A little odd it may be to kicks things off with a criticism — though I have my reasons for doing so — I worry if Sad Owl Studios have played their hand too early with what they’ve clearly been more than happy to reveal, thus far, as to the nature of their latest creation. How the eventual deduction and subsequent unveiling of their upcoming perspective-based puzzler, Viewfinder, will play out. A presence in prior trailers it may be, in keeping things under wraps for those not in the know and adamant on trying out its latest demo with as little knowledge as possible: how the game alludes to change in one’s surroundings seems like the kind of detail you’d want to keep under-wraps until much later on.
There are, naturally, two reasons behind this decision one can surmise: that Viewfinder has indeed mistakenly revealed too much as to its true nature too early, or just maybe, that such a change is the least surprising of the left-field turns. Even amidst a surreal, though serene, reality that has you overwriting three-dimensional space on a whim — transforming 2D polaroids into newfangled geometry — the idea that the game has been fairly tame up to this point? Whichever of these two deductions is closer to the actual truth, the fact of the matter is that said observation may in the end turn out to be more so irrelevant. Brief a demo Sad Owl Studio’s own humble snapshot may be, consider me on-board — it may well take some doing to beat what Viewfinder is doing in so far as puzzle games this year.
That jolt in interest may well be an entirely personal and subjective thing: I’m no stranger to a good puzzle game or two on a yearly basis. And I will celebrate those few great examples that go above and beyond the dime-a-dozen Sokoban-esque pitches and the like. Perhaps what makes Viewfinder an interesting case this time isn’t so much the gameplay premise on its own, though that plays its part. Figuring out the ideal spot/angle to not just place acquired still images, but in capturing them too with your trustee camera — a tentative trial-and-error method whose success and failure states may well be marginal, but seldom lose much of that pull to correctly line all of it up. And even if the positioning isn’t entirely accurate, to see whether one’s guess will suffice.
Even at its simplest, Viewfinder is one of those games whose gameplay you can’t help but gander at in a kind of curious meditation. How exactly does all this function on the back-end — what kind of tinkering and programming magic requires this level of possibility? Like something in the vain of Baba Is You, the central puzzle-solving tool governing all this is not only pleasing on an aesthetic level, but a purely logical one on top. Long before the game instructs you on going one step further and not just simply laying down your images in the world exactly as you find them, but perhaps rotating them. To flip perhaps the shot of a room full of seemingly-random junk on its head, maybe even “empty out” the contents of a photo illustrating nothing but solid ground. But solid ground with a useful tool adorning — in the same way one may empty out a jar or a bottle.
Such is the intrigue as to where the play on perspective and scale ends (if such a thing exists in this case), it’s easy then to go so far as overthink certain solutions. While that may seem like another criticism on the game’s part, in reality it’s anything but. Another personal consequence, though a fond one at that, of having so quickly gotten invested in the possibilities and the likely dilemma that certain sequences will only get more complex. What in actuality required little more than simply rotating a part of the level after taking a snapshot of it, instead found me foolishly deducing the need to make a staircase — or at least an ascending series of platforms — out of little more than captured polaroids. Polaroids given life as they wound up plastered all over. It helps that Viewfinder has a rewind feature should you find yourself having made the wrong move — held down to manually rewind, or a quick double-tap to skip back to the last notable action — or worse, accidentally delete the respective level’s teleporter by placing an image over a select view of the space around you. But again, such amateurish oversight is only possible because the game already instills you with the sense that things will only get weirder and more surreal in due time.
And if the latest demo’s handful of surprise finds (again I won’t spoil) on top are but another suggestion Sad Owl Studios have far grander ideas to reveal, needless to say Viewfinder is shaping up to be something joyous to investigate. As been-there-done-that the loose tie-in of audio logs seems and how first-person, reality-defining trickery may not sound all that special now as it may have been a decade ago. When something like Portal (more specifically, its sequel) was still fresh in one’s mind. The fact Viewfinder still manages to entice despite its singular mechanic says a lot of how this brand of perspective-shifting puzzle-solving has so much emergent and deductive potential. Not least when the game is already suggesting that said shift may wind up impacting more than just the encompassing physical space around you. Whether or not I do end up descending into the deepest pit of abstract notions — to build a staircase out of photos, non-nonsensical that may sound out of context — it’s a sign that Viewfinder already has a wonderful concept at work and one that could mark it down as this year’s best puzzle effort.