There have been many imaginative puzzle-adventure games over the course of the last generation or two that have been genre-defining. There’s a hard balance in crafting tasks that’ll challenge all comers, and I’d argue that something like The Witness, as magical as it was, might have proved a tad obtuse for the general gamer. Of the tentpole puzzlers that have paved the way here, Viewfinder reminds me most of Portal. It’s mechanically very different, but it serves up all of its elements and “aha!” moments at such a digestible cadence that I never felt like the game had me over a barrel.
Although Viewfinder itself isn’t a completely novel idea, games like Superliminal have toyed with perspective before, it spends its modest four hour runtime proving that it’s the best application of these problems that take just a tweak in viewpoint to press on, deeper into the journey.
I remember first seeing Viewfinder in action and marvelling at the creativity that has gone into interpreting so many of photography’s inseparable and notable elements—framing, single-use Polaroids, photocopying. Despite being a centuries-old technology, the magic of the photograph still makes my mind melt at times, so the transference of a static image into the game’s world here felt like sorcery.
Viewfinder does a wonderful job at introducing all of the player’s tools piecemeal, and I found myself constantly surprised at the game’s ingenuity. The goal is to, with the help of a butter-voiced cat guardian named Cait, progress through a computed construct to find mankind’s answer for their red alert climate crisis. With the aim of activating the terminal in each level, which frequently requires battery power to operate, you’ll need to exercise all of your smarts to get out.
With the godlike power of replication at your fingertips, you can manipulate photographs of walls to shape new bridges, you can manifest surplus batteries to power your exit, and you can even use ‘selfies’ as a means to copy yourself and transmit your matter to hard-to-reach places. There’s a liberating freedom in most of the tools Viewfinder offers, and it’s a freedom I abused at times to cheese my way through a few of the trickier endgame levels—which, similar to Tears of the Kingdom and its seemingly limitless systems—is more impressive than anything.
In that sense, I never found myself unable to get through the main game. The optional levels that can be found throughout the handful of hub areas, on the other hand, are going to have players digging deep because they’re particularly tough.
It certainly seems as though the Viewfinder team had kept much of the game’s story and mystery close to the vest. The game’s demo, which hooked me originally, didn’t give a sense of the overarching plot. While there’s a tangible story there, it feels reticent and not super consequential to the game’s core loop, meaning you can drink it up if that’s your preference, but if you’re just looking to solve a puzzle or two you don’t have to scour the map for every single audio log.
There’s definitely an interpersonal narrative there that spends the whole time raising its eyebrows suggestively towards the “games for change” end-of-year gong, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t serviceable.
There’s a vibrancy to the world of Viewfinder that’s more in line with The Witness than it is Portal, which leaned more on futuristic, machine-led sterility. The construct you explore seems built upon the fundamentals of classical Roman architecture, there’s a lot of concrete, arches and aqueducts presenting a clean, white canvas for the pops of colour evident throughout. Vegetation and technology come together to create a spectacularly vivid sandbox to get weird in, and the deeper you get into this construct the more abstract and disjointed it becomes.
Photographs are one way you can bend reality in Viewfinder, but the game makes a habit of leaving rich oil paintings, black and white line etchings, and ‘straight to the fridge’ kids drawings around to let players create these immersive, beautiful moments within all manner of art itself.
Not only is Viewfinder the best example of perspective-bending pageantry in video games yet, far exceeding its contemporaries that helped pave the path it walks, it’s arguably the most enjoyable puzzle game since Portal made us question a cake’s authenticity fifteen long years ago.
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but stepping inside a picture is worth so much more. In what is the best puzzle game of the last decade, Viewfinder places theatricality, in the form of its mystifying world and its inventive systems, at the forefront of the experience.
Immensely creative puzzle elements
Beautiful world architecture
The game’s tools offer freedom of solution
So many “aha!” moments
A slight disconnect between the game’s mechanics and story