Umurangi Generation

released on May 19, 2020

Umurangi Generation is a first person photography game in the shitty future. Set in Tauranga Aotearoa off the back of an impending crisis you are a courier for the Tauranga Express. Along the way you take photos to make ends meet. Throughout the game you will unlock a variety of lenses and equipment.

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A cool little photography game with an amateurish lo-fi vibe and musical accompaniment from the always wonderful ThorHighHeels. It feels personal, respectful, responsible. Experiencing the end of the world from the perspective of a Jet Set Radio character offers commentary that would not have been possible in a traditional action game from the perspective of a soldier.

really great camera game that captures the mood of the 2020s perfectly
Main campaign drags just a little bit imo, the DLC is fucking perfect tho

As someone who got pretty heavy into street photography again this summer, I wanted to give this genre a second chance despite my lukewarm experience with Toem a couple months ago, but in my first impression of Umurangi Generation I just got reminded of some of the same design philosophy and issues as i had experienced back then. However I eventually found more intention here than in Toem.
The gameplay loop consists entirely of following a restriction of checklists with the photos you need to take for the game. Add to that, an incentivesed speedrun for a bonus if you complete all of the bounties in the current location below ten minutes, which seems utterly antithetical to the joy of photography.
Is the act of being a gamefied contract worker really the only possibility for these types of games? Does it really also need a ticking timer in the corner to stress me out on top of that?
And I can understand the feel for the existence of the former, but only because we are trained to expect some kind of tangible objective to follow as gamers and game designers. Umurangi Generation to my suprise actually found a way to elevate this game design obligation. (I get into that a bit further down) "If there are no conditions to be met how else could you call it a game, how else would the game know you did the thing!" could be argued. My problem with this notion is that every photography game I have played inevitably turns the inherent creativity of that artform into something different instead of searching for a way to fully embrace it.
For about fifteen minutes of trying to check off the ten-solar-panel-bounty from the list in the second level "Otumoe Tai" I was naively ignorant towards the little, extra symbol next to that objective, because I genuinely didn't even want to consider that the game asks for further, more specific restric.. I mean conditions to take my shots. I legit thought my game was bugged or some shit, but turns out I was truly a bit naive and that Umurangi Generation wants it's players to take most of their pictures with a very particular lense or distance to the sub- and objects for successful progression. In those twenty minutes my efforts at photography became really uninspired and after that realisation the recovery from this seemed pretty usless to me and the game.
The timer, which in my playthrough continued in red numbers upwards to infinity (it should just disappear after you failed or only be unlocked after your first completed run of a level) for no apparent reason other than to tease me with exactly how much time I have been wasting in this game, was not encouraging a different mindset.
There were two levels after which I gave up on trying to loose myself in "making art" and just tried to speedrun the act of pointing at the right thing with the right thing in the right way, but failed each time to get the bonus and dreaded to complete tasks in which I was asked to count a bunch of things again. If I had known this game was more about counting shit, finding specific stuff or the semi-puzzle of detecting an angle(often a single intended one, for the most egregious of the bounties to my delight illuminated by a neon green circle, which presumably also earns the player some extra cash to stand in and take their photo from but Idk) to combine multiple of the intended sub- or objects in one frame, all with, and I'll say it again, A TIMER STARING AND JUDGING YOUR EFFICIENCY, I probably wouldn't have bought it on a whim and engaged in a little more thinking feller behaviour before that. I should just stop going into games completly blind and adjust my expectations with a bit of research beyond looking at some screen shots or looking at a high number next a promising ramping curve on a Backlogged entry, smh.
Thoughtfull level design kind of alleviates some of those complaints a bit. Like when I was inside the Train a bounty asked to photograph twenty sticky notes. I knew the game wouldn't get my lazy ass to actually count all the things on my screen again, but low and behold I eyeballed it and the first snap I took of a wall in the kitchen had generously, exactly that amount of yellow squares rendered on it. Occasionally my illiterate ass got stumped by a single word in the objective (my dumbest moment, which I would like to share for the readers amusement, was seeing the words "two coffees" next to the word "downlight" in which the context of coffee made me unironically, on autopilot and by association deduct, while also not really questioning the lack of a space between the two, that "downlight" had to be an in-universe drink.. you know like bud light.. In retrospection I am fully selfaware that this was hilariously stupid, but Idc to admit this while simultaneously still blaming the game, because this was the first bounty with two entirely different genres of things, there is an overabundance of in-universe food items in this level and the term "ceiling light" exists. Lol. Hell, I should just play games, with the option available, in German. The word used in that version of the game translates literally into ceiling light and not "Einbauleuchte" as google translates my headcanon light beer,(I only looked this up after the fact tho) would have saved ten minutes of my time which I am now more than matching with this self-reporting paragraph about my own idiocy for your entertainment. Edit: I actually managed to find a streamer with an even dumber thought process than mine all love tho and the photo is pretty fire)
But man, thank god, most of these problems seem kind of more.. unimportant once world building does it's magic, the story fully lifts the curtains and the worth of the camera in your hand achieves it's, by the game intended, purpose. (I actually won't spoil that much of the story or themes in here)
Those very specific things you need to photograph lead the player to examine the Mise en scene,(unless of course they just unpluck their thinking box and only scan the enviourment for the crucial thing) so while the gameplay could feel like contract worker's fetch quest to me, the lists are admittedly kinda genius in getting the player to focus on each individual polygon, it's meaning and as a result in it's enviourmental story telling and exposition. A part of this trick Umurangi pulls, which shifted my initial annoyance about it into appreciation once I got what it was doing, were the at first glance decivingly simple descriptions which lead me to inspect every render in some of the comfortably small levels to rule each one of them out. When a prompt asks to photograph a specific word for instance, I would in tandem, even if just accidentally, read most of the sentences on a poster, graffity, the small print on a random box, the food item label, or beyond just the headline of a magazine a NPC might hold in their hands.
