Walking through abandoned locations with the population decimated by a deadly virus; a story of survival in a desolate world where daily life is a distant memory – it sounds a bit like the sort of thing that has been seen a hundred times before. There is definitely an element of truth to that, and although the grim reality is that 35MM does little to distinguish itself as an innovative game, maybe it was never really meant to in the first place.
Set in a largely unpopulated Russia in the aftermath of an apparently lethal pandemic, the few hour long story will mostly task you with wandering around in search of items and solving a few basic puzzles to progress the narrative. Some dodgy shooting sections aside, it is not a bad experience, but the fact that turning a metal bar on a lathe remains one of my favourite moments perhaps says something about how most of the gameplay falls back in the "unremarkable" category.
- 35MM // SERGEY NOSKOV -
The visuals too are distinctly lo-fi, with animations even comical at times, and while the audio does have one or two atmospheric highs, it all too often devolves into a seemingly endless loop of fairly simple or outright unpleasant sound effects. The thing is though, none of this is what drew my attention to the game; the clue to where that interest lies can be found in its name.
For the uninitiated, 35MM (read 35 millimeter) refers to the gauge / width of classic camera film, hence the logo, and so the real fascination comes with how cameras and photography are featured as part of the game, not least because Moscow-based developer (Sergey Noskov) clearly has some interest in the area. A number of well-framed shots during the cinematic cut scene sequences reveal a creator with a keen artistic eye and, despite not actually being necessary at any point, the playable character has a trusty camera at hand throughout almost the entire game.
- HAND HELD // 35MM -
It is certainly not a perfectly told tale but there is a definite sense that 35MM is a creation intended to provoke thought on a broader narrative. An early exchange where the character ponders on how "a camera is a small time machine" thanks to its ability to record and relive the past gives an early indication of that.
By the time you reach the slightly varied endings, one of which proves particularly poignant, the message becomes loud and clear as it transcends any of the usual survival tropes that the game fronts up with and subtly explores art and human emotion.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Hand-held 35mm film camera
Manual focus and depth of field control
Scalable logo overlay
Controls & Implementation:
Taking the form of a vintage film camera that is carried by the playable character in-game, the photo mode here is really a sort of inventory item that must be equipped to be used. That does mean that it is not always available, but there is a certain charm that comes with this connection to an "actual" virtual camera, complete with pressing the shutter button and winding on the film each time.
Nothing that a little trial and error cannot overcome...
Walking into position to find an angle for a shot feels totally natural, though the immersion is somewhat broken by the fact that the character and camera become fixed to the spot once you depress the shutter with R2. This means that while in the photo mode, the only available movements are the very slow pan and tilt adjustments with the RS and anything else is a matter of exiting the camera and moving the character to a better spot.
That on-foot positioning is something that I am actually fine with, I would just like to be able to walk while using the camera rather than distinguishing the two.
- 35MM // PHOTO MODE UI -
Within the camera mode itself, things are both very simple and a little confusing, at least initially, thanks to an extremely minimalist user interface with almost no names or descriptions for each option. It is nothing that a little trial and error cannot overcome, but the functions themselves may not be immediately obvious given that the effects of some settings require others to be active for them to be seen.
To save you the trouble of figuring things out, the five icons from left to right provide the following functions:
Focus Distance - adjusts the distance at which the camera is focused with LS moving the point of sharpest focus further from (↑) or closer to (↓) the camera.
Depth of Field - determine the depth of image that appears in acceptable focus and how much foreground / background is defocused. LS to increase (↑) or decrease (↓) field depth.
ISO Sensitivity - adjusts the simulated photographic film sensitivity with LS increasing (↑) or decreasing (↓) the value and hence brightness of the image.
Blur - adjusts the amount of blur that is applied to the defocused areas. LS to increase (↑) or decrease (↓) the level of blurring.
Zoom / Focal Length - Optical zoom using the LS to narrow (↑) or widen (↓) the field of view.
- 35MM // PHOTOGRAPHY -
Once it becomes clear how each option works, it doesn't take long to use the available camera settings to frame a shot and achieve an accurate focus with as much or as little depth of field as desired. Manual focus can be finely adjusted and includes a good range from <1m right up to infinity, and the amount of zoom is accommodating enough to enable very wide angled or narrow telephoto shots.
