Camera Obscura

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Anteater Games for PC, originally released in 2015.
The camera obscura has made a number of appearances in pop culture film, music, and video games. Gamers most likely know its name due to the mysterious apparatus used in the Fatal Frame series to photograph – and attack – ghosts and capture their spirits. It may be unsurprising that this device has little in common with its real world counterpart, but its supernatural properties have grown into a part of our accepted fiction.

In the game Camera Obscura, the object of the same name is used to photograph the world around the player character, leaving behind a ghostly afterimage that may then be interacted with as if it were a part of the physical reality. You play the role of a young photographer attempting to reach the summit of a gigantic Babel-like tower that extends high into the sky, built by an ancient sun-worshiping people.

The protagonist’s reasoning for ascending the tower, and details about the tower itself, are slowly revealed as she collects photographs spread around the various areas. Each of these photos contains not an image, but rather a snippet of text, revealing the personal history of the character, details about the tower and the people who built and lived within it, and descriptions of the tower’s resident creatures, all of which are deadly to the touch.

The player is equipped with only the most basic of platforming skills: a 1.5x variable jump. There is no double jump, no wall jump, and no offensive abilities of any kind… just a jump. As such, players must generally avoid any of the critters they encounter, which include slime creatures, moles, bats, and insects. Each creature has different movement abilities, so the player must be aware that slime creatures will walk off ledges, whereas moles will not, and insects can crawl up walls and around platforms.

The protagonist’s primary abilities come from the use of her camera. Each time a photo is snapped, a ghost image is created, representing all of the solid objects onscreen, such as platforms and walls. For a brief moment after the image is taken, the player can move around, and the ghost image will move along with him. Shortly after, the image will lock in place where it may be interacted with like any other platform, allowing the player to create ghost platforms over gaps or create stairways leading to higher areas. However, after a few seconds, the ghost image disappears.

Players are free to snap as many photos as they like, although there is a medal-based grading system that ranks players based on the number of afterimages used, and the amount of time taken to get through each area. These rankings are hidden on the player’s first attempt in each area, but may be viewed in the menu if the player wishes to return to a previous area to improve his time or try to get through with less assistance from the camera obscura.

The afterimage mechanic is core to all of the game’s puzzle platforming challenges, and several levels are dedicated to understanding the basics of navigation under such unusual conditions. Challenges may require that the player stand back from a ledge before running, snapping an image just before a jump, and then landing on the newly created afterimage that is suspended in midair. Or, the player may need to jump and snap a picture at the apex of the leap, landing on the ground to “drag down” a section of the environment to reach a higher ledge. Timing is important as well, as the player must be aware of when a ghost platform is about to disappear.

Later levels include challenges with moving platforms, which may be photographed to create a stationary afterimage. Some objects in the environment do not transfer into the ghostly space, including certain metallic blocks, thus creating gaps in your photos. Other objects, such as green lights, cause portions of the afterimage to disappear when passed through the light, requiring much more careful movement, and the occasional activation and deactivation of a series of lights. It is also possible for the player to accidentally pin himself between a moving platform and an afterimage, which means instant death, but players may also manually dissolve an afterimage by holding the ACTION button for a couple of seconds.

While the player does not gain any new skills during the course of the game, he is asked to make more difficult and precise movements throughout the experience, where proper positioning and timing become more important. Since the afterimage moves slightly slower than the protagonist, players must pay close attention to their starting position when snapping an image and moving. Players may also be required to string together multiple snapshots in succession, jumping away as the previous afterimage disappears in order to take a new snapshot while in midair.

Players have an infinite number of lives, and may make as many attempts as needed in order to complete a given challenge. The checkpoint system is quite generous in early levels, returning the player to a nearby safe point upon death, although there are many challenges in later levels that require a series of precise photos and jumps, and many of these return the player to the start of the level if even a single mistake is made. Levels tend to be fairly short, resulting in only a small amount of repeated gameplay upon failure of a challenge.

Afterimages affect other living things in the environment as well (except bats), which means that roaming creatures may be moved to other platforms, caged off from the protagonist, or even squashed and killed… although sometimes you need to make use of these creatures in order to solve puzzles. Since creatures can activate buttons by walking across them – and creatures can often move into areas that the player cannot reach – they must often be manipulated to flip switches on your behalf to open doors. This may be as simple as raising a platform to let the creature reach a new area, or as complex as navigating a single creature through a large environment filled with obstacles and bottomless pits.

Creatures can also flip switches that close doors, potentially blocking you from reaching the end of a level if you don’t move quickly enough, thus creating short time-based challenges. Failing this sort of challenge requires a manual level restart. There are also a few instances where creatures spawn infinitely, requiring players to find ways to avoid them rather than simply killing them and pushing forward.

Progress is made in a linear fashion through a series of themed areas, so each level must be completed in order to move onto the next, and completion of each area opens up the next level of the tower. Aesthetically, the tile art in the foreground is quite plain, but the backgrounds are detailed, and there is quite a bit of diversity throughout the various areas in and around the tower. The musical score is done in a fantasy style and mixes orchestral tracks with modern synthetics.

Camera Obscura was developed by Anteater Games, a studio founded in 2011 and based in Irvine, California. The game was originally conceived in April of 2011 during a game jam at the University of California in Irvine, for which the theme was “shadows”, which the team continued to develop over the course of the next several years. This was the studio’s first commercial release.

The studio also supports the Get-Well Gamers Foundation, a charity that provides video games to children’s hospitals for entertainment and pain management purposes, and some proceeds from the sales of the game directly benefit this charity. Ryan Sharpe, lead developer for Camera Obscura, founded the charity in 2001, which benefits more than 170 healthcare facilities in North America.