This got me to properly inspect the green fireflies while searching for a butterfly which lead to some cool isolated close ups of one, or aware if the large amount of cigarettes, knifes and medkits in the UN millitary camp while searching for those objectives(some of the first clues hinting that there is something more sinister going on than the rooftop photo-session like in the intro level before that), or to fully inspect the unravelling apocalypse outside a moving train while joining the flashing of a red light.
How the entire Walled City is looking for solace inside VR gaming headsets, while I was taking shots of a the word "gamers" a bunch of times. Crazy how a prompt like "photograph the word gamers 7 times" can lead to such a hard hitting declaration by the game I myself was currently escaping into. Seeing a fully armed and ready Military OP right next to a twitching dude with a VR headset tucked to his face is pretty jarring imagery. Or how your first sight in that level are a bunch of joyful folks dancing in the streets, I in an instant felt obligated to capture with my shutter, just to turn that camera lense and understand what the name "Walled City" truly encompasses.
Through this design Umurangi Generation engaged me in it's story, themes and humanity with a sharp but subliminal efficiency. All of the games I've played then forgotten in which the gorgous, painstakingly sculpted 3D models, digitally printed graphic designs, each intentfully placed static pixels on my screen transformed into backround noise after the obligatory respect for the effort, all of which are contrastingly focal in this world and even highlighted in their low-poly beauty through the gameplay of toying around with an array of lenses and settings gifted to the player.
A part of me believes that all of these observations I just attributed to the games design would have still taken place without it's reliance on checklists, but the existence of one itself gives context. Who am I taking these for? Who even pays me for it? The ominous implication of getting a fine for photographing the blue shells, which needs a bit of time to fully settle in, comes to mind. That this at first deceptively simple mechanic to get the player to be more careful with the framing and not just mindlessly waste a filmroll has genuine meaning in the story was brilliantly executed.
The music is also more than worth mentioning, but I have to admit I fell like condensing a plethora of tones and soundscapes into a few sentences, not wanting to adding another wall of text, always boils down to using genre descriptive buzzwords. In the context of this review a famous Elliot Erwitt quote on photography is fitting "The whole point of taking a picture is so that you don't have to explain things with words"
Maybe that's why I'd rather listen to, or play music than attempting to find the right ones for something that maybe can't be reduced to them and my RYM is as empty as my ball sack after listening to this OST. Anyways.
Bouncy, atmospheric synth- and drum-sample-heavy EDM, Breakbeat and Hip Hop transcends the atmosphere even further and goes hard from the moment you are greeted by the flapping vapor-waves of the penguin at the starting screen. There might be a few duds here and there, but the sheer volume and consistency in the catalogue for such a short game is impressive on it's own.
(Pretty irrelevant, but why did that MF choose the surename Adolf in his music?? Or did his parents do that to him? I couldn't find it out)
Gonna go even more off the rails here and talk about my love for street photography a bit, although truthfully the game feels more like you are a war correspondent, which I cannot speak on in the slightest and like I explained it even kinda convinced me of its game design philosophy on photography after some time and thoughts, but still.
Street photography in general seems impossible to replicate inside of a Video Game. You try to capture the slipt of a second in time, in an endless stream of movement. No looped animation circle could achieve that. Street photography specificially(hell, realistically war photography even more so, but probably for different more legitimate reasons) even if harmless can be an adrenaline rush. "Everything you've ever wanted is on the other side of fear" You'll need to be friendly, confident, subtle and bold in the same breath and not afraid of some verbal confrontation. It is kinda therapeutic to me and genuinely helps me with my, during covid developed, agrophobia and social anxiety. If they catch me while snapping it I just smile and tell them what I am doing, most of the time they don't even care. I only take pictures in touristy spots and mostly groups of old people and their dogs, but I still sometimes catch myself not wanting to disturb anyone and once I only take one picture in a span of twenty+ minutes that's when I am done for the day. I just do it for myself, to get better at it and photography.
It also lets you view the world through a different lense (bad pun intended). You start noticing and appreciating lines, shapes and people you were previously blind towards and develope an eye for when a real or interesting moment is about to unfold out of the nessecity to capture it. "All the the technique in the world doesn't compensate for the inability to notice"
There is no way a glorified screenshot in a Video Game could ever come close to that specific experience. That game would need to be a money-eating, ambitious risk and for a very niche audience. And probably the only, I hate say this next string of words, open-world-game I would get giddy for. Shit I'll just go outside and do my thing there.
Like I said I don't actually want write about or spoil the story, beyond a few observations up to the halfway point at least. Mostly because it's the one thing best experienced for yourself and someone smarter probably did a better synapsis or analyses about it. That reminds me, now I can finally, fully delve into that new Jacob Geller hood classic, this time without skipping the portion about this game. Also this review is way to long already. Holy.
I might bump the score eventually, because I am aware I sometimes like to judge games for what I wish they could have been, which is silly when a game achieves what it set out to do well enough. Despite having even more nitpicks like the finicky 3D platforming I didn't care for or that I wished the NPCs had at least some kind of reaction to shoving a camera up their faces or words to say about it and the world instead of just changing the poses of the player characters friends. The score will always be capped though, because the implementation of a timer is inexcusable to me. (I've said that like four or five times now lol, but I was just unable to ignore it in my playthrough)
The layers of presentation, the very unique branch of the low-poly (gonna throw reductive buzzwords out again) "neonpunk vapor-wave" aesthetic, the bopping OST and the detailed, environmental world building gives Umurangi Generation the worth to spend your time and money on, but I would recommend leaving the house if you go into this expecting it to scratch more than a very simple and gamefied itch for photography, although it found a way to give purpose to it's use in a slightly different context.
I actually would recommend the latter to eveyone here, in all of the ways you choose to interpretate it. Aight, imma grab my film rolls and head out.

