Photographing Catastrophe for Cash in Umurangi Generation
This review contains slight spoilers
By Ask Vestergaard
Image courtesy of Umurangi Generation press kit on IDGB
Umurangi Generation is a first-person photography simulator. It has no combat, no levelling, no dialogue — indeed, it has no overt narrative to speak of. It just plops you down in a series of open levels and tells you to take pictures. And yet, it is also one of the most politically aware pieces of media I’ve consumed all year.
The game was released in May of 2020 by solo Maōri developer Naphtali Faulkner and consists of eight levels spread across a cyberpunk version of the city of Tauranga, with its Macro DLC releasing in November of that same year and adding four more. You play a gig photographer, commissioned to take pictures and deliver them for pay. You are given free reign to traverse the game’s beautifully detailed levels and are allowed to spend as much time in them as you like. And yet, there’s a timer ticking down on your screen, pressuring you to work faster.
If you complete all your prescribed ‘photo bounties’ within ten minutes, you’ll finish the level with a pay bonus. And every time you take a picture, a dollar value will ping onto your screen. The better the photo, the more it’s worth. But how can the game know how much a photograph is worth? Umurangi Generation treats subjectivity like something mathematical and predictable. An algorithm looks at sharp contrasts or bold colours or focus or ‘moodiness’, and it decides whether or not your art is good — or, more specifically, whether or not it has a market value. Your personal artistry doesn’t matter. You could capture the sun setting behind that seagull — or you could game the algorithm and get the job done as fast as possible to get more money.
At the end of each level, you’ll be rewarded with a new piece of camera equipment to help you take better pictures. However, in addition to the standard photo bounties that you are tasked with completing in each map, you are also given several bonus objectives that must be completed before the ten minutes are over. If you can do these, you’ll have less time to take good pictures, but you’ll get more cash — and you’ll unlock an additional piece of equipment. A piece of equipment that you probably won’t use in your rush to get the objectives done in the next level’s ten minutes. Indeed, despite giving you dozens of lenses and post-processing effects to make every shot perfect, it sometimes feels like Umurangi Generation doesn’t want you to take beautiful pictures. It doesn’t emphasize expression and creativity, but productivity and commerce: if you want upgrades, you need to stop creating art and start crunching.
This affects how you as a player can internalize the story. Umurangi Generation has an environmental narrative that is left for you to piece together through your photographs. The quicker you blaze through a level, the less time you have to truly look. You’ll see enough to understand much of the story through your photo bounties, sure, but there’s a lot more to see than what you’re asked to shoot: Maōri hakas, antifascist protests, graffitied reminders of human rights abuses, homes swallowed by rising tides. You’ll miss many opportunities to internalize the game’s politics by rushing it in your desperation to make money and get upgrades — and as such, Umurangi Generation perfectly simulates how the grind of capitalism disincentivizes class consciousness. The drudgery of your job in the gig economy ensures that systemic problems that are right in front of your eyes go completely unnoticed, and thus unrecorded.
You have a camera. You can document the suffering of your people. But you don’t. Replicating that exoticized postcard is more lucrative.
Image courtesy of Ask Vestergaard
And then there are the bluebottles. Every level is scattered with dead jellyfish and photographing them results in a penalty to your paycheck. The bluebottles are the result of an apocalyptic catastrophe — one that nobody seems to be talking about.
This silence is one that Naphtali Faulkner knows well. The bushfires that raged across Australia from 2019 to early 2020 were disastrous: 126,000 square kilometers of land set aflame, destroying thousands of homes and killing billions of animals. At least 33 people died in the blaze, and hundreds more passed away due to complications caused by the smoke. The fire also burned down Faulkner’s mother’s home. In the aftermath, Faulkner watched as disaster relief programs acknowledged the catastrophe but completely ignored the root cause: climate change. Umurangi Generation is Faulkner’s protest against Neoliberalism’s purposeful impotence in the face of disaster.
The crisis in Umurangi Generation isn’t climate change — at least, not the kind we’re living through now — but taking photographs of bluebottle jellyfish nevertheless means acknowledging that there is a crisis at all, and that is taboo. Your pay gets docked; a red light flashes on your screen. You can take pictures of mourning widows and crushed tenements and advertisements that say ‘is your house about to go under? We can make it float!’ — but you cannot acknowledge the root of the problem.
That is, until ‘Underground City’, the final level of the Macro DLC. The level is set in the middle of a large demonstration, where protestors struggle against militarized U.N. peacekeepers who are supposedly there to provide aid and protection but are, ultimately, just violently clamping down on the people suffering the most. Suddenly, you don’t gain money after every picture you take — you gain reblogs and retweets. And taking photographs of bluebottles has no negative effect — instead, you are reprimanded for photographing the faces of protesters and violating their anonymity.
Umurangi Generation is a furious video game. It is a raging criticism of capitalism and the denial of the climate crisis, and, incredibly, it communicates its message entirely through gameplay. It subtly pushes you to grind, to sacrifice art for productivity and to ignore the world burning down around you. And that is why it is one of the best pieces of art I’ve had the pleasure to experience all year.