Semicontinuity (A framework of analyzing videogame space)

I found myself thinking about the Dark Souls trilogy, again. Maybe one day I won’t have to think about them again… here is my attempt at exorcising them. Okay. I’ll refer to them as 1, 2, and 3 here.

So the other day I wondered some things. In particular:

  • I had meticulously (and wastefully) platinumed 3. Then why do I have little impression or sense of wonder when recalling it?
  • Why does 2 stand out as the most fascinating and exciting in my mind, even if I only played through it once?
  • Why despite 1’s first half being so strong, is it still not as memorable as 2?

I skimmed a speedrun of 3. It’s easy to see why it’s less memorable than 1 or 2. It has a fairly standard and safe art direction (undead decrepit stuff, dreary boring high fantasy). Environments out of that genre that don’t mystify me (sprawling castles, medieval villages in visually dense cliffs, swampy woods, European halls, catacombs…).

I can recall many of the spaces and levels in detail, but I don’t have the tinge of awe and jealousy I tend to get when being impressed.

Drawn in contrast to 2, some other reasons surface. 3 is far more world-design continuous (here on just continuous) than 2. 

See the Appendix at the bottom for definitions of the terms I’ll use in this post – hyper-, normal-, semi-, and discontinuous. I’ll assume you sort of understand what I mean by these terms going forward:

Okay, so Dark Souls 3 – or just 3 – the game is split into three chunks – Castle, Forest, and Snow Castle. There is a break between Castle and Forest (where you fly, conveying a sense of descent into the world), and a break between Forest and Snow Castle that’s articulated by a level (catacombs, conveying a sense horizontal-plane traversal into the world). These chunks are nearly hypercontinuous within themselves – while they’re not open world, there are handfuls of mutual vantage points, things are detailed and realistically sized. (3’s three chunks are circled here:)

Dark Souls 1 is roughly similar to Dark Souls 3 in continuity, but it takes place in a vertically oriented world. We could pick apart definitions as to what extent these two are continuous, but my focus isn’t on those games. Still, this glass model by Twitter use @rigmarole111 captures 1’s world well: Notice that the game has four strata: the top-level areas – Anor Londo, Duke’s Archive, mid-level areas (Sen’s, Parish, Burg, Garden), lower-level areas (Blighttown), and subterranean areas (not pictured). 

People love 1’s first half because you’re exploring the middle and lower-level areas, totally on your own, shrouded in mystery, and the game is good at helping you create connections between the world (as you play for the first time the structure is not at all obvious). The goal of the game is initially to reach Anor Londo, but you’ve got to explore all over before you get there, and many closed off/difficult paths will tempt you.

I would say 1 gestures at hyper-continuity at times, but actually some of its major mutual vantage points are faked (to good effect), and I would classify it as actually closer to normal-continuous. That is to say, none of its connections are confusing or baffling. If we are walking down, we’re going to the underground, and reach fire-y lava areas. If we go up, we go towards grand, royalty castle areas. It’s standard videogame world stuff (see any castlevania game), executed well in 3D.

Still… it’s not as inspiring as 2 to me. Why? By most popular accounts, 2 is a ‘mess’. The areas don’t make any sense, they connect randomly, there’s no ‘blog-worthy shortcuts!’.

Here’s a world map of Dark Souls 2, where I’ve highlighted the game’s paths.

A few notes:

  • Everything spirals out from Majula, a seaside village.
  • Game Structure:
    • Collect 4 Important Things at the end of 4 paths, located in: Black Gulch (deep dark area), Iron Keep (fire castle in mountains), Brightstone cove (church/caves near a settlement near the ocean), and Sinner’s Rise (moonlit fortress near the sea)
    • Visit Drangleic Castle, go deep deep down all the way to Undead Crypt
    • Go way way up to Dragon Shrine
    • End the game at Throne of Want (in the castle)
  • There’s basically no crossover between main paths and there are barely any mutual vantage points

2 varies from 1 because 2’s world is representing an entire continent. There are little to no mutual vantage points because as you walk from one area to another – even without loading screens – you might be implied to travel miles. The player is going on a world-spanning adventure, much like a JRPG, just without the game giving us the abstraction of a world map to make that feel more coherent. We walk through a mysterious tunnel from Majula to Heide’s tower, and emerge 10 miles away. A quick trek through some woods and a small cave system shoots us out at a shore all the way at the other end of the world. An elevator at the top of a poisonous windmill takes us to a fire-y lava keep. And so on and so forth.

Because 2 is missing a world-map-esque abstraction layer, the game world inevitably connects in some confusing ways. Walking 100 meters can actually imply travelling all sorts of distances. Thus 2 has inconsistencies to how you travel between spaces, and it approaches being discontinuous, and thus becomes a semi-continuous game at times.

Back to Dark Souls 1: while playing, you are oriented within the world. Even as you uncover new places, you’re still aware, roughly, where you are vertically within the game’s world, and if you’re not aware (perhaps as you go to blighttown for the first time), a mutual vantage point (Great Swamp to Undead Burg) comes along and situates you within the world. Or if you wandered into Demon Ruins early and are disoriented, you’ll still become oriented once you see Demon Ruins from Tomb of the Giants.

As a player explores a game’s world, tension slowly builds as they sense they’ve drifted far from home, far from the familiar. And within this tension is where lack of continuity can be used to achieve various effects. Connect the player back to a familiar place and let them feel grounded. Or lead them further and further from the familiar, connecting areas in surprising ways.

