Solving a short, sweet snapshot of tragic puzzler Photographs

It's a good thing Photographs has fantastic music. I boot up a preview build of one of the game's five chapters and am instantly treated to the unmistakable work of Ben Prunty, the same composer who scored FTL, which is more than enough to knock that one stupid Nickelback song out of my head (it's stuck in your head now, sorry). With that out of the way, I can properly focus on the game. Which, so far, is also quite good. 

Photographs is an upcoming puzzle game from You Must Build A Boat and 10,000,000 creator Luca Redwood. I'm playing its shortest chapter, The Alchemist, a short story about an old alchemist who lives out in the middle of nowhere with (who I presume to be) his granddaughter. As I understand it, each chapter has its own puzzle type—in this case, 5-by-5 sliding puzzles where the goal is to move the alchemist and the granddaughter to their respective exits. 

Puzzles start off exactly as they should: simple and silent. Photographs doesn't tell me how to get to the exits, or even that I should. But it's easy to intuit, and more satisfying because I figure it out myself. The trick is that the old man and the young girl can't occupy the same square. They'll stop each other, so I can use them as buffers to make sure they wind up in the right row or column. It's like an all-rook chess match, and it feels good to get it right.

There are a few dozen puzzles in all, and they ramp up appropriately. Before long, I'm navigating one-way gates, spaces which can only be passed once, blocks which hold me in place when I walk over them, and poisonous plants that the man must clear before the girl can pass. Things get really tricky when the girl's controls are inverted in a level filled with traps designed to screw with you if you keep using the normal controls. 

Around this point, I really start to appreciate Photographs' nifty rewind mechanism. It's easy to make a puzzle impossible to complete, but luckily I don't have to outright start over when this happens. Instead, I can rewind to any previous move and go from there. Plus if I wind up accidentally solving a puzzle, I can rewind to retrace my steps and find out what I somehow did right. Not that I had to do that, of course, and certainly not twice. 

Fittingly, there's a neat camera motif to the UI—a record button in the corner, aperture and shutter speed and ISO along the bottom, and a square focus frame within a bigger rounded frame. (If you're wondering, ISO stands for infrared something or other.) The photography theme is more prominent in the bits connecting the puzzles, which sometimes ask me to zoom in and hunt for a detail in the environment find-it-style. It's a fun excuse to pore over the chapter's environment—the man's alchemy workshop—which holds up remarkably well to scrutiny.

The meat of these in-between bits is the story, which is relayed in bite-size voice-overs narrated by the jolly old man, who sounds like a mall santa who loves his job. I won't spoil the story, but I will say the man grows considerably less jolly over the course of it. It seems Redwood wasn't kidding when he said Photographs would be tragic. And just as the man's disposition changes as I progress, so does the environment. Clearing puzzles adds and rearranges pieces of the man's workshop, and each puzzle's obstacles reflect my place in the story, which keeps me interested in what happens next. 

Photographs' Alchemist chapter took me about 20 minutes, and half that the second time through. That's not a bad thing because it doesn't repeat itself. The fastest way to kill a puzzle game is to keep going after you've run out of ideas, and remember Redwood says it's the shortest chapter. It was a quick, satisfying story, and if the rest of the game is going to be like this, I'm sure I'll tear through it.  

Austin Wood
Staff writer, GamesRadar

Austin freelanced for PC Gamer, Eurogamer, IGN, Sports Illustrated, and more while finishing his journalism degree, and has been a full-time writer at PC Gamer's sister publication GamesRadar+ since 2019. They've yet to realize that his position as a staff writer is just a cover-up for his career-spanning Destiny column, and he's kept the ruse going with a focus on news, the occasional feature, and as much Genshin Impact as he can get away with.