In fact the only real complaint from an optical point of view has to be that the defocused areas are not rendered with an authentic bokeh. Instead, the image is blurred using a "double vision" solution that can cause very obvious edge striations if the blur is set too high.
- 35MM // ON THE FENCE -
It is also a shame that the player's torchlight is almost entirely lost when toggling the UI and that the ISO setting, while able to completely over or under expose the image, does not add any of the associated noise or film grain that would occur with high ISO settings in reality. As well as being more true to life, this would have nicely complimented the existing visual style and resulting photo mode shots.
Without grain or any other post-edit options, the style of captures are pretty much as they appear in the game, although a couple of things in the main game settings – namely Wound Effect & Aberration – can be used to include a deliberately imperfect finish.
Otherwise, an optional 35MM logo is the only real piece of flare to speak of, and the stylised film design can be freely placed within the frame using the LS and scaled with the RS to compliment the underlying composition.
In case you missed it as I did initially, this can be found on a second row of options sat just beneath the main icons and is toggled on / off by selecting the logo icon and pressing Δ.
- 35MM // TALK TO THE WALL -
On reflection, it is nice to have such a refreshingly simple photo mode that does away with almost all of the frills that we have come to expect. It is an approach that allows users to concentrate on what matters most, but it does have a couple strange quirks that may either add character or become annoying – I'll let you decide that for yourselves.
One such example would be that the tilt of the camera is altered when scaling the logo and so must be corrected afterwards; another is that the UI toggle is found within the on-screen menu rather than as a dedicated button, meaning that should you navigate away from it while the UI is hidden, you'll need to blindly find your way back to turn it on again.
Oh, and pressing Δ while on the Blur option will mysteriously disable all effects until the action is repeated or the camera is put back in the inventory. Still, that should never be a problem for too long seeing as the camera will automatically close after 250 seconds whether it is left idle or actively being used.
Splashes of colour are present, they are just few and far between...
Right from the outset, 35MM portrays a gloomy and desaturated world where sorrow is clearly more abundant than joy and the overriding atmosphere is one of foreboding. Whether playing through the story or conveniently revisiting its short chapters, splashes of colour are present, they are just few and far between on this journey through rural, underground and built-up areas.
Given the similar scarcity of living people, the apparent scope of interest is one of documenting the abandonment of once lived-in spaces with a feeling of somewhere you should not be. Or of capturing the dilapidation of structures that tell of the relentless passage of time.
It is a worthy genre to explore as every broken down tractor or piece of brutalist architecture becomes an interesting subject in its own right, just don't come in expecting characterful portraits or action shots, this is absolutely not what 35MM is about.
- 35MM // ABANDONED HALL -
It could even be argued that if this virtual world was overflowing with inhabitants that it still wouldn't be suited to close-up portraiture given the relatively low quality of the character models and rigging, but to think of this in terms of fidelity in any way is to miss the point entirely.
Much like the simple nature of its virtual film camera, 35MM is about going back to photography basics. Think of it as a chance to explore less obvious possibilities, to manage without flashy tools, and to use nothing more than considered composition to capture a feeling.
- 35MM // SIMPLE TOOLS -
As soon as this hits home, the stripped out photo mode is a refreshing experience that is freed from the obligations of vibrant filters or complicated lighting. It is totally akin to reverting to a vintage camera in reality; one that is excused from perfection and becomes an exercise in creativity or an exploration of photography in its purest form.
It is here that the seemingly dated visual style and muted colours come into their own. Lo-fi is, by its very definition, something that gives the impression of low quality, and it also just happens to be a whole sub-genre of photography that photo modes don't often give the chance to embrace.
In a time when expectations are for each new release to be technically more advanced than the last, 35MM serves as a reminder that a softer and less detailed aesthetic can be just as pleasing and just as powerful as the cutting edge.
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35MM is not without its flaws as a game, and indeed as a photo mode, but an underlying narrative speaks to the importance of photography as a medium as well as its power to preserve the memory and experiences of others.
While this alone makes it an interesting game for any photographer to play, the back-to-basics approach to the in-game capture tools is a great reminder that the true potential of the art is not dictated by what the camera can do, but by what you can do with the camera.