2 doesn’t do anything to situate you within the island unless you go and look it up. It’s just one area after another, and the sense of endlessly going deeper into some fever dream of a continent. You just pick a random direction from Majula and keep going and going and going, and it feels like you may never reach any end point. You just know you’re either “sort of far” from Majula or “really far” from Majula.

Eventually, you do hit the end of a path, and the magic wears off, and you get one of the 4 magic items and go on to find the next.

This kind of semicontinuity is fascinating to me. It happens when a game establishes a consistent physical logic but then chooses to break its rules at certain times, or to at least not be consistent in one method of arranging the game’s world. Dark Souls 2 creates fairly continuous areas such as Forest of Fallen Giants, but at the same time does absurd things like having a well take you to a rat-infested catacomb, which THEN takes you to a poorly-lit cave with shambles of wooden housing, and finally some eerie, green cave. Nothing in the game really explains how this connects spatially to the rest of the game (unlike 1’s Lost Izalith, which you can see from elsewhere in the game). Instead, 2 is content to shove you from one area to the next. 2 feels like the randomness of some old videogames’ worlds, but expressed through a detailed 3D world with no loading screens. It’s full of interesting and inconsistent ideas, and like some Twitter mutuals put it – feels like playing a romhack of Dark Souls.

2 is the most memorable for these reasons. You take an elevator down from the top of a castle, and for some reason it shoots you out into a sprawling, blue, underground lake:

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s another elevator which takes you to an underground crypt.

In another section, a mansion sits off the side of a road: you then take the world’s tallest elevator up to a floating set of islands and dragon temples. Now, these strange transitions extremely memorable just because of how bizarre they are, peppered in between fairly reasonable transitions (e.g. walking through misty woods, to forested pathways, to some shady ruins). These moments are strange because the game has lots of non-strange transitions (like the interior of Drangleic Castle), and the game plays them both off as normal.

What semicontinuity gets at for me is the exciting ways we can represent our game worlds as designers. There’s no need to adhere to any one formula or idea: the ways areas are connected can be carefully thought through and become expressive.

It’s something we thought about while making Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (Spoilers ahead.. if you quit Anodyne 2 after 1 hour this is a good time to go finish it!!).

We initially establish a videogame-y logic to shrinking into people located in the 3D world, putting the game in the vicinity of normal-continuous. But as the game goes on, it’s revealed that the linkage of “3D character” and “2D world” is not always paired. Iwasaki Antimon takes you to a mailbox of a person Iwasaki obsesses over. The fur of a dog-creature ends up being a village you reside in for weeks. The desertnpc takes you to something completely unexpected. Pastel Horizon, Minorma’s Orb and New Theeland connect through an alternate Anodyne 1’s Nexus. The notions of space and how they should connect shift from a straightforward videogame-y premise to something disorienting and discontinuous. Anodyne 2’s continuity shifts as you get further… and it uses this to suggest a certain location in 2D as further away.

These sorts of formalized techniques can be used hand-in-hand with the story themes to make certain ideas resonate stronger with the player. For example, putting Dustbound Village inside a nano area makes you wonder about the rest of the 2D worlds you’ve visited – and gets you to rethink what you’ve learned about your role as a Nano Cleaner in Anodyne 2’s world. The strange large areas in the Outer Sands break down an attempt at a ‘logical’ understanding of Anodyne 2’s world’s fabric and suggests something that exists on a more fantastical layer. Thinking about and using continuity in different ways can create different headspaces for a player to inhabit as they read what you’ve written or prepared for them to play through.

Anyways, all degrees of continuity can result in interesting games. On the hypercontinuous end, we could have an exploration of a single bedroom, not necessarily sprawling and repetitive corpgames. Or an exploration of a single town (like in Attack of the Friday Monsters). There’s no right approach to making games or picking the level of continuity. But if you’re designing games it’s good to find some approach that you care about.

Appendix on defining continuous/etc

As always, game design theory is… sort of made up, right? These ideas may bear fruit when analyzing certain games, they may be worthless for others.

I’ll define continuity as a game’s tendency to have unbroken, realistically-sized spaces that you travel through without many cuts. On one end of the spectrum, games can be hypercontinuous (painful accuracy to real life – exteriors of buildings always match the interiors, the camera never cuts, there is no fast travel). I don’t know of many large games that are hypercontinuous, but the majority of recent open-world corporate games (corpgames) are close to this (Breath of the Wild, God of War, Grand Theft Auto).

Or games can be discontinuous – levels connect with seemingly no underlying logic (Yume Nikki, Goblet Grotto, Chameleon Kid).

But most games tend to lay in the middle – normal-continuous. This is when a game employs the standard set of breaks in its spatial traversal that we expect: a JRPG brings you from a world map (abstract) to various towns and dungeons. We traverse the world both concretely (through dungeons and towns) but also abstractly, through a world map. However, to the player, it’s always understood where you are in this world and the game generally intends its world to be remembered as a continuous space, even if it may change the level of abstraction from time to time. Normal-continuous represents what today’s commonly accepted practices are in terms of how a game articulates its transitions from one area to another.


