This Mind-Bending Game Comes Close To Greatness

This Mind-Bending Game Comes Close To Greatness

Viewfinder is a teetering pile of good ideas, falling just shy of a coherent final experience. This, as much as anything else, makes it fascinating to play.

In Viewfinder, you play as someone seemingly investigating some sort of archaic tech in a distant future, where flat images of 3D spaces—like photographs, drawings, paintings, etc.—can be placed into the virtual world, whereupon they come to life. Or in other words, you place a photograph in the view in front of you, and it becomes a reality you can step into. Later, you’re aligning fragments of paintings and images through perspective to align manifesting windows into other areas. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it absolutely is. Quite how effectively it delivers on these ideas is always up for grabs.

In the first few levels, Viewfinder feels like actual magic. It guides you through the conceit by offering relatively simple situations, whereby plonking down a photograph of a location in the open sky before you allows you to jump from the ground you’re stood on and onto the tiled flooring you’ve now created. So you might have this:

Screenshot: Thunderful / Kotaku

Become this:

Now the bridge has become real and filled in the gap in the level.

Screenshot: Thunderful / Kotaku

Then, it rather quickly feels like it doesn’t know what to do with this superpower, and you end up stumbling through a few levels of guesswork (making use of the game’s time-rewinding feature) before it packs that in and starts with another brilliant idea. The brilliance of its own ideas, and their actual practical use as a game, is certainly Viewfinder’s greatest strength and weakness.

(Well, no, its greatest weakness is the grimly fumbling attempt to imbue a collection of mind-bending puzzles with a godawful storyline voiced by a nauseating individual called Jessie. Oh god, please just shush and let me play the puzzles and rely on the environmental storytelling.)

Games playing with 3D perspectives is definitely not a new idea. Recently, Hyperbolica messed with such ideas in 2022, Moncage and Maquette did it in 2021, and Superliminal to underrated effect in 2020. Back in 2013 we had the extraordinary Antichamber, and the eventual release of Fez, both in the year after stunning student game Perspective. Heck, there was 2008’s Echochrome, and its spiritual granddaughter, Monument Valley. Which is all to say, it’s quite something that Viewfinder manages to feel original within this crowded space.

It really is quite something when you’re taking photographs of photographs you’ve placed in the world, in order to duplicate an item shown in the image, then rotating the resulting picture in order to photograph it another time such that a teleporter pad is orientated the correct way around. Then again, it’s infuriating that placing that third photo might clip off the corner of an object as it becomes part of the 3D space, but you won’t notice or need to have noticed until a good while later, when you have to rewind the entire level to do it again without that tiny unknown error.

A pretty view of red and mauve trees among walls.

Screenshot: Thunderful / Kotaku

That’s been my relationship with Viewfinder throughout its first couple of hours. One of being delighted, then frustrated, surprised, then annoyed. It’s almost too much, too many degrees of freedom, such that you both have an enormous sense of satisfaction when something works, but too often resentment when that breaks something else.

I’m not sure there’s a satisfying solution to my gripes. Restricting the ability to place images anywhere would render the puzzles too easy, the game merely about clicking through the prescribed route. But as it is, too much is left to chance, with sheer guesswork required as to where something in the background of an image might appear in the world, and especially whether it will be possible to reach. It’s pretty clear the game has a rewind mechanic because it knows just how often something will go wrong.

I really hope the constant seesawing of these impressions conveys just how I experienced the game, alternately astonished by its creativity, and disheartened by its rough edges. Viewfinder intrigues me, and I want to keep playing, except I keep staring at a complex level and all its variables and wondering if I have the willpower.

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