Horizon Zero Dawn and Photo Mode

This post is a little different, and perhaps will be contentious as to how much in-game photography counts as "real" photography, especially given how photographers love to argue about film vs digital, cropping, photoshop etc. I'm definitely guilty of this as before I dismissed in games photos taken using photo modes merely as snapshots of somebody else's creations. However having now played a game with a photo mode and used it to take photos, I've definitely changed my mind on the matter. So let's get into it. 

Horizon Zero Dawn is an action role playing game developed by Guerrilla Games, best known for their first person shooter series Killzone. The setting is a post apocalyptic future, but not quite what you'd expect from that, at least going by established works in that genre/setting. If it wasn't for the ruins of buildings, vehicles and other structures, the setting could easily be that of a fantasy/sci-fi world where there was no apocalypse as the landscape is both varied and hospitable with snow capped mountains, dusty deserts and lush forests all thriving with human, plant and animal life. Most of those animals happen to be machines, recognisably modelled on animals like crocodiles, deer or even dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus rex! I won't spoil the particulars as to why there are giant machine animals roaming the land, that's something to uncover if you play the game, but they are perfect as photographic subjects in the game. As is the red haired protagonist of the story, Aloy.

Horizon is a beautiful game, not only is the setting gorgeous and the machine designs incredible, but the lighting in the game is phenomenal. It was described by the developers are being "hyper real", and what that means is a constantly changing weather and time cycle, with consistently gorgeous lighting, whether it's a deep pink sunset across a mountain range or beams of sunlight bursting through a dense canopy of trees. Image the series Planet Earth but dialled all the way up to 10.

Horizon's photo mode is the first of it's kind that I've used, so I can't comment on how it compares to photo modes in other games, but from what I've been told, it's stacks up pretty well. The way it works is that you pause the action, select Photo Mode from the menu and at that point all the on screen display information (aka the HUD) disappears and you can freely spin the camera around your character and look for the perfect shot. There is a limit as to how far back or up you can take the camera, but it's a good distance that allows a great deal of framing opportunity (imagine a super wide angle lens to telephoto, with your character as your anchor point). Where the mode gets most interesting, and what I was most surprised by, was the amount of options and creative control you have. The biggest tools for me were a depth of field setting, where you can select your f stop and set your focus distance, with the widest aperture being f1.2, and the ability to change the time of day. The option to isolate subjects and then change the time of day means you can get really creative with your shots, so it wasn't just about framing and composition, but also lighting and mood.

Once you've composed your image by setting the frame, adjusted the depth of field to focus on exactly what you want and changed the time of day (which has a big impact on how everything looks and the way it's lit), you can then fine tune everything by adjusting the brightness and using filters to change the tone of the colours, or go black and white. The intensity of the filters also can be adjusted which allowed me for example, to use the vibrant filter to bring out the colours, but then reduce the intensity so it wasn't overwhelmingly bright. There are also little features like being able to add borders of different kinds. I particularly liked the two black lines at the top and bottom of the frame which gave some shots a cinematic feel.

To take a "photo" you use the Playstation 4's in built system to take a screenshot, which captures an image of whatever is on your screen and that is saved as a .jpg or higher quality .png which can be shared directly to social media from the PS4 or copied onto a USB stick. 

Overall I was amazed at the amount of creative control you have when taking photos. The tools you have at your disposal mean that it's unlikely two people will take the same shot if they start messing with any of the settings. Browsing photo threads on gaming forums shows just how varied the results can be and that there is still a lot of skill involved, in taking and editing a good shot, as in taking real life photos. It's also not just a simple case of pausing the game and taking a shot. A lot of the time I'd actually try and set up a shot, by positioning my character in a certain pose or place, luring the machines close to me (usually taking some hits in the process), then waiting for certain animations or the machines to attack etc. Even if I only wanted to take a photo of the machines themselves, you still have to get close to them as your character is the anchor for the camera, and then you're waiting for the AI to position the machines in the pose you want. This did mean I sometimes spent over a hour just trying to get one photo and often times the end result wasn't even that great! The creative process was still fun though so it wasn't time wasted. 

So while I have most definitely changed my mind about the creativity involved in taking photos of a game world, I do still think most of the credit should go to the artists and designers at Guerrilla Games for giving everyone a perfect, photogenic world to play around in, and making it easy to take great shots. It's not quite real photography but it's still a lot of fun if you enjoy the creative process and who knows, maybe using photo modes in games will inspire people to pick up a camera and get into photography in the real world. There might not be any giant robot dinosaurs outside but there's still plenty of things out there worth taking photos of. 

This was one of the first shots I took in the game and the first time I was really inspired to start messing around with the mode. This was taken in a area where you can hit vents to release steam, hiding yourself from the machine enemies. At one point earlier in the game I was crouched down in the steam, bow and arrow ready and drawn back, waiting for a machine to get closer before I took him out. It was only after I killed him I realised that the light of the machine coming forward through the steam and the silhouette of Aloy ready to fight would have made a good image. So I kept trying to get the shot in subsequent areas but it wasn't easy! The machines tend to have a set path they take, but you can alert them and make them come over to you by either throwing rocks or whistling. In this case I could see there was a machine close by but it wasn't going to come near the vent unless I brought it over somehow. So I threw at rock to get it's attention and the light on it's face changed from blue to yellow which means it's suspicious and will come over to investigate, but it then saw me and it's light changed to red and it was ready to pounce, I managed to hit pause just before I got hit though to get the shot. It took a few attempts but I was pretty happy with how it turned out! 

I think the above is a good example of what you can really do with the in game tool set. The top image shows what I was seeing on screen when I paused the image. To set it up I used a skill in the game called override, which allows you to take over a machine so it becomes friendly towards you and doesn't attack. All other machines however become hostile to it though and as they usually travel in pairs, packs or herds, a fight normally breaks out (great way to thin a herd if there are too many machines to take on at once!). As the machine AI is pretty incredible in the game I'd often just take over one machine just to watch it fight others. You can tell the developers must have spent ages watching wildlife documentaries, studying how animals fight in order to come up with their attack patterns, and as the AI was so good I knew I could get some good action shots of the machines fighting, if I kept watching and trying. You need to be close enough to the action so that you can take the shot, but not so close that any hostile machine spots you and starts attacking you instead. Once they start fighting you have to keep pausing and un-pausing mid attacks until you get the right shot, then you can start messing around in the photo mode itself. You can see just how much you can do when you compare the final image with the starting point above. I changed the time of day to brighten the background and highlight the machines, moved the camera to purely focus on the two machines, adjusted the depth of field to really isolate the machines, and finally tweaked the colours and brightness to get it exactly how I wanted. 

I took the above images quickly just to highlight how changing the time of day alone dramatically effects the lighting and mood of the image (and to highlight how good the game looks!).

Nearly all games have idle animations for their characters when you don't move them for a while, so it was fun to try and see all of them in this game and see if any of them would make for good poses. I'd also often change outfits to try fit in with the surroundings and either compliment or stand out against the machines. 

Thanks for reading and congratulations to everyone at Guerrilla Games for making one of the best games I've ever played.