  • Characterized by a game whose spaces have an experience of moving about them that is very close to real life.
  • Likely to not have restricted levels (e.g. you can walk anywhere)
  • Exists at big and small game scales: From “See that mountain? You can visit it!” to “spend a day sitting in an apartment.”
  • Usually 3D, just because 2D more or less is always an abstraction from “realistic” representations of 3D space


  • Most games. E.g. JRPGs with world maps, visual novels with different areas
  • Spaces may not be ‘realistic’ in representation or connection
  • a player can make sense of where they are in the world most of the time, because areas are connected with consistent logic and the game makes an effort to let the player situate themselves (through a world map, etc.)
  • travelling between areas is consistently represented and has consistent outcomes. E.g. when a game has 3D houses you can enter, if you enter the door and then always enter an interior area, the game is following its own rule that “Going into houses leads to an interior space”. A continuous game is unlikely to violate this rule. Other rules could be – Doors take you to new areas, doors take you to the same area if you re-use them, etc. A discontinious approach would be that sometimes a house’s door takes you to a beach or something


  • Either a mixture of discontinous and normal/hyper-continuous approaches, intentionally (or not ) breaking ‘good practices’ and breaking the sense of logic to its game’s world


If a game never situates its player in a familiar place, but shows one surprising locale after another, it enters the realm of discontinuous, like dream-exploration Yume Nikki, labyrinthian platformer Chameleon Kid, semi-procedurally-generated 0n0w (  or  spiraling 2D/3D maze 10 Beautiful Postcards ( , or various early PC games that didn’t seem to ‘care’ about player’s navigation or “good practices”. Games that use this approach can explore unique feelings, sometimes terrifying. Digital space within discontinuous games can be implied to be infinite and unknowable, and that’s a very interesting situation to place a player into.

In choosing not to embody a place and be hypercontinuous, a discontinuous game begins to embody an abstract sense of feelings depending on the game, but also the game opens up more space for a player to relate *their* spatial memories with that of the games.

Anodyne 1 is somewhat discontinuous, by way of Yume Nikki’s influence. And I think it’s a big reason why many people remember its world and take away different things – in a discontinuous game world, a player is left to form many of their own associations based on what images and text the designer provides.

As a game changes its digital space from more realistically connected to more discontinous, the world may feel unknowable, a fever dream of unrelated parts and images that seem to go on endlessly, a fearsome nightmare or dream, all contained within a few bits on a computer’s hard drive…

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Oh no! Sparseness in 3D games

Lately just thinking about – the transition of 2D to 3D. What happens with that.



Something I’ve thought about as I’m a few weeks from being done with Anodyne 2 is that it’s easier to create an explorable space that can capture your interest 3D, there’s just a sparseness problem to it all.

That 2D Harvest Moon image above looks quite empty, but it still feels like a visual whole. The noisiness of the tilework creates a coherence, a cozy sense of ‘farm’. something about the 3D in the upcoming friends of mineral town remake – looks bizarrely empty. Now I’ve seen the trailer and some shots of it (like the towns) still look nice. But just when it comes to one-off areas in 3D games, they’re so so expensive.I think 3D presents a unique challenge when adapting 2D. Because 2D games really “work” by reducing a lot into a flat plane, and when you unflatten things, you get all this bizarre empty space you have to account for. like see the harvest moon. you can just pixel art a mailbox and wood dividers and stuff, but for 3D boom you have to model and texture all that crap. and most of it is just colliders.

Some games don’t account for the emptyness and you get weird just like… empty places.

How do you account for empty space? Well, to me it seems like:

  • throw money at it, which basically means throwing PEOPLE at it, which means uh oh! now you have ridiculous commercial expectations so this doens’t seem to be a great way to go about it
  • throw time at it (“my 20-year love letter to shadow of the colossus! oops now the universe has heat deathed”)
  • ignore the problem and hope it goes away

REAL FARM (thanks gamefly)


TIME AND ETERNITY (thanksgamestop)


now i’m not saying that an empty feeling game is a problem, but moreso that i think that if a game feels really empty, the ‘spatial feel’ is a dimension of a 3D game you can use to your advantage, so it’s better to figure a way out than just well, not doing anything. Not to mention that having a huge 3d space to fill is anxiety inducing and spending time just throwing assets at it doesn’t really make the game better… idk.. 10 art assets in a 3x3x3 meter room can be more expressive than 10 art assets in a football field, is what i’m saying

so the last option is

* do something about it.

don’t really feel like saying much, but i think shadow of the colossus MUST have seen a similar problem. they went ‘Oh shit, there is so much fucking space to fill in 3D! fuck. we are fucked. wait what if empty space was the point. haha’

As much as banjo kazooie is equivalent to intentionally forgetting your wallet at home after driving to the grocery store, you have to give credit to these early 3D games for being good about space management. Things are kept relatively small and dense. say what you want about good old BK but those levels did have a sense of place and personality, even if it was well, banjo kazooie.

but back to anodyne 2, because I enjoy talking about ourselves. so if you pick up the game next month, there are these interior areas. i call these ‘mistakes’ JUST KIDDING. they’re wonderful but they were EXPENSIVE to make, in terms of time. when you get to Cenote city, that place was.. expensive. marina had to fill it with too many buildings. we then found that SURPRISE outdoors naturey areas that are sparse and hilly are easier to make! hm. should have done that more often. but at the same time, nearing the end of development, I am lagging behind so maybe that giant city bought me time to do all the random programming stuff I needed to do. but that’s a different issue – coding uniqueness and time… sigh, we are still learning so much about how to be careful about time…

anyways, in anodyne 2by modeling a few rocks and ground textures and using a general environmental shape concept, we made pretty neat 3D areas that are big-feeling but still feel like that sparseness is intentional rather than a big ‘oops haha empty’. sometimes it’s a matter of slight terrain variance to break up flat ground perceptions. othertimes visually ‘messy/dense’ textures (like anodyne 2 has a lot) help to create denseness. idk. there are a lot of tricks. Some of the outdoors nature 3D areas in Anodyne 2 could have gone faster if we had better tools, but then we’d need a tools programmer..


