On the GTA V Media sub-Reddit, over two hundred reporters share scenes of gang violence, plane crashes, robberies, and police shootouts. But they’re not photojournalists covering the news in a major metropolitan area—they’re gamers documenting daily life in Grand Theft Auto V’s fictional, crime-ridden city Los Santos.
Christopher Murrie is one of these virtual Robert Capas. A senior film editor at stop-motion animation studio Laika, he uses his filmmaking skills and GTA V’s in-game camera options to capture striking sepia-toned images of digital violence and mayhem.
Virtual photography—saving images within virtual worlds, or “screenshotting”—is a small but growing subculture in the video game world. For many, it’s a way to honor the hard work of the game’s developers and artists while expressing their own creativity. For Los Angeles-based artist Eron Rauch, it’s a way to explore how the digital world affects our lives.
“I’m really interested in the way we engage with these virtual spaces and our subcultures,” Rauch told me in a recent interview. “Look at the rise of big budget comic book movies or even fantasy sports. This kind of fan culture way of interacting with the world through screens is sort of the new normal in our society. And I think it’s really important to try to figure out novel new ways to pry at that space.”
One of Rauch’s biggest contributions to the screenshotting subculture is a project called A Land to Die In, a panorama of images from the massively popular online game World of Warcraft. It’s a record of every player corpse Rauch stumbled across while working to reach the game’s highest levels.
“As I was walking through the game, everyone was dead,” Rauch said. “I kept seeing these corpses lying in the landscape, waiting for the character to respawn and come back, and I just started documenting every single one of them. [It’s] this weird poetic statement about what the landscape in WoW is like, and it ended up being this extremely massive collage of hundreds of photographs that documents the inevitability of death, and having to pick yourself back up off the floor and do it again if you want to make any progress.”
Rauch estimates he took around 10,000 screenshots for his project. Sorting those images into something that could hang on the wall of an art gallery proved to be a challenge.
“How do I translate this virtual thing to a physical thing that’s legible to maybe an audience that doesn’t play any video games or maybe plays Bejeweled at best?” Rauch said. “I’m not even sure that I totally accomplished that in the project. But I think there are moments that I managed to get that to happen.”
For Duncan Harris, an English games journalist and creator of the website Dead End Thrills, the challenge is more technical than philosophical. His website features beautiful shots spanning a variety of genres, each made using a painstaking process that involves access to developers’ internal game builds, custom tools and cutting edge computer hardware.
“The process is always different, though the first instance involves gaining whatever control is needed to just control the camera and get the screenshots out, “ he said. “The really time-consuming bit comes next, which is a back-and-forth process of sensing how the game wants to look, how you need it to look for screenshots, and what additional control you need to achieve that. It’s not always obvious—a lot of it only becomes apparent after hours of frustration—but can involve things like being able to reposition character meshes while the game is paused, adjusting its lighting, and modifying many of the post-processing effects attached to the game’s camera.”
Harris can spend dozens of hours searching for the perfect shot. For his work on Alien: Isolation, for example, he told Vice he spent over 100 hours with the game; 80 of those hours were spent hacking it. For a particular shot of the Xenomorph alien itself, he had to freeze the creature’s artificial intelligence and animation and move it several rooms away. It took hours to find the right pose.
Harris believes composition is vital to making a great screenshot. What makes a game look good in motion during gameplay, he said, is often very different than what works in still photography.
“It’s not about forcing a new look upon a game using things like [post-processing software] Reshade—which is a very destructive process—but making the game itself look better,” he said. “Composition is, of course, vital to that. Knowing what to avoid, as well as what to show off, and how best to do it.”
The amount of technical knowledge and hardware needed to make the kind of shots Harris produces could be a deterrent to aspiring screenshotters, but a new product from graphics technology company Nvidia promises to make virtual photography much more accessible. Ansel is a capture tool that gives Geforce GTX graphics card owners the ability to pause gameplay and compose scenes with a free-floating camera. Harris consulted with Nvidia on the project and said he applauds what they’re trying to do with it.
“How much work it takes out of the equation really depends on the support they get from developers, but it’s great that they recognise what’s mutually beneficial for players, developers and themselves,” he said.
Rauch said he’s excited to see what people do with Ansel, but he’s also reticent to buy claims of tech improvements. To him, photography is about self-expression and exploration, not technical fads.
“I don’t necessarily think [Ansel] is going to even maybe increase the number of people that are going to make screenshots as a whole, because anyone can make a screenshot,” he said. “Just press ‘PrtScn’ in Steam and you’ve got a screenshot.”
Stefanie Fogel is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas. Her work has appeared at PC Gamer, Polygon, and GamesBeat. She talks about video games a lot. Follow her on Twitter @stefaniefogel.
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