Whenever I go hands-on with a game at a preview event, I try to maintain a bit of a poker face. I’m ultimately there to do a job, so I tend to stay focused on what I’m playing and quietly work through my first impressions in real time. That routine went entirely out the window the second I got my hands on Viewfinder, a game that quite literally had my jaw hanging open for 20 minutes.
If the title isn’t ringing a bell, there’s a chance you may have seen Viewfinder on Twitter at some point. In 2020, developer Matt Stark shared an impressive work-in-progress video that showed a character taking a 2D polaroid photo and then walking into it, seamlessly turning a flat image into a full 3D space. Three years later, that neat trick has become a complete game – one that has me in utter disbelief. If the final build is as magical as what I played at this year’s Game Developers Conference, we could be looking at an all-time great puzzle game.
Within seconds of my Viewfinder demo, I find myself shouting “No way!” out loud. The basic gist is that it’s a level-based puzzle game where players need to solve objectives by taking still photographs and placing them in the environment. On a DualSense controller, the left trigger holds a photo up while the right trigger places it. No matter where a photo is placed, it’ll instantly turn into a fully explorable 3D space within the world. I’ve seen the trick in various videos at this point, but playing is truly believing in Viewfinder. It’s an astonishing feat.
The puzzles start simple enough. At first, I’m picking up specific photos and using those to alter the environment. In one puzzle, I need to get three batteries and place them on a power pad to turn a teleporter on. I find a picture of a room and carefully line it up so its floor attaches to the one I’m on. Sure enough, I’m able to walk into the photo and round a corner within it to grab a hidden battery. In another puzzle, I need to get past a large gated wall. I place a photo of an opened gate right on top of it and then walk right through into the space behind it.
Every puzzle the demo threw at me felt entirely distinct and like it could be solved in a variety of ways. A PR person for publisher Thunderful noted that the game is almost like Portal in some way, where players need to learn how to “think with photos.” I learn exactly what that means when one puzzle has me trying to reach a rooftop that’s too high for me to jump to. I find a photo of a building nearby and initially don’t get what to do. That’s when it hits me: I can rotate the photo and line the building up, so it acts as a walkable ramp leading to the roof. Every time I place a photo, I’m shocked by how perfect the effect is. It feels truly impossible.
“There’s potential here for a once-in-a-generation, genre-defining puzzle game.”
Later, I grab a camera that lets me take my own photos, further cracking the puzzle potential open. In one puzzle, I see an upside-down building in the distance. I take a snap of it, rotate the photo so it’s right side up, and walk onto the platform surrounding the structure. When I round the corner, I find a teleporter standing sideways on the wall, unreachable. I figured I messed up at first, but then I remembered my camera. Taking a snap of the teleporter allows me to place it right-side up in front of me and finish the level. During a later level, I get a battery off a tall pedestal by taking a photo of it, turning it upside down, and placing it in the sky above me so the battery falls from the photo and to the ground.
The absolute genius of solutions like that has me sold already, and I get the sense that I’m only seeing a small percentage of Viewfinder’s depth. One level has me picking up photos in entirely different art styles – from an impressionist painting to a children’s crude house drawing – and walking through them. In another area, I can pick up a screenshot of a Mega Man-style game and walk into it to grab a pixel art power-up that increases my jump height – enough to get me over a tall fence.
The demoist showing me the game actually managed to break that level by taking multiple photos of that power-up and then getting the jump boost multiple times, increasing his jump so high that he permanently flew off the map. Moments like that left me stunned and excited for what’s to come when the full game launches. I was left dreaming of a potential speedrunning scene, where players take and place photos in clever ways to zip through levels in ways the developers probably never intended.
There’s potential here for a once-in-a-generation, genre-defining puzzle game that we haven’t really seen since The Witness or even Portal. After my demo, all I know is that I need to play more the second I can. It’s already filled me with a remarkable sense of wonder that I haven’t felt from a video game since I was a kid.
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