Here’s an area we took out of the game. Well, not really – we used many of these textures in the game in a similar area, but this picture specifically does not show up in the game. There are a few ground textures, grass texture, then a single rock 3d model copy pasted a bunch. The structure on the right was expensive to make because we didn’t even use it in the final game (except the red huts). But it was a learning experience for 3D asset making I guess.

also the other way we dealt with it was moving gameplay heavy stuff into 2D, so you don’t spend all the time in 3D, but that also has various production issues that blah don’t feel like talkign about.

I made the mistake a few times over Anodyne 2 dev of creating these small, one-off areas in 3D that are just entrypoints into 2D levels. I think they were wastes of time. Memorable, maybe. But I’ve been playing Yoshi’s Crafted World, and every single level is this disconnected singularity of 3D art assets that has no connection to later levels. Like a visual explosion.

At least in Anodyne 2’s case, all our areas are connected so we have the coherence benefit of those one-offs still fitting into a big picture. The next time we make a game we can be more careful about these things. In the case of AAA extravagance like Yoshi, you just have a gigantic grab bag of these little party poppers of levels… which look traditionally BEAUTIFUL but there game is just boom boom boom visual explosions so I can’t remember much actually. plus it’s a simple 2D platformer so i don’t really remember the spaces much


It’s funny, another game I’ve been playing is the opposite of Yoshi – 10 beautiful postcards by thecatamites. In some ways there’s a parallel I see between Yoshi and this game in that from a visual standpoint, both are games where you are constantly whiplashed between visually distinct and dense areas. In Postcards you’re travelling in an almost endless maze of colorful areas, but they have thematic overlap. In Yoshi you’re just going into one random mechanic-fest after another. it shows just how much money large Yoshis are wasting on these set pieces when there isn’t a drop of meaning to be found in terms of the bigger picture. On the other hand…

Postcards is interesting because it presents an example of what would happen if small-sized (or in this case solo) developers did a huge amount of unique visual content. Of course when you’re a small team you can only polish so much, so Postcards has very traditionally ‘unpolished’ visual art. which for me doesn’t matter at all outside of various commerrcial implications – But it goes to show that there is an interesting effect in scale, meaning arising as multiple distinct spaces start to connect to each other, like reading one word after another…

Anyways the point of this is for the love of god don’t make an 3d game with big open spaces unless you are okay spending a lot of time.

alright, not really going to edit this. good bye, time to go finish anodyne 2… ho ho


(EXCERPT) Tokyo Lo-fi: Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne

Hey all, so recently I published an essay on Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne in the Heterotopias journal – here’s an excerpt of it which I originally posted as a preview on Gamasutra.

This is an excerpt from Heterotopias 003, the third issue of the game and architecture zine, which is now available to purchase for $6. To read the rest of the article, which further analyzes the techniques used in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, go grab your copy over on

In Joni Kittaka and I’s eight-plus hour game Even the Ocean, I spent days fixing the animations of a mole that walks along tunnels in a single area, rather than replacing the mole with something less animation-heavy. This level of detail applied to every aspect of the game—such as cutscenes, art style revisions, and level design—contributed to the development time of three-and-a-half years.

For a long time I believed the only way to reduce the costs of content-heavy games with high-fidelity art was to make them smaller. But, recently, I’ve found another and perhaps better solution to reduce the traditional quality of the art. What stopped me from this discovery before was the prevalent attitude towards what are deemed ‘lo-fi graphics’—a widely-held view is that they are  inherently bad. But this shouldn’t be the case. They are not always a rush job or a mistake. They have, in recent years, even emerged as an art style in their own right. We can and should do more than dismiss lo-fi graphics as a historical stepping stone, inferior to photorealistic or HD art styles.

Consider games before 2010 with total or partial lo-fi art styles. Some of these older games aspired towards photorealism while lacking the hardware to do so effectively. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (hereon Nocturne) is a visually striking game, despite its ‘old’ graphics. First released in Japan in early 2003, it is a monster-collecting JRPG set in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. It had a team of about 15 artists, as opposed to the roughly 500 (counting contractors) artists that worked on Final Fantasy XV.

Nocturne  is full of ‘low-quality’ textures, objects, and spaces, yet its art style conjures an atmosphere more thematically dense and memorable than many contemporary games. Interrogating the art style shows Nocturne achieves this atmosphere through abstraction-based techniques for visual and spatial design. What is exciting about these techniques is that some of them do not require years of technical training in programming or visual arts, and thus, these techniques are easy for game developers to use to create new forms of visual expression in their games.

Nocturne’s setting

In Nocturne, Tokyo has just gone through a nuclear apocalypse, and so it has the player travel the city in order to decide how to rebuild it. Nocturne makes no attempt to create a realistic Tokyo, instead, it focuses on abstractions of public and commercial spaces like subways and malls, occasionally with more directly referenced real-world spaces, such as Shibuya Crossing.

While the artists aimed to dress the game’s spaces in realistic textures, the art direction is ethereal—this is accomplished through the eerie lack of human presence, a refusal to make accurate recreations of Tokyo spaces, and the use of unrealistic lighting. The latter is especially captivating, as it sees ambient lighting illuminate empty rooms in bizarre shades of purple or blue, lights cast in impractical ways, and shadows appearing without visible light sources.

Post-apocalypse Shinjuku Medical Center


Shibuya Crossing


Blurriness, sharpness, and immersion

Without actively looking, it’s harder to notice the lack of photorealism in the floor tiles of Nocturne’s subways than it is to notice it in a poster on the wall. Advertisements, printed materials, and commercial items like clothing appear throughout Nocturne, all of which invite players to parse them for written or visual information. But these objects aren’t suited to that type of inspection and only cause the fidelity of the game to fracture. Posters and ads appear too blurry or too sharp; a stack of newspapers resembles a cube rather than individual sheets, making it clear these were objects placed as atmospheric shorthands rather than sources of information.

