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Toem review: a modern, yet nostalgic photography adventure


Remember that brief period in the 00s where everyone had a mobile phone, but none of them could take decent photos, so at least one girl per friendship group also had to have a small digital camera? Laboriously uploading and tagging. These are the photos that come up on your Facebook Memories, reminding you that for a brief period during your final year of school you started wearing 50s-ish neck scarves, for some reason.

The little black-and-white puzzle adventure game Toem, in which all problems are solved with a camera, reminds me of that. Not because you are able to make disasterous or whimisical fashion choices - you very much are, mostly in the hat department - but because you just take photos of everything, for the fun of it, to remember this thing you saw. Wonky-focused snaps of a flower, or a ladybird, or a nice building (poorly framed because you can't get all of it in shot). This isn't really photography for the camera nerds interested in lenses or different exposures. This is photography as a joyful insta-record of your life. I was here, I did this thing, it was good.

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You task is to travel from your little home, where you live with your nan, to the highest peak of the highest mountain to take a picture of the light phenomenon that occurs there. It's a sort of unofficial rite of passage. This journey takes you through a tranquil camping forest, a seaside town, a busy city, and a snowy resort, each of which is full of locals with problems. You travel between them via a bus, and the currency is Being A Good Citizen. Helping someone out gets you a stamp on your card, and enough stamps means you can go to the next area. And there are always more puzzles than stamps you need, so you're unlikely to get stuck.

The whole world of Toem is in black and white, but remains expressive throughout. This is partly thanks to the art's strong, clean lines, but also the character designs themselves, which range from cute (balloon child that has blown away from his balloon parents; small fluffy dog creatures; skiing bird) to wacky (punk lion feeding parrot instead of pigeons; security guard bear assessing how cool you are; ghost demanding sandwich). Each location is like a diorama, too. You can explore different streets in the city, for example, and you can zoom the camera right out and spin around almost 360 degrees to look at everything. And it's 3D in the way that a paper model is 3D. NPCs are flat and will always turn to face you, but buildings are proper 3D and trees are somewhere in between.

So off you run around this world. At any time you can switch to your camera to take a picture, with a simple zoom and focus slider. Not only do you get to keep your photos in a nice album, but later on you get a tripod, so you can take photos of yourself in one of those face-in-hole photo boards and pretend to be a farmer. You get a horn to scare pests like seagulls. You can direct a crane with your viewfinder. The camera is omni-purpose in Toem's world.

This is lucky, because you will face a varied list of requests. There's a camera club, of sorts, who give you requests for photos of certain things, some of which are specific and easy (one guy asked me for a photo of a tree, in the forest) while others will require more lateral thinking, like the one who wanted a photo of something 'rad'. Some puzzles have several steps, or loop in to solve something else. The new melody for a singer on the beach had to be filtered through two other people first, for example, but then it called forth the King Fish I needed a photo of for someone else.

There are some things you can get a photo of that are special, like unique animals hiding around, or citizens you've made exquisitely happy by helping them. Other tasks need you to complete steps on several levels, like tracking down different monsters or finding the shady trenchcoat-wearing character who hides everywhere. You can also revisit each location to mop up unfinished tasks, even after the two-ish hours it takes you reach the top of the mountain. It's worth it, too, because you might see some changes. I told a yeti about the fluffy dogs wandering around. Guess who had a new pet the next time I saw them? I also inspired a fashion designer with my outfit, and then everyone in the city was wearing a version of my paper pirate hat.

It's just fun, isn't it? It's not groundbreaking, Toem, but it's somehow nostalgic and modern at the same time, a silly world that you can just enjoy, guilt-free. No overwrought commentary on modern society. No hidden meaning. Occasionally some hidden socks, or ghosts you can only see when you're wearing magic sunglasses, yes. Mostly having fun and taking pictures. I was here, I played Toem. It was good.

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