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No Man's Sky: How photo mode changes the game

Snap happy

The latest chunky update for No Man’s Sky [official site] added a lot of things that are probably Of Interest to other people and a brand new, totally overhauled and significantly fleshed-out photo mode which is of interest to me. The mode was created in collaboration with Duncan Harris, whose awesome screenshot art you might know from Dead End Thrills and thus is far more than just a free camera and a HUD removal option (although it does both of those things).

I’ve spent an obscene number of hours since the update landed (an entire season of Spooks on Netflix) skipping from planet to planet in search of pleasing landscapes so I figured I’d share the preliminary results in a gallery!

To navigate the gallery just use the arrow buttons near the images or the left and right arrow keys on the keyboard. Click on the images themselves to see larger versions.

I don’t have a fancy rig or anything so this is more about what’s possible and why the mode is interesting rather than some 4k-stravaganza…

As an FYI, some of the photo mode options are an FOV slider, a depth-of-field slider, options to fiddle with the amount of fog of war and cloud cover, a bunch of filters ranging from the Instagrammy to the Prisma-ish, the ability to change the time of day, and the ability to entirely change the position of the sun.

My own preference is to fiddle with the FOV slider (preferring a high number generally because of the fisheye landscapes it generates), take the vignette value down to the lowest value (10%) in case I want to stitch images together later and rely on changes in position of the light source for the rest. Filters don’t really do it for me, although I’m experimenting with the more extreme options for planets populated with plants of very well-defined/exaggerated shapes.At the moment, I’m more interested in how the photo mode can let you investigate the broader sweep of the terrain generation.

One of the side-effects is that I know my engagement with No Man’s Sky has ceased to have any depth from a gameplay point-of-view. I’m fine with that but I wanted to point it out as I do think the change might matter to others.

To elaborate, I’m just using creative mode to bypass any impediments to exploration such as resource costs and I’m hopping from planet to planet, spending a couple of moments to assess the terrain and the potential for interesting images and I stay a bit longer if there are shots I want and leave immediately if they aren’t. It’s not really a game to me, it’s a piece of software that’s generating worlds which I either find aesthetically interesting or I don’t. That sensation has been present since the start in some form and it’s one I’m fine with – I probably cultivate it so even before photo mode arrived I’d started trying to hack the game with this kind of end goal in mind.

The other, related, point is that having seen so many planets in such a short space of time, I know that I’m generally going to find variants on No Man’s Sky’s main themes of planet/flora/fauna. That doesn’t mean I’m not surprised by specific iterations, but if you choose to use the game this way it can feel very hollow by the time you’ve filled your pockets with images. Again, I had this sensation after playing a chunk of it when it first came out, but because I was engaging with the play systems as I travelled it took a lot longer to set in.

I want to stress that this isn’t a criticism per se; more an observation of how my own interests have altered my experience of the game.

Specifically responding to the photo mode, I really love it. I want more developers to do more considered photo modes as a matter of course instead of me needing to figure out various hacks or feed the screenshots into phone apps to get particular effects.

I wonder how creative directors and art directors would feel about that. On the one hand it gives options to explore what’s possible with an engine and provide ways for people to explore the worlds you’ve built in new ways. It also means you still have a bit of control over the output in that you’d be creating the presets for filters and options so you could see what works for your game.

On the other, I’m guessing it could easily be a significant amount more work and more bug-fixing so why not just leave it to modders and the more dedicated screenshot art communities? Plus there’s the risk of pulling players out of the play mindset. From a personal point of view I’d be okay with that because I think having curated photo modes would entice me to buy games I ordinarily might skip past but I’ve long since realised that I tend not to be the person a marketing department has in mind as the hallowed Target Consumer.

Disclaimer: Alec did some writing for No Man’s Sky. I no longer read any words in No Man’s Sky that aren’t “Photo Mode” so unless he’s been hiding dialogue in moons and down crevasses there’s none of his narrative in any of this.

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Philippa Warr

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