These types of objects act strangely in games. Look at the “Yushima Station: Safety Message” picture. If the object is blurry, like the station exit diagram on the left, it immediately separates the player’s reality from the game’s should they attempt to read it. There also exists a problem when the object is clear and readable, like the warning sign on the right, as this isn’t a game about obeying train signs, and its sharpness makes it weirdly readable when almost everything else around it is hazy. The artist who placed this sign probably wanted it to stand as a nod to the pre-apocalyptic history of the station platform, as a way to ground it in a reality closer to the player’s, but its inconsistency with the textures around it pull it more towards achieving the opposite.

One solution to this would be to remove all the posters and signs, but that may make Tokyo strangely bare. Whereas rendering the posters blurry makes them too obviously fake, having them sharp enough to read causes them to stand out too much in this indistinct world. It is better to view these ‘problems’ as a technique that can, like the train station signs, be utilized to carefully place references to reality into a less realistic space.

Yushima Station: Safety Message and Station Exit Map


 To read the rest of this article purchase Heterotopias 003 over on

Sean Han Tani is a developer of Anodyne (2013), Even the Ocean (2016), and currently, All Our Asias. He also lectures about game design and game music production at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Anxious Mobile Photography and its Alternate Modes of Vision

This post originally appeared on Medium

A look at ways of using the new aspects of mobile photography and its relation to the Internet

The past decade has shown the rise of mobile photography, or digital photography done with a mobile device that has image-editing, photo-taking, and internet-enabled-photo-sharing capabilities. I choose the term mobile instead of “phone photography” because this trend exists on non-phone devices such as tablets. While ‘mobile’ may be confused with ‘portable’ (and certainly, cameras have been portable for a long time), ‘mobile’ is fitting with the way in which mobile photographers have increased freedom in terms of storage with retaking photos and with time in the post-processing stage.

I want to write about some of the anxieties I feel underlie the practice of mobile photography. These anxieties tend to arise because of mobile photography’s place within the context of the Internet as primary mediator for its images. Additionally, I’d like to talk about the ways in which phone image-editing apps, some tied into the photomaking process as tightly as Instagram, expands image-making abilities, though just as easily increases the risk of the creation of ‘cliched’, ‘kitsch’ images. I’ll look at a few of my old photos in this process, as well as a few video games.

On some particular criticisms of mobile photography and its ease of accessibility

Once I take a photo, I have a variety of applications on my phone I can use to modify the image. These images can then be modified and uploaded to photo-sharing apps such as Instagram, which I will assume the reader is familiar with in terms of its basic premise.

While I have reservations about the closed platform of services such as Instagram and what that means for image-consumption, making, and privacy for its users, when it comes to discussions of the “threat to photography” that the rise of mobile photography poses, I have little desire to spend my time arguing against such a historically reoccurring, reactionary position. I will address this grievance with this quote:

… professional photographers have been grumbling about amateurs rendering their work obsolete since 1888, when George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” (Source)

Likewise, there may be arguments that the image editing software on phones discounts a phone photograph from being a photograph. As far as this goes, let it be said that the ability to choose color or black and white film development, and the various settings on traditional cameras does not strike me as much different as deciding to convert a color phone photo into a black and white phone photo. While questions about ‘what is a photo?’, or ‘what is a video game?’ or ‘what is art?’ may be illustrative, I hardly consider them worthwhile endeavors if they are posed with the motivation of disproving authenticity of a particular set of photographs, games, art materials, etc. Usually such ideas serve to enforce a status quo of ‘good, authentic’ artmakers over a periphery.

It is no new knowledge that we live in an age where it is orders of magnitudes easier to become a photographer. Simply pick up a phone and use the camera app. If one is content to use a phone as the photographing device, gone are the days of scavenging for physical materials and a proper space for developing film. To be sure, mobile photography is not without its material consequence upon the Earth and its inhabitants. Mobile photography relies on the Internet for transport and storage, and thus heavily relies on the abstraction of the Cloud, or what are aisles of black, metal, energy-consuming server farms, whose parts are the end product of a chain of exploitative labor spanning from countries in Africa, Asia and beyond.

The anxiety underneath ‘unlimited storage’

In recent years the term ‘unlimited storage’ has become commonplace. Google’s Gmail service quickly began to offer what was an essentially unlimited e-mail storage space, in fact, in the late 2000s, the maximum storage indicator would continuously tick upwards. The sky is the limit! Nowadays, the storage is finite, but so large as to basically be unlimited. Other websites have unspoken hard limits for storage, but no normal human uploads enough data to reach these limits, so these hard limits are more or less unlimited. Google Photos is probably a recent example of this, it offers ‘free, unlimited photo storage’, as of the time of writing.

This notion of ‘free’ should be examined, wherever it appears on the Internet.

There is free and unlimited storage for the photos on one’s Instagram account. Other information for which storage is free includes my liked photos, followed users, followers, direct messages, captions, comments, hashtags. I can post captions with my photo, and can tag the photo with hashtags, such as “#blackandwhite” or “#food”, so as to categorize the photo.

It is common knowledge that advertisement forms much of the Internet’s lifeblood. Advertising works based on finding someone’s interests, and in Instagram, a user’s uploads, interactions with photos, clicked-on-hashtags, or photo caption s— all of these contribute towards Instagram’s ability to track your behavior, interests, likes, dislikes.

