The Devil’s In The Details

HIGH Learning what the title refers to.

LOW The jump mechanic is a little sticky.

WTF Tariq’s Bitchtape.

The first indication that Umurangi Generation is more than just a photography game comes during the tutorial.

A friendly female NPC explains that if we’ve ever played a first-person shooter, this controls roughly the same. Shen then runs us through the premise – each level is a scavenger hunt in which we complete “bounties” by finding and photographing objects on our list. We earn money for each picture, and the payout depends on factors like color and composition. Players can toy with post-process effects for the best payout, but any picture that technically fits the criteria advances the campaign.

Before setting us loose, the NPC reminds us that art is subjective, and encourages us to express ourselves, but then she informs us that one thing is off limits – “blue bottles”, a.k.a. Portuguese men-o’-war. We are not, under any circumstances, to photograph those. She promises that we’ll learn why as we play.

This is notable for two reasons. First, it’s weird. This is ostensibly a game set on land, so why would there even be any jellyfish around, and why would it be bad to photograph them?

Second, it’s the only time that Umurangi speaks directly to the player. With no cutscenes and no further dialogue, the remainder of the narrative is inferred entirely through environmental details, discernible only to those who stop and take a closer look. Thankfully, as photographers, taking a closer look is what we’re here to do.

Were it not for that early hint, the campaign’s initial moments would feel deceptively quaint. Umurangi features a low-poly visual style reminiscent of the late ‘90s – a growing trend in the indie market – and its relatively small levels don’t feel like living, breathing spaces. The NPCs that inhabit Umurangi run through continuous animation loops but don’t go about actual routines. The stages are almost like snapshots themselves, effectively frozen in time.

The process of completing bounties is straightforward — find an item on the list and take a picture of it, and many bounties are self-explanatory. We might be instructed to photograph two boom boxes, and since those are all over the place, it’s a simple matter of positioning oneself to get a pair of them in a single shot.

However, each level seems to give us at least one deviously well-hidden objective. On the opening rooftop, for example, I needed a picture of the word “mix.” I spent a lot of time scanning the graffiti only to eventually figure out where the word is actually found – on the tiny label of a cassette tape.

In that moment, Umurangi trains us to pay closer attention to minor details – to read signs, examine posters, and zoom in on newspaper clippings. This doesn’t always produce the bounties that we’re looking for, but we nevertheless begin noticing things. The game’s Steam page describes it as being set in the “shitty future,” and that’s not just because it’s polluted or overcrowded. Something genuinely terrible is happening here.

Uncovering the specifics of this universe sheds an entirely new light on the microcosms of the urban life that we’ve been exploring and photographing — specifically, tracing young rebellious types, blasting music and tagging walls everywhere they appear. Their behavior isn’t a phase, though — it’s them laughing in the face of a problem that they didn’t cause and were born too late to do anything about. All they can do is find beauty amidst tragedy, as we’re doing.

On the surface, Umurangi is a relaxing and fully-featured photography game with ample opportunity for player expression, and it’s dripping with style and atmosphere (thanks in large part to Adolf Nomura’s avant-garde electronic soundtrack). But what elevates it to genuine greatness is the manner in which it tells a story and makes a point, despite initially appearing to have neither.

I won’t say that Umurangi Generation is the best game of 2020, but it’s almost certainly the most relevant, and not just for its most apropos parallels (like an abundance of face masks). This game is a sobering plea of the disaffected youth, and real-world events have given us countless reasons to lose faith in the idiots our parents put in charge. It’s only fitting that the teens at the core of this story never actually speak, because they were deprived a voice by the people who built this terrible future for them.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Origame Digital and published by Playism. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately three hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: As of press time, this game has not been rated by the ESRB.  It would likely be rated “Teen” for occasional bloody images and some mild profanity.

Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are available from the in-game menu.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The only dialogue is in the tutorial, and it’s conveyed through text. The game itself is almost entirely bereft of actual sound effects. It’s fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: The controls are remappable from the in-game menu.

Mike Suskie
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2 years ago

Have you played the DLC? That cemented it as my favorite game of this year.