A battery plinth duplicated in two different visual styles in Viewfinder.

Viewfinder Reviews

Viewfinder Reviews

need to know

what is it? A clever puzzle game that converts 2D pictures into 3D objects.
release date July 18, 2023
estimated payment to be determined
developer Sad Owl Studio
publisher Xunlei Publishing
Comment time: AMD Ryzen 9 5900X, 32GB RAM, Nvidia Geforce RTX 3080
steam deck not applicable
Official website

I would rarely say that a game has to be seen to be believed. Viewfinder is both a digital magic show and a first-person puzzler, made entirely of stunning visual and space-bending tricks you’ve never seen before in a video game.

The core highlight of the game is its magic camera. Take a photo of something, grab the resulting Polaroid after whistling out the side in satisfaction, then lift it up and place it anywhere you want in the world. Everything in a 2D photo instantly becomes part of the 3D environment, drawn directly from the point of view you are viewing it from. This is puzzling.

At its simplest, this could mean taking a photo of a tower, flipping it over, and placing it over the gap to form a bridge. But it quickly picks up from there, especially when you start taking pictures of landscapes that other pictures create, letting you stack bizarre, impossible structures together to get around obstacles.

In each individual level of the game, your goal is always the same – to reach the teleporter that takes you to the next level. It’s simple, but rarely straightforward. Whether the teleporter is on the other side of an impassable abyss, glued to the ceiling, or needs a battery that doesn’t seem to exist, there’s always some fantastic absurdity to untangle. The first time I realized the only way to complete a particular stage was to make a copy of the teleporter out of photos and step through it, the moment I knew all bets were off in the world of viewfinders.

(Image credit: Sad Owl Studio)

Aperture Science

Exploring the ins and outs of Viewfinder’s unique logic is very reminiscent of the first time we learned to “think in portals” in Portal. It’s an obvious comparison, but one I don’t make lightly — the skill of the viewfinder is indeed as illuminating as it was in Portal at the time.

It’s not just a great mechanic here. The camera is the star, but the viewfinder uses it as a springboard for all sorts of optical illusions and reality-bending tools that will prod and puncture your most steadfast expectations of how a game will look