This is nothing unique to Instagram, rather, for most people, working on the Internet is to live under a constant state of invisible surveillance. As another example of this surveillance, photos uploaded to Google Photos can be collaged, turned into a video, automatically filtered, or even have their subjects and locations identified by the “Assistant” feature. Almost eerily, this feature renders explicit the fact that your photo storage is free because it is being used as a data for training a giant, image-recognizing machine learning algorithm. Likewise, the ability to search through my photos by keywords (that I did not tag myself) conjures similar feelings. This technology is a huge convenience, but not without a cost.

It is this sort of anxiety of feeding the machine that underlies every press and slide I make while uploading a photograph to Instagram, this machine which provides me convenience, but additionally promotes the belief that we should, as humans, continue to like what we already like, to maintain static and easily trackable interests.

The anxieties of mobile photography’s context within the Internet

If you have used the Instagram app, you may have noticed how there is immediate gratification in applying a filter to your photo. Certain color ranges become subdued, others pop out. A nostalgic flair, a cool flair, etc., seem to rise out of what may have been a plain photo.

Instagram, and many other photo-editing apps, provide a variety of settings that can be used to change the qualities of the photo. Depending on the photo, many of these settings can appear negligible, thus it is not surprising that as billions of photos are created, rough groups of photos that seem ‘basically the same’ begin to appear. Crisp, sharpened, black and white views of city streets with a horizon vanishing point — Polaroid-filtered pictures of a campfire at a beach — a tilt-shifted, contrasted, warm-filtered picture of an expensive ice cream sundae. Maybe it’s kitsch, maybe it’s a contemporary analogue to ideals of ‘salon paintings’. Whatever they may be, they are trends of some sort.

Combine this with a hashtagging system to tag and categorize photos, and the social gamification around accumulating ‘likes’ and followers, and it becomes apparent that the platforms in which photos circulate primarily serve to form a breeding ground of new forms of cultural signifiers. The platform of Instagram itself has done little to remedy our accumulation-driven culture: it is, admittedly, nearly impossible to not think about the reception one’s followers will give to a photo I choose to upload. Rather than posting just an photo of an ice cream sundae, the photo, in the context of Instagram’s social network, becomes a way of signifying that I have had the experience of eating such a dessert.

These invading thoughts, the tendency to be pushed down down paths of making ‘basically the same’ photos due to the reward of accumulating likes, followers and comments, or to signal particular experiences or beliefs — this anxiety — is one that the accessibility of mobile photography has amplified. This anxiety underlies the practice of mobile photography.

To be sure, these anxieties underlie much of the Internet and its social networks, which are often based around accumulating likes and followers — I am just sticking to the discussion as it pertains to mobile photography.

Additionally, the use of hashtags has its own flavor of anxiety: hashtags amount to a categorizing a photograph into relevant categories. I may try counteract this with writing a long caption before the flood of hashtags, so that my photo isn’t “just a few keywords,” but any added hashtags to a photo immediately places that photograph into a particular part of the network universe of photo hashtags. By tagging my photo “#blackandwhite”, it is associated with every other photo someone has called “#blackandwhite”.

This sort of categorical thinking may be dangerous towards the phone photographer, dangerous in the way one may categorize something as “Asian” or “Not Asian”, or as “Right” or “Wrong”. On the more positive side, it is very interesting to go exploring through hashtags, seeing what the popular consensus on what “#Japan” may mean, or what the ideal “#steak”, etc. Hashtags are also a (rather poor, but slightly viable) way of gaining an audience for one’s photographs.

The influences on raw mobile photos

As a phone photographer, I wish to become more aware of how the algorithms of Instagram’s image filtering, and its social media elements — limit and influence my ability to make a photo.

The dynamics of social media surrounding mobile photography are a inevitable force. While a raw mobile photo — perhaps, an offline photo — may be untouched by image modifications, the knowledge of what ways I can edit my photo, and where it will be posted — against my will, seep into what I am able to photograph — seep into the types of raw photos I can excavate. To put it more simply, as I walk in a city, and photograph, I may unconsciously be drawn, and turn a few degrees more towards, something that is slightly more of a visual spectacle than the other photo a few more degrees the other way. I am drawn because I have seen photos of buildings that have received many ‘likes.’ Perhaps this is the difference between the skyline and the building facade, the kitschy photo of a tired-worker-on-subway, and the worker’s foot on the ground. And so on. I may search for the hashtag “#city”, and see what popular city photos look like. This can corrupt my practice as well, moving me to want to make more romanticized and idealized images of a city.

Moreover, I know that my photo may only be viewed for a few seconds, due to the layout of Instagram’s main photo-viewing timeline. Thus I may be unconsciously swayed towards visual catchiness.

Of course, being influenced by consumption and environment, and being unconsciously swayed by the want for social approval is nothing new. But I bring this up because it has appeared under a new guise in the context of mobile photography, and thus should be dealt with accordingly. The new platform of mobile photography and the features of its mediating services create new influences on photomaking. I feel it is important to question the effects of ‘free’ services, and think of other ways of disseminating or consuming work.

The need for research in the use of mobile photography image-editing tools

With these digital tools, one may call the filtering and editing process “dressing up” the photo. However, I feel that this process is part of the creation of the mobile photo. As mentioned, the availability of these tools bubble through the subconscious as I take a photo. By familiarizing oneself with the common ways in which these tools are used, and sorts of trends that combinations of particular image-subject and filter-settings lead to, a phone photographer may find it easier to avoid falling into existing trends. Each filter has a finite number of settings — e.g., the ‘strength’ of a setting may range from 0–100, and some settings may impact the overall photo in less extreme ways than others. Because of this disparity, and because of the finite nature of the settings, even if one’s subject matter does not fall into a major social signifier such as nature, cityscapes, food, etc., through the image-editing process it is still very easy to make pictures that place visual pleasure first and are easily categorized under some sort of hashtag.

