2023's most mind-bending puzzle game gives you a magic camera and invites you to break the world

Taking a photo of an upside down teleporter, flipping it right way up, and placing it in the environment in Viewfinder.
(Image credit: Sad Owl Studios)

When I played Viewfinder's public demo back in April, it kind of blew my mind. Even just in that short slice, its central idea—taking photos and then placing them in the world as 3D objects—was absolutely enchanting. So I jumped at the chance to mess around with an early build, playing through around the first 2-3 hours of the game.

The game introduces you to its mechanics slowly—you don't start with the camera itself, instead at first just finding pre-made photos in the world, then using fixed cameras mounted on poles in the world. It is a little frustrating, when you know what's coming—I just want to start messing about with the camera as soon as possible—but these early levels do a good job of giving you a really firm grounding in how the bizarre physics of photo-placing work. 

(Image credit: Sad Owl Studios)

You learn about using gravity to your advantage—for example, turning a photo upside down so that when it's placed an object falls out of an otherwise inaccessible space. You learn about the importance of perspective—how the angle you place the photo at can totally change the resulting alterations to the environment. And you learn about building platforms and structures by layering photos one on top of the other.

Even at this early stage, things get mind-bending—a sequence with a battery that turns out to be an illusion stumped me for a long time until I started thinking in photo logic. The consistent goal—you're always just trying to get to the teleporter to the next level, though sometimes you need to find batteries to power it up too—keeps things grounded, allowing the developer to ramp up the weirdness in the environments without overwhelming you. Particularly charming is when you find other 2D objects that can be used in the same way as a photo—such as placing huge playing cards as platforms and watching all the hearts fall off them, or placing a blueprint of a robot and watching the little invention come to life. 

(Image credit: Sad Owl Studios)

But it's when you finally get hold of your own polaroid camera that things start to get really interesting. Being able to take a photo of anything and place it anywhere is just magical—it feels like taking all the rules you've ever understood about moving around a digital space and breaking them over your knee. The technology behind the game alone is outstanding, and I bet it's got many other developers scratching their heads. 

Puzzle-solving past this point becomes far more creative and improvisational. Though the developer is one step ahead of my shenanigans more often than I expected, I still get to pull off plenty of puzzle solutions that feel uniquely my own, bodging together level geometry into inelegant but supremely satisfying results. It's remarkably difficult to break the game—you can merrily layer photos on top of each other, take a photo of your Frankenstein creation, then layer that over something else, and it all just clicks together.

(Image credit: Sad Owl Studios)

And whenever you feel like you've completely mastered a particular technique, Viewfinder throws in a new wrinkle. From power lines that must be kept intact in your photos for the teleporter to work, to scenes that force you to find the exact perfect viewpoint for a photo to get what you need, to strange, reactive optical illusions in the environment, the game constantly kept me on my toes and rethinking my camera skills over these first few hours. 

What I am still waiting for, however, is for it to really let me loose. All the puzzles I've done so far have been fairly small in scope—essentially large rooms—and once you find the teleporter, that's it, you're on to the next puzzle or back to the fairly bare hub to start a new set. When you're not in a puzzle room, your camera is disabled, so there's nowhere to really test the limits of your abilities other than just replaying old levels.

(Image credit: Sad Owl Studios)

The game feels like it's crying out for a fun sandbox, somewhere you can really get wild with the camera, and perhaps spawn in different objects to mess about with. The constrained puzzle rooms feel claustrophobic at this point—I want to spread my wings. It may just be the limitations of the tech that keep things small scale, but it does feel like thus far the game isn't quite living up to the potential of its one incredible trick.

It's unfair on the small dev team, but I can't help but imagine this camera transposed into something grander and more ambitious. Imagine an immersive sim where you had this power, breaking into a bad guy's mansion by placing photos of doors on walls, stealing a treasure by taking a snap of it, making turrets shoot at duplicates of themselves, or dropping guards into MC Escher-like traps. I'm sure it'd be impossibly janky, but I'd love to see it.

(Image credit: Sad Owl Studios)

Perhaps a fairer comparison is the Portal games. Viewfinder has a similar feel to that classic series, in how it invites you to play with the logic of one killer mechanic. But what I've played of Viewfinder so far feels like I'm still in those early testing rooms in the first Portal, and I'm yearning to get to the part where you break free of GLaDOS' control and start messing around in all the places you're not supposed to be. But with a camera instead of portals, y'know. 

I'm hoping that the game does get a more open later on—even if my dream of Deus Ex: Polaroid Revolution is a little far-fetched. But based on the map screen, it's not a long game, and I suspect my 2-3 hours represent at least a third and maybe as much as half of the content. That makes me cautious of getting my hopes up too much for how far Viewfinder actually ends up being able to take the concept.

Regardless, even if Viewfinder does end up just being a limited and linear showcase for its central magic trick, it's still maybe the best magic trick I've seen in a game yet—one I still think anyone who loves PC games needs to try for themselves when it launches later this year.  

Robin Valentine
Senior Editor

Formerly the editor of PC Gamer magazine (and the dearly departed GamesMaster), Robin combines years of experience in games journalism with a lifelong love of PC gaming. First hypnotised by the light of the monitor as he muddled through Simon the Sorcerer on his uncle’s machine, he’s been a devotee ever since, devouring any RPG or strategy game to stumble into his path. Now he's channelling that devotion into filling this lovely website with features, news, reviews, and all of his hottest takes.