Viewfinder Review- Perspective Puzzles and Poignant Ponderings

Viewfinder by Sad Owl Studios is not a game about photography. Photography is an element of it, and an important one to be sure, but Viewfinder is about perspective, about finding views both literally and mechanically, and metaphorically and narratively. Mechanically, in that the core mechanic of the game is to take or find pictures and align them with the world around you, you then replace parts of that world with the picture, take a perception of reality (what you can see in a picture) and use that to override reality – to make what you perceived, and make it real. Narratively, it’s about vision, about trying to change reality, finding and losing perspective, tunnel vision, and losing sight of what’s important. 

In Viewfinder you play a faceless and nameless person – actually, it’s more formless than even faceless, since there are instances where you can take photographs of yourself and you appear as visual glitches on the instant pictures that come out. You have just entered into a digital world created by a group of radical scientists engineers and artists who wanted to combine their talents and stave off an ecological disaster, one which has already ruined the planet in your time. You must navigate the digital world in order to find the record of the great inventions this group was able to dream up but not implement before things fell apart in the hope of using it to fix things. You are joined on this quest by your friend outside the simulation, Jessie, and by a digital Cheshire Cat named Cait, a creation of the think tank that remembers them fondly and wants to help you as best he can, which largely amounts to encouraging words and yes, allowing you to pet him.

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Cait the Cheshire is helpful and encouraging, and yes, you can pet the cat.

You start your journey with a few abilities in your toolbox. You can jump, but not very high, you can rewind time freely inside the simulation you’re in, and you can pick up images- pictures, drawings, paintings etc. and set them down to paste the reality they depict over the reality that was there before. If you screw up placing a picture, don’t worry, you have that rewind button which can undo putting a picture down or picking one up, or even the entire level if you want.

Of course, those aren’t your only abilities, just the ones you have for every level. A short ways into the game you’ll find an instant camera that can take photos or whatever you look at, fixed cameras, fixed cameras with timers which you can use to photograph yourself and use as a makeshift in level teleporter, photocopiers that can be used to create copies of images you already hold- all of these ones I’ve mentioned thus far have limited uses and many of the puzzles revolve around finding ways to efficiently find new film or manage the few photos you can make or find.

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Even the instant camera is given to you in a picture turned three dimensional.

There are also images painted onto the walls of the world itself that you have to align to create new passages or props, and some of my favorite: doors which change the filter of reality and which gate off areas of the map, and ‘picture impervious geometry’ – my name for it, not the game’s – which cannot be photographed and cannot be overridden with other images. These last two are fascinating and appear late in Viewfinder, and despite featuring fairly heavily in the tail end of the plot, still feel criminally underused for how fascinating they are as puzzle elements. The ‘picture impervious geometry’ is interesting as it is simultaneously ever shifting in minor ways but immutable in any way that matters, which is actually a nice bit of thematic harmony with the narrative of the person who added it into the world you’re exploring. There’s also a variant of the instant camera that appears in the final levels, one that has gone wrong – immediately obvious from the way it shakes occasionally – and which instead of copying the area it took a picture of, deletes that section of the level as it creates a picture.

And that’s far from the limit of puzzle elements. In addition to the teleporters which act as the level’s goal marker, there are batteries and charging pads to put those batteries on to power the teleporters, power switches, power cables that stop working if they are cut off, sound makers, sound sensors, capacitors, and there’s even a scale in one of the bonus levels that requires melon duplication to satisfy. There’s tons of unique ideas here, and I’d love to see more done with them, such as a bonus map pack of custom level editor as there just didn’t seem to be enough of them to last.

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There’s tons of unique ideas here.

I tore through Viewfinder‘s narrative and bonus levels in pretty quick order. Considering I did this in the middle of the night while also fighting off an infection should give you an idea of how fun this game was to play. One of my biggest gripes with Viewfinder is how short it is. I tore through this game in just shy of six hours and I was not trying to rush things at all. I didn’t go for completionism – I left one bonus level uncleared and about half of all the achievements, several of which have to do with collectibles scattered about the various levels and hub worlds – but I was still pretty thorough.

I said the game was narratively about perspective as well, and it is. Not so much yours, though. It’s important as well, but the narrative Viewfinder wants you to focus on is the differences in perspective between the four members of the think tank who created the environs you’re exploring and how those differences led to both their great success and their great failure. The world is filled with notes, journals, scribbled messages to each other, gifts, jokes, and mementos as you navigate their personal work spaces one by one, meeting them and understanding them, what their goals were, how they differed, and how their perspectives aligned, clashed, and ultimately blinded them in critical ways. As a minor spoiler, when I found that the fourth and final member thought sound travelled faster than light in one of her journals I knew we were dealing with warped perspectives, something born out in several of her levels where contrary to the game’s expected modus operandi things would appear one way and turn out to be deceptive, like a set of stairs turning out to be an optical illusion of stairs in an empty corner. Or how her levels which begin featuring picture impervious geometry also coincide with her thinking becoming more rigid, unwilling to change and consider other perspectives and reject the ideas of another member of the think tank.

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Levels begin to become more unususal and distorted as you reach points in the narrative when people’s own perspectives were showing distortions.

The “main” plot of your character and your friend Jessie trying to find a McGuffin to solve the environmental crisis comes across more as a framing device for the four friends and their interactions in comparison. That’s no bad thing, and there is a satisfying resolution to your own arc. But again, I would have liked more with the foursome. While the scattered recordings of their memoirs and interactions are lovely, and Cait’s fond reminiscences are wistful and poignant, it might have been nice to hear more of them, maybe even see some scenes played out between them, especially some of the more tense moments near the end of the plot, which I think would have fit very well into the crumbling aesthetic of the final hub world.

One thing I’d like to point out as a positive are Viewfinder‘s accessibility controls. While there’s only one timed level in the game- the final level as it turns out- there is an option to turn off the timer in the settings, along with numerous other compensations for folks that might require them.

Maybe a different medium will help you find the right perspective.
Maybe a different medium will help you find the right perspective.

To sum up, would I play Viewfinder again? Absolutely? Should you? If you like puzzles that require a lot of physio-spatial reasoning, then go right ahead. You’ll love it. Even if you don’t, it might be worth a try for the story, the visuals, and the friendly digital cat you get to play with. My biggest gripe is that there wasn’t more of it, and you can take that as a sign that what was there was pretty darn good.

Tim played Viewfinder on PC with a review code. Viewfinder is also available on Switch and PlayStation.

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