In this way, research into other photos — perhaps through the hashtag system — is an important job for the phone photographer. Likewise, so is a familiarity with the available post-processing tools and ways of bypassing their finite limits.

Mobile photography’s tools of intuition

Instagram, or more generally, any image-editing software, though technically external to the raw photo taking process, then, is partially a tool of intuition, much like other aspects of photography when figuring out how to set up a shot or developing a photo. In some ways, this image-editing software feels tightly tied to the process of mobile photography.

Often, the unrefined, private-facing and ‘extracted’ photo taken is but an early step in what will be the final, ‘refined’, public-facing photo, because as I am photographing the initial photo, I intuit that I will be able to transform the photo into something of my liking, via the use of the tools an image-editing program on my mobile device gives me.

I can also, while standing in a physical location, edit a photo right away, and use my thoughts about that edited photo to take a new photo. Truly, if we live in a world where we are free to ‘have it our way’, yet still fundamentally limited, we see the same in the infinite number of ways we can modify our photographs during the photo-making process, yet the same finite time window of taking a particular photo still exist.

When can are-bure-boke abstraction occur in the mobile photography process?

All this discussion leads me to talk about a few photos I took while on a recent trip to Taiwan in Japan in the late summer of 2015. Admittedly I had just been introduced to the works of Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, and was somewhat interested in emulating the アレブレボケ (are-bure-boke) style of roughness (let your groans out now…). I had also watched an interview with Moriyama — or perhaps Nakahira. Now, I am not particularly interested in continuing with the style of the photos I made, but I think they are worth investigating. So bear with me, for a few paragraphs more. (Certainly, Joni Kittaka and I’s 2013 game, Anodyne, is flawed in a number of ways, yet has plenty worth thinking about.)

Anyways, in some interview, something was mentioned about the use of black and white film and are-bure-boke as a means of abstracting forms in a photograph, i.e., as you threshold more and more colors to pure 0x000000 and 0xffffff black and white, you, well, get a series of shapes and forms. Where does this process of abstracting exist within the process of producing a final photograph?

In analog photography, it exists in the intuition of the technique of taking the photograph, and later, in the physical development of the photo print.

With digital cameras, you may edit the photo once you have access to a computer.

Nowadays, in mobile photography, I am able to quickly modify a photograph using apps on my mobile device. In this way, I have an effectively unlimited time period for modifying a photo, stretching from when I take the photo to when it is deleted, I lose it, or I die — and I have an effectively unlimited storage for trying to recapture different versions of a raw photo, and the turnaround time for editing a photo and retaking is very small.

Thus, by modifying one photo and then moving onto another photo while still ‘in the field’, the modified photo is able to influence what photos I will then take. In some abstract way, this is almost a ‘data-driven’ photography that originated with digital cameras but has evolved with mobile photography, one where my reactions to viewing previous photos quickly influence the successive photos I take during a particular photography session. This way of photo-making, in the context of the Internet, leads me to think about this in conjunction with how I might create a photo to optimize likes. So maybe we are all amateur data scientists and brand marketers.

Of course, the modification step can take place far after a photo is taken, like at night after a day of walking about, or years into the future. So with mobile photography, the process of abstraction through the use of black and white in a photo, from start to finish — is a process whose time span can range from the very short to the infinite. What was once done during the photo-taking process or through limited attempts in a dark room is now free from such time constraints. Utilizing the technique of visual abstraction has become easier! One may compare this to how we no longer have to wait hours for pictures to download, or wait hours for musical notes to play (as the first electronic musicians dealt with), or wait hours to run a punch-card program (as the first programmers once had to.) But as mentioned before, we should not forget that such technological progress comes with human costs during the technology’s chains of production.

It is something of interest to me, then, to look at techniques used in analog photography, and see if there are ways of replicating, extending, these techniques within the realm of fast-iteration mobile photography. It is a goal that is prone to the traps of modernism (the photos I will talk about fall into those traps — they have the attractiveness of blurry, black and white photos.)

Yet, with caution, I think these modified techniques can be used for socially and artistically positive ends.

Desired information and alternate modes of vision

A slight detour before we get to the photos.

In recent decades, there has been a rise in computer-aided technology that modifies our vision. A popular, physical life example are thermal-vision and night-vision goggles. Augmented reality software on game consoles and smartphones can project images in real-time onto the captured video feed of the device’s phones. There is the recent failure of the Google Glass hardware. More abstractly, the “CTRL+F” key shortcut, or any textual search function, acts as a mode of alternate, computer-aided vision, making desired information visible — bodies to murder in war, relevant sentences in a text file, etc. It is this notion of ‘desired information’ I want to talk about.


In many video games, particularly 3D games of the 21st century, there is a ton of visual content on the screen, and thus, the game must apply or offer filters so as to show the game’s player what the relevant information is. In this example from Metroid Prime (2001), the left image shows the ‘normal’ vision, as the player is fighting an enemy. In the right image, the player has used the ‘Scan Visor’ vision mode, which tags relevant environmental entities with orange squares. The player can then scan these to gain information on the entity, such as how to fight it. The game offers other vision modes, such as Thermal and X-Ray, which sort of work like you might expect — seeing heat, and seeing through walls.


