don’t work during cutscenes, Hellblade let me pop out and see that the seemingly three-dimensional character I was speaking to was in fact a 2D hologram.
In Wreckfest and Doom, photo mode lets me see the carnage that goes on out of my sight. Photo mode reveals the awe-inspiring psychadelic landscapes of Bound from perspectives you could never achieve in game. Horizon: Zero Dawn lets you cycle through all possible times of day, while No Man’s Sky lets you place the sun right under your cursor with the click of a button. What other game gives you the power to move a star so easily?
Some photo modes aren’t just about photography. Mad Max doesn’t pause time, but it was also the only game to let a second player use their controller to fly the camera like a drone while another keeps playing the game. Warframe separates photo mode into something that feels like a combination of a biology diorama and Pokémon Snap. If you want some enemies to fight in your photography sandbox, first you have to photograph them in-game upwards of twenty times.
The future of photo modes
I delayed finishing this video multiple times because new games featuring photo mode kept being released. Do developers benefit from including this mode? Perhaps making it easier to take neat photos means players are more likely to post them on social media. Maybe the potential for free advertising is enough.
But I also like to think that photo mode is the developers giving us a chance to take a breath and look around. Artists pour hours into creating these worlds.
Whether we even take a photo (or video), sometimes it’s just nice to stop and take a look.
Games featured in An Ode to Photo Mode, by order of appearance:
God of War
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Super Mario Odyssey
Infamous: Second Son
No Man’s Sky
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice