Viewfinder is a wonderful demonstration of what games can be and how they can be played. While its story really struggles to come through, the brilliant puzzles, lovely world, and ingenious play more than compensate.
Clever puzzles that are *so* fun to solve
Lovely world and chilled ambience
Innovative and ingenious demonstration of what games can be
The story struggles to shine through
Some levels are tiny
Timed last level is very jarring
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Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: PC and PS5
Release date: July 18, 2023
I have never, ever, played anything like Viewfinder before. This puzzler from Sad Owl Studios is truly ‘unique’ and could be a seachange moment in what games can actually do and be - and how they can play.
Set in a simulated world away from your character’s real one, Viewfinder tasks you with navigating mind-boggling, architecturally-impossible levels with the power to make photographs, graphics, and even children's drawings part of the world around you. Add in a camera and the art of perspective and you’re seamlessly warping reality around you as things go from 2D art to full 3D as you journey to the teleporter that ends each level.
It sounds simple enough, but Viewfinder’s play feels like it could represent a new way in which the medium can be enjoyed, and what it can do. As a result, I can already say that it’s already one of the best indie games of 2023 and will likely make many folks’ best PS5 games and best PC games lists too.
2D or not 2D
The core act of play in Viewfinder, the ability to make the two-dimensional, three-dimensional is just fabulous. It’s moreish and never fails to pique interest and intrigue. Every puzzle is smart and fun, and there is sheer joy and delight in turning a 2D picture of your choice into an explorable 3D area in a flash.
That delight manifests a couple of different ways too: there is the intense feeling of satisfaction not only that comes with solving any puzzle, but also a joy from knowing that the way you did it was likely different from every other player - there are different solutions on a basic level, yes, but the placement of your pictures, the particular cut you make through scenery, all will be individual to your game. I cannot understate how much fun the puzzles are; I always had a smile on my face, and couldn’t wait to tackle the next one.
Across the game’s five hubs, you’ll move through a variety of levels that progressively - and predictably - up the ante on difficulty, demanding increased creativity and lateral thinking. This can vary wildly from utilising a semi-hidden photocopier to essentially print more maps and worlds to taking pictures of scenery that can then be used to cut through, well, other scenery, and from obtaining and duplicating items through photos, to shifting your own perspective to change the world.
Such is the brilliance of the intelligent and imaginative puzzles and the solving of them, you’ll quickly realise that no two pictures you take will be the same, and so no two solutions will be the same - in turn this means, your experience of Viewfinder’s puzzles will vary from other players. Your creations will be a distinct, personal mash-up of M.C. Escher and Dali, and the results you create are fantastic, often wild, and at times laughably baffling and weird.
A pentiment effect
Echoing vibes of The Witness and Firewatch in art style, Viewfinder deploys a stylized simulation of the world, using color theory, and subtle visual cues - that make it a nice place to exist in. It has a near-constant sense of chill, and the ambiance and environment are so relaxing; from environmental noises like rain and leaves rustling, to the spa-like music and art of, and in, the world - all of which are enhanced by the fact that your pace is limited to a walk. You can really soak it all up as you potter around.
And while there is a style to the game overall, draped across all its hubs and levels, there’s even space for multiple art styles in places - sometimes all on screen at once. Oh, and a quick note on screens: the game supports widescreen too so looked an absolute treat on my Acer Predator X38 monitor - being able to have more of Viewfinder’s world on-screen at once was terrific. Anyway, those differing art styles, often in the same levels, as well as your own ability to layer on pictures, scenery, textures, and 3D space can result in the world going from a stylized arty look to a crazy pentiment-layered effect.
The satisfaction of creating each solution, vista, or battery delivery system is exquisite - and grows 10-fold when you realise that your solutions and vistas are likely wildly different from nearly every other player’s experience.
Encouraging exploration and engagement, Viewfinder’s world does also have some video game staples you can collect and read along the journey. There are notebooks and post-its the founders wrote and left for each other respectively, a few collectibles from squeaky rubber ducks that piqued my dog’s interest every time - sorry, Bella - to mahjong bricks, and models of planets. And in what seems like an effort to really encourage enjoyment of the world there are always plenty of places to sit and stop too - and it’s often incredibly tempting to do so to elongate the experience and enjoy pictures you’ve made, the world around, or take time to listen to one of the many Rapture-esque ‘loggograph’ recordings. These logs give an insight into the founders of the world and their workspaces in the different hubs.
As you progress through the world, both environments and puzzles become more complex - but also a little bit more dark and mysterious, adding a further level of intrigue. Puzzles become more mind-bending, developing on the principles of the melon-scratchers that came before nicely, and weird scenery is introduced that’s impervious to you and your camera.
The only disappointment in the whole world was that I just wish the story was as strong or as striking as the world it goes with.
Some flatness develops
There is a story in here somewhere, and one that feels ‘close’ to your journey through the game, following you throughout - but it never feels strong or really shines. There were many times deep into Viewfinder where I really couldn’t have told you the story or narrative direction. Despite Cait - a loveably and friendly virtual Cat companion - doing his best to drop information and weave a story throughout. Some of those levels, while almost always brilliant, are very short indeed and could have benefited from some more meat on the bones
My eyebrows were raised a little at the end of the game too when, having greatly enjoyed that chill and relaxed approach throughout the game from the very first minute or two, I was thrown into a jarring and tightly-timed last level. The juxtaposition of this felt off and only served to annoy me a little rather than help me celebrate the climax of the game. However, with the timer off, this last level does hint at potential ambitions that Viewfinder’s devs may have - a long sequence of changing environments where pictures from previous areas can become lifesavers in future ones, and where tools such as photocopiers provide valuable ammunition in times of need.
But even those minor downsides can’t really take away from Viewfinder and the experience it gave me: even in the short time since playing it, it’s left an imprint on me. I've been out on dog walks imagining talking pictures that'll get me and Bella to different places, or over roads, and I’ve even caught myself planning shortcuts, and extra doors through my house.
And as it left imprints on me, it is clear that there are imprints on Viewfinder, too - it proudly shows off its Portal and The Witness inspirations (and a bit of Wall-E too) and does so in such a way that it now has carved out a video game experience that just didn’t exist before. This is level design done differently, and done beautifully. It’s just a shame it’s all over so quickly, hinting at what potentially could be. But as short video games go, it’s right up there with the likes of Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch for being absolutely hooked, craving more, and being a bit sad when it all finishes, and you’ve taken that last photo.
There is a dedicated accessibility menu in Viewfinder which houses some dedicated options - and there are some genuinely excellent alterations that you can make. From turning off timed levels and haptics to subtitle and font changes, and also the inclusion of a photosensitivity mode, there’s a decent amount here that folks can tinker with to make sure it plays right for them.
Away from the dedicated accessibility options, the game is playable on PC with a mouse and keyboard, and controller. I have hands that require a controller to play games so mainly played the game with a DualSense - for which the support is total - but gave the mouse and keyboard controls a quick test as well.
How we reviewed Viewfinder
I devoured all that Viewfinder had to offer and completed the game in around 6 hours, in two sessions. There are a bunch of optional levels and puzzles per hub which I went out of my way to complete, while also exploring every nook and cranny of the world to look for collectibles, notes, and post-its. I tested all controls available and put every way you can create a picture in Viewfinder through its paces (often to my own journey’s detriment). I played about 90% of the game with a Sony PS5 DualSense controller and completed my playthrough on an RTX 3090-powered gaming PC and in ultrawide resolution with an Acer Predator X38 monitor supplied by Acer.
Viewfinder is out now on PS5 and PC and is a single-player game you should absolutely not sleep on.
Rob is Deputy Editor of TechRadar Gaming, a video games journalist, critic, editor, and writer, and has years of experience gained from multiple publications. Prior to being TechRadar Gaming's Deputy Editor, he was a longstanding member of GamesRadar+, being the Commissioning Editor for Hardware there for years, while also squeezing in a short stint as Gaming Editor at WePC before joining TechRadar Gaming. He is also a freelance writer on tech, gaming hardware, video games, gardens, and landscapes and is crowdfunding a book on video game landscapes that you can back and pre-order now too.