In more recent games, such as The Witcher 3 (2015), activating “Witcher Senses” illuminates objects which can give you money and items in a gold outline. “Important” entities, such as things to progress the story, enemies, or clues, are outlined in red.

As far as game design goes, whether or not these modes of vision in 3D games is “good” is not something I want to discuss here, although for those unfamiliar with game design, it is something people are prone to argue about.

Back to the notion of desired information. What desired information do these games’ alternate modes of vision give us? In both games, the information tends to be “things we need to kill”, “things we need to collect”, “things that will help us progress the game”, or “things that would be helpful to know about.”, etc.

Thus these modes of visions reveal the driving forces under a game and the sorts of psychologies at play as a person plays the game. Collection, progress, exploration, etc.

Interestingly, one could even consider a raw photo from a game, and the alternate vision filtered version of the raw photo. If we consider these to be photos, which we can — systems such as the PlayStation 4 now offer the ability to take photographs at any time — then game photography also has its own notion of ‘post-processing’.

Photos from Tokyo September 2015

I think then, this idea of ‘desired information’ can be an interesting framework we can use when looking at or taking photos that have been ‘abstracted’ via some sorts of filtering.

Let’s look at a photo I took.

Formally, this photo is of a side room in the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art. The center of the photo is a strange square-shaped alcove in the bottom of a wall, the photo is tilted 45 degrees to the left, to the left are blinds and to the right is is a small bench. This was an odd space with no apparent use except for rest.


Here is a different picture of the space, with no filtering. The room seems odd, right?


Because of how I processed the black and white photo, it is disorienting. Additionally, it appears pixellated because of the number of iterations I did of zooming in on the photo. The garbage around the borders is an artifact of that process. So far this has been boring talk — so what if the photo is pixellated!


Yet, the blocky pixels of the black and white photo is reminiscent of early 3D games on the Sony Playstation, such as this one from 爆走デコトラ伝説 (Bakusou Dekotora Densetsu、1998)

With the ability to quickly modify photos in the field, I can transform a photo into one more similar to an old 3D game, thus, leading me to think about the photograph as if it were a game — what sorts of things would possess ‘desired information’ in this game? What was a designer thinking making this space? How does this space treat the presence of a human body? I might think, “wow, the museum sure does not give people many chances to sit down.” And so on. I recall my feet hurting in the museum. Thus the notion of ‘this space seems odd’ is easier to investigate depending on how the photograph is taken.

Of course, this photo has the potential to be interpreted as black and white kitsch. And perhaps my example feels a bit contrived. But in avoiding falling into the trap of mobile photographing for ‘visual pleasure’, and looking at filters as ways of giving us ‘alternate vision’ in the way technology has done in many fields, maybe this can be a useful way for extracting unknown sets of information that constantly hover before us.

Here is another photo. The branches of the trees have been blurred into an almost flat surface. This is game-like in some ways. What has happened here is the space — a park — has been transformed into a ‘strange box’ of sorts.


Here is the raw photo:


The subject matter is relatively clear in both, but in the first photo, the way the ‘ceiling’ of tree branches work suggests some sort of protective or enclosing notion of public parks. It suggests safety, comfort, moreso than the raw photograph. On its own, perhaps the photo is weak. But applying these ideas to a series of photographs could be useful from a thematic standpoint. The word ‘filter’ is apt, then, these filters — blurs, zooms, contrasts, saturations — filter out particular emotions, the most obvious example being polaroid, ‘nostalgic’ filters, etc. Whether those emotions are created by the filters or pulled out of the photograph by the filters is up to debate. But creative uses of these filters can build the mobile photographer’s vocabulary in the process of looking, of thinking of ‘desired information’ that can be pulled out.

One more photo: this one is of a crosswalk. It has been distorted and filtered and as a result looks a bit like you might be viewing it on television or computer screen.


I can’t find the original (so much for unlimited storage), but it probably looked something like this:


In this way, the filtering pulls out (or adds…) a “TV-ness” to the photograph. It brings up notions of how particular actions or things can feel staged or routine. Surely we’ve all felt at one moment or another to be living in an illusion, some TV-like construct. The bodies of the men sort of blur together, pushing them into the abstract category of ‘person’.

The filtering and modifications to the photos change the spaces, change the ways we categorize the objects in the scene, change how we reason about it.

In conclusion

Whether or not you agree with this, or any of these photos, I hope we can at least agree that mobile photography is tightly tied to the Internet, existing in a state of anxiety with it centering around privacy, social elements and security. Additionally, mobile photography filters are an extension of the development of technology that provides alternate modes of vision, an extension which gives mobile photographers new ways of changing the way in which photos can be looked at and produced. Aided by the search-engine feature of the hashtagged network of photos on social media services, photographers, particularly mobile ones, have a variety of tools in which they can use when approaching the act of taking photos. Hopefully, this technology, more than being used for nostalgic or visual primacy uses, can be used for giving us new ways of expressing ideas about the world, by drawing out different sorts of ‘desired informations’.

Thanks for reading. I post photos at Instagram , and am on Twitter. More information at my website, with links to my games, music, and other miscellaneous projects. If you’ve read this far, and you know of any interesting writing on mobile photography or related things, or of relevant photographers, feel free to comment below. Soon, I hope to write some essays about game photography in specific.

Relevant links

More rigorously argued and explained notions of cultural constructs in the choices of filters:

A nice theoretical piece on Instagram —

More notes on Instagram

Article with a few examples of game-photography projects

On ‘virtual photos’ by Eron Rauch, who has photographed the GTA game series — (

Thoughts on mobile photograph

Uses of mobile photography