Twenty years ago – before Instagram – a game about documenting your every move was released. That game was Pokémon Snap.
The year was 1999. Hilary Swank was playing Brandon Teena, something that would now absolutely not be allowed. Troye Sivan was basically a fetus, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were at the top of the world, and people were obsessed with Pokémon.
At the time, Pokémon was (and still remains) one of the biggest multimedia franchises in the world. One might even call it an empire, and I, for one, welcome my new Jigglypuff overlord. There was an anime. There was a card game. There was a video game based on the card game. There was merch – so much merch. At the school I went to, people would buy off-brand Pokémon models and trade them. They eventually got banned at our school because of the drama they stirred up.
1999! When the word TERF was just what came after ‘surf’ at a bad restaurant.
One of these cash-in games was Pokémon Snap. Although it was originally meant to be a Nintendo 64DD game, it was moved to the Nintendo 64, arguably the best console of all-time. The gameplay was essentially a flip on the on-rails shooter, except instead of shooting a gun, you’re shooting photos. In 1999, the idea of having a nearly unlimited stock of photos was a dream, much like the idea of having a computer that fits in your pocket and tracks your every move, selling it to companies for an insultingly low price. After every level, your score is based on how good your photos are.
It’s a surprisingly robust game for what was clearly intended to be a cash-in. Hell, it wasn’t even intended to be a Pokémon game – it was meant to be a riff on Jack and the Beanstalk, the anti-capitalist, giant-shaming fairytale. It was only after the monster success of Pokemon Red and Green (both of which would later be upgraded into Red and Blue for international release) that Nintendo decided they liked money more than they liked Western fairytales, and Pokémon Snap was born.
Other than the fact that tying into a hugely popular franchise is a good idea, the philosophy that underlies Pokémon makes sense for the kind of game that Pokémon Snap is. It’s all about catching all the Pokémon and the unexplainable pleasure centre that tickles. Pokémon Snap takes that thrill straight out of the mainline Pokémon games – the ball shifting from left to right after you’ve thrown it at a Pokemon, that endless second when you’re waiting for the Pokémon to break free or become yours forever – and makes it that much more immediate.
You know when you’ve got a good photo – you can see it right away. There’s the kind of immediate hit to your brain that’s similar to the hit you get in a kart-racing game when you hit the speed boost, or when you pull off a perfect counter in a fighting game. It gamifies the simple act of taking a photo.
You know, kind of like Instagram!
Except it doesn’t turn every possible social relationship into a game with incredibly unclear rules and even more unclear end-points. Instead, it’s just a series of constantly moving goals with little sense of when the game ends, when it started or why we’re even doing it.
At least Pokémon Snap has Mew!
What’s surprising about Pokémon Snap is how slight the game seems now despite how groundbreaking the mechanics were at the time. There are only seven levels, and it can be quite easily completed in an afternoon. The game itself isn’t amazing, but the initial burst is what people remember. It’s part of what makes the Pokémon games so enticing: you’re thrown into this beautiful, colourful world with more creatures than you could ever hope to keep in your mind and be completely enveloped by it.
A huge part of Pokémon Snap’s appeal was taking that world off your colourless Gameboy screen or out of the repetitive anime series, and allowing you to splash around and genuinely interact with it. Even Pokémon Go has more of Pokémon Snap‘s DNA in it than you might think. It just flips what is interacting with what; rather than you going into the Pokemon realm, they’re invading our own realm, which is not at all terrifying. The catch ’em all mindset remains, as do the easily attainable goals.
It’s not hard to see why other games followed suit with their own photography gameplay. A major part of Beyond Good and Evil, Ubisoft’s still-underrated platformer about a photo-journalist unveiling a global conspiracy, was taking photos of wildlife for spare cash. Dead Rising, a game with zombies that I absolutely refuse to play but which I understand involves photo-taking as well, was a huge success.
Hell, Kingdom Hearts III involves you taking selfies as a core part of one sidequest!
Frankly, any game with graphics worth a damn has a photo mode intended for no reason other than to show off how much their underpaid designers spend on crafting every pixel you rush through in ten hours.
You can’t point to Pokémon Snap as the progenitor of all of this. I’m sure there’s some Lacanian theory as to why we all take photos of ourselves and expect other people to get value from those photos, and then expect ourselves to take value out from that value. But that’s neither here nor there.
What you can point to is Pokémon Snap being wildly ahead of its time. And for a game that started off as a directionless fairytale riff that got shoehorned into a franchise, that’s impressive.