Umurangi é sobre ser o último a ver o mundo morrer, apagar as luzes antes de sair. O verbo é ver, literalmente, pois o que podemos fazer é apenas presenciar e registrar, em filmes que ninguém verá. O plano de fundo toma inspiração muito clara e direta do Terceiro Impacto de Evangelion, com um vetor anti-colonialista havaiano dando uma direção política interessante ao fim do mundo que retratamos - os heróis e os vilões não são óbvios, e o fim sempre é uma bagunça. Diante da impotência, apenas nos resta viver: dançar, pintar, encontrar na comunidade uma euforia que acompanha e precede um luto contínuo - alguns já se foram, e o seu futuro não existe mais.
Ainda que não seja do tipo de vaguear por mundos digitais, me senti um pouco comprimido pelos objetivos rígidos de cada fase: tire X foto com Y lente. Sinto que foram colocados para guiar o seu olho por pontos de interesse, porém achei que, ligados a um timer e a alguns bugs no reconhecimento das fotos, distraem o jogador de absorver totalmente o ambiente e tirar as fotos que realmente quer tirar. Como tiramos essas fotos por dinheiro que não temos como gastar em funcionalidades de gameplay, há quiçá um certo comentário sobre como até no fim do mundo: a última geração ainda precisa de freela pra viver.
Quando se trata de fotografia, sou uma batata. Não entendo de composição, edição, lentes e boas práticas. Ainda assim, gosto de tirar fotos, especialmente quando consigo através delas capturar uma sensação, ou uma narrativa - ainda que através de um olho destreinado, com resultados porcos que muitas vezes só fazem sentido para mim. Umurangi Generation me deu um cenário cativante para fazer isso, e até me ensinou um pouquinho sobre como tirar fotos de um jeito em que ainda seja meu. O mundo deles pode ter morrido, mas fica nas minhas memórias e na galeria, desconfortavelmente enfiada no fundo de users\[username]\AppData\LocalLow\ORIGAME DIGITAL\Umurangi Generation. Imagina como foi achar isso no Steam Deck.

Very cool game. The environmental story telling was incredible, but alas I am no artist I am but a baby with a camera trying to find things like it's iSpy. That's to say I don't know how to make cool photos and I feel like that's the artsy appealing part of the game.