In my opinion, I guess.
You are not an ‘aspiring’-anything. If you write, you’re a writer. If you paint, you’re a painter. But even I must admit that putting ‘photographer’ in my Twitter bio was a push in 2016. Many of us are victims of it, posting a few shots of our prettiest friends and wild flowers on Instagram and believing we are society’s window into the hidden layer of nature. I still like to take shots, and as a video producer I need to know my framing from my f-stops, but recently I had to admit the passion to freeze the world for a moment had, sadly, dulled.
Had my perspective of the world changed? Could I no longer recognise daily beauty? I was at a loss, so decided to take a trip back to the best photo mode I’ve ever played, and also the best glimpse into what 2022 may look like: Mad Max.
The ability to take photos in-game can range from smartphone selfies to a free-roam camera able to explore a frozen space within the game engine. It can show off the impressive scope of games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, or capture frozen moments at new angles in the often-chaotic Super Smash Bros: Ultimate. You can sometimes pose your protagonist and create horrific imagery, such as making Kratos smile. With AAA titles rocking graphics and engines constantly one-upping each other, it’s also a way to flex their detailed environments and modelling. A fun bonus, that’s often not even used. However in Mad Max, I barely play the actual game.
Based on the Mad Max movie franchise, the game explores a desert wasteland dystopia where cars, whacking each other, and whacking each other with cars is the new way of life. Enemies pull up to pick fights and, with your trusty Magnum Opus, you can shoot or harpoon face-painted angry boys into an explosive Valhalla. It’s in those moments when my shotgun is hanging out the window and an obnoxious spiked truck has just detonated behind me that I find my fingers pressing down on the analog sticks, launching straight into photo mode. The car lurching slightly, the flash of the explosion glinting through the empty caged windows, an exhaust pipe frozen in space by my head, most likely alarmed by the situation.
I can move freely within five metres or so in this mode, and in that space there are a huge amount of possibilities to interpret the scene. The desert mountains, approaching enemies, flying debris and your sidekick mechanic become characters you can rearrange how you wish. Using depth of field settings or filters one frozen moment can become an epic wide landscape, an intimate black-and-white portrait, or an all-red destructive blur. Mad Max has the tools but also the sheer speed and power of impressive vehicles to create images that have this feeling of raw, dynamic action every single time.
Many games have this level of functionality, but the barren nature of dusty sand dunes invites you to treat it like an action movie sandbox: to play. Every ramp, explosive barrel shot and triple car collision became not just an insurance nightmare but an opportunity to appreciate the moment more, and try stuff a little more crazy. And instead of hiding in a settings menu, the dual-analog stick press is such a natural, perfect key-bind to pause the action and create something new from what you see.
But instead of forcing yourself into an action siesta, photo modes can also capture the already quiet moments in gaming. God of War was a perfect example of a game that had a photo mode not for the axe-wielding troll battles, but the breath-taking hikes through the mythical Midgard snow. It let me step back from my protagonist and take in the landscape wider to appreciate it justifiably. It gave more meaning to the travel between battle, and gave reason to pause and take in the beauty of the game.
In 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man and 2020’s Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the photo mode spawned a community of in-game photographers capturing various spots in New York City, which made me stick around certain places and embrace the neighbourhoods instead of just zipping through endless concrete buildings passing by. More recently, this gives us a chance for digital tourism of sorts, as this connected me with the feeling of a big, bustling city that doesn’t exist right now as it does in-game. And for exploratory and quiet moments Mad Max is no different, as I often stopped by cliff edges and peered out into the foggy wasteland hills, stretching onto colossal wrecked ships, giving every landscape a sense of unsettling melancholy for a forgotten past.
As a final example, Cyberpunk 2077 dominated social media feeds and not just because of the numerous bugs, but as an incredible photo-mode playground. Neon lighting against puddled streets, strange machines passing over smoggy, glowing buildings. Despite the game’s poor performance, they pulled no punches with its elaborate photo settings even on the level of my Mad Max favourite. It helped capture the aesthetic of cyberpunk in new and creative ways, along with action shots of people T-posing nude on motorcycles. Doesn’t beat the wastelands for me, but that level of neon is always tempting.
These moments frozen in time transported me back to when I used to feel the same way about the real world. A rain-soaked street, a beautiful glass building, a drunken friend. Photography took me out of my own body and focused on the beauty around me in the moments I would often busy past, and still do. The vivid simulation of Mad Max and other photo mode games gave me easy pickings for gorgeous scenes I could tap my limited eye for photography into and not just appreciate the work talented developers sunk their life into, but activate that version of myself that believed themselves to be a photographer.
I suppose with a camera, we all can be. But in the real-life moments travelling from battle to battle, or during the heat of the action, I found it’s important to learn to create those moments of clarity. There’s a chaotic Mad Max wasteland in every second, and it’s up to you to freeze time and capture something everybody else missed.