Virtual Photography: The Camera Within (Retro) Video Games

An article by Marilyn Roxie (@MarilynRoxie twitter) about their journey into Retro Virtual Photography, plus their video presentation about Virtual Photography in Retro Video Games

35mm image taken of Second Life35mm image taken of Second Life

Marilyn Roxie is a video artist and experimental photographer that has done some amazing work in ‘Retro Virtual Photography’ and photography in video games in general. This article is a great insight into what drew Marilyn into retro virtual photography, and has some mind blowing examples of what can be done with photography in retro video games.

The notion of video games as a photographic landscape has been of interest to me, albeit in a more abstract sense, since age 6 when I first played Super Mario 64 in December 1996. I had only played NES and Atari games prior to SM64 and was amazed by the depth of the world and astonished by the ability to rotate the camera freely in this new environment. Many Nintendo 64 games that I would go on to play would also highlight the dynamic role of the camera, including Pilotwings 64 — which had specific photo-taking missions in its hang-glider courses — and Pokemon Snap, which is entirely based around taking photos of Pokemon that excel in compositional areas like pose and technique. Much has been written about the pros and cons of the N64 camera.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Retro Virtual Photography
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask Photo

I would sometimes wander around these game spaces to just look around or in order to set up a pleasing first-person view, even running around taking a picture at a time with the intentionally limited Pictograph Box in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (featured above). Sometimes as a kid I would photograph the screen itself or record some footage on VHS out of curiosity; a tape is floating around somewhere at my parents’ house of me playing through a few courses in Mario Kart 64.

Second Life Photo, Retro Virtual Photography
Second Life Photo

It wasn’t until I was in art school at San Francisco State University that I returned to the idea of game or virtual reality landscapes as rich material for photography and video. I began to use Second Life, which has many areas permitted for “machinimatographers” to photograph and film, as a base to conduct experiments. The first was chance operation instructions to create a layered photo of a physical environment and one in Second Life determined by GPS coordinates. I tried many other techniques such as photographing the screen with 35mm film and using third-party viewer Firestorm’s powerful photo tools to set up photo-sessions with my avatars and ultimately to make several music videos animated with Second Life.

35mm image taken of Second Life, Retro Virtual Photography
35mm image taken of Second Life

The call for research-based art installations at ‘Provoking Discourse: Postgraduate Research Conference’ at the university I am currently attending (Manchester Metropolitan in England) prompted me to return again to the subject. I created a video about my experience with the camera within video games, also including current work by virtual photographers and ideas I think have yet to be properly explored. My main graduate practice is in now in filmmaking with a focus on music videography and music documentary, so it was exciting to be able to delve back into games for this project.

Seeing work by a guest speaker and PhD candidate, Paul Proctor, is what initially sparked my idea to return to video game photography, though his work does not concern video games. Proctor uses motion graphics software alongside principles of lighting in order to create dynamic images of shape and color. Proctor’s talk was interesting to me in that it caused people to debate among themselves whether the work should be considered computer art or photography (or both). I began to think about my Second Life experiments and my piece exploring my childhood in game environments that I had written about in Dennis Cooper’s Blog the previous year.

When my proposal was accepted for the conference, I began to do a great deal of research in video game photography, especially anything I could find pertaining to pre-2000s games. Material discussing how early screenshots were made, Noirlac’s pixel art edits, Gamescenes, In-Game Photography, and Umran Ali’s incredible Virtual Landscapes book series that provides panoramic views of classic and modern games were some of the only resources considering older titles from a photographic point of view that I could find.

The Wind Waker in panorama from Umran Ali's Virtual Landscape, Retro Virtual Photography
The Wind Waker in panorama from Umran Ali’s Virtual Landscape

There is no shortage of groups and websites dedicated to contemporary virtual photography: Dead End Thrills, Society of Virtual Photographers, countless Flickr groups. With more and more newer titles boasting built-in photo modes and tools like NVIDIA’s Ansel, the potential of the camera within retro video games has largely been left by the wayside. This is why I was so excited to see an inclusion of the roots of in-game photography on Arcade Geographic.

For the creation of my video, I utilized 3DNES, Dolphin, and OpenEmu. 3DNES is intended to be a virtual reality tool that allows the the environment of any NES game the be extruded, but its dynamic ability to rotate and zoom in among other features make it an excellent tool for staging photographic compositions. Tools like Dolphin’s free look have become popular thanks to the Boundary Break YouTube series, allowing off-screen secrets and unconventional viewpoints to be accessed and, in my case, prepping the stage for a snapshot. Inputting codes to hide the HUD (head-up displays ; the health bar, lives, etc.) in OpenEmu or a GameShark cartridge, such as in these Super Mario 64 codes, is essential for uncluttering the screen before capturing when desired. The video I created for the conference is documentation of my early investigations with these tools.

Virtual Photography: The Camera Within Video Games from Marilyn Roxie on Vimeo.

Many people at the conference came up to me and said they had never heard of virtual photography but had fond experiences with the games depicted in my video. One person had asked what the question of authorship in virtual photography might be since we are taking snapshots within worlds that other people have designed. I replied, “if I take a photograph in physical space of some buildings on the street or people walking by, am I not also doing the same thing?” As Cindy Poremba has said:

If the process and ritual behind this image making is similar, the players themselves are validating the reality of their subjects simply by creating a document of these experiences. In this sense, players are taking real photos, just in virtual spaces.

Though I intend to explore them more and learn methods of in-game photography, I also wanted the video to function as a kind of public service announcement to virtual photographers that the content within retro games need not be overlooked.

Check out more from Marilyn Roxie on their website here. If you like this article and the video you can buy Marilyn a Coffee here!

Adventures of Lolo extruded using 3DNES, Retro Virtual Photography
Adventures of Lolo extruded using 3DNES

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