There's an argument in certain circles of art making about what the function of art is. Answers have ranged the gamut from arguments to make art for art's sake to calls for art as a means to disseminate information and record history. But what happens when history is coming to an end and the idea of a record falls apart? How does art function in society when society has come to its end? The photography game Umurangi Generation pushes these questions to the forefront in a surprising way. We discuss these questions, building from the defaults in The Sims 4, and answer listener questions on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.
Austin: So much of what is incredible about this game, which again for people who missed previous conversations is game about doing photography in a sort of near future, cyberpunk-ish, mid-apocalyptic New Zealand, is the sort of hope in the face of desperation. Or not even hope, [but] culture in the face of, joy in the face of the world ending, everything falling apart all over the place, not being able to identify particular methods of hope, or particular methods of like how do we fix this, and insisting that we should still have community despite that. Cado, you were the one who brought this up to me the other day so I'm curious if you have any other thoughts on that.
Cado: Um, yeah I mean, I had brought up the idea of photography as a record and also a means to disseminate information that maybe might not be listened to if not in this, not sanitized but, more easily digestible form of the image. But part of a record is the idea that there will be somebody to look back at a thing. And I was really kind of stricken by, I won't say exactly what happens but, the last area in the game, and the idea of a kind of finality in the end of this game that, in a way, twists the idea of using photography to document this. That is a little bit, I don't know it feels almost, what's the word I'm looking for not didactic but precautionary, I suppose. You know that there's a certain idea of hoping that in the current time you can still change the course of history, where for these people in this game it's too late. The actors have already kind of made their mistakes, and the individual people are kind of living out the end of their time on their terms, but only insofar as the people in power have already kind of screwed the pooch so to speak.
Gita: Yeah, I've been noticing this in real life. I mean recently, I think just because I'm locked inside and stressed out all the time, my patience for, let's say white nonsense, it's just a lot lower than it used to be. I used to, you know, you grow up with a lot of white people, you learn how to tune certain things out and try not to let it get to you. Recently, especially after back to back police murders, I'm just over it. Today, the moment I realized I just needed to get off the timeline and do something nice for my brain was when I saw a white person retweet this video of like a black child crying on camera, about the riots, very eloquently explaining why riots occur. He was saying, "if the people here can't trust the police, then once the police kills one of them and they don't have anyone to go to they're just going to riot." And just, you know, that's true, but this kid couldn't have been more than 12, and you could hear his voice breaking on camera. Like in like an actual literal child, and it must feel very good for some people to see images like that in the face of tragedy, but that person, when the cameras stopped running, continued to exist. And I think Umurangi Generation, more than anything, brings that thought to the front of my mind. When I'm given a bounty to take a picture of the word cops, we talked about this last time. I know that the person who receives that picture will be happy with their picture of the word cops, I don't know what to do with that. But the character I play took that picture and then still had to live in the world where graffiti says "cops come here to kill us" for a reason. I just think it's good time to think more mindfully about the things you share on social media, how you respond to tragedy, and the ways in which responses to tragedy can also be dehumanizing.
Austin: The quote that I was trying to reference I couldn't pull it off the top of my head. From Faulkner, who is the lead dev on it
“I chose Umurangi Generation, you know, Red Sky Generation, because the idea was to talk about how our generation is coming of age at the moment having to deal with older generations destroying the earth in-front of us. And we can’t really do anything about it. We can go and protest, sure, but in terms of being the people who actually push the buttons, we’re limited in that space."
The idea in choosing that title was that someday there is going to be a last generation. A generation who is in the position we’re in at the moment. They’re going to have to just sit by and watch. There’s going to be a point where we can’t fix it. A generation that won’t have that same hope that I have at the moment.”
And I think that that is so fascinating because it puts on its head what I think a lot of other developers would do with this core concept. Because I think there would be a turn, there would be the moment of like, "and then you took the photograph that changes the world," right? "Then you take the photograph that reveals the truth about the situation," and I think that the game rejects that framing and that's a framing that I think gets gets brought forward a lot. We talked about the value of photography and the kind of lines around shooting the effects of war, shooting the effects of trauma, what the benefits, there are and what the philosophy around and discussion around the sort of ethics of photography are, but I love the idea that this developer stepped forward and said like "Alright, let's bracket off what we think are the values of photography, documentation, and creative work in regards to political change or in regards to saving us. What remains? Is it still valuable then?" I think the game insists that it is, which is fascinating. And for what it's worth the thing that I like about it is not that it says "photography can't save us." It's that it says "that photography could save us is not the reason why photography is meaningful."
This transcript was edited for length and clarity. Discussed: Umurangi Generation 2:57, Totem 23:40, Sludge Life 28:08, The Sims 4 33:45, Question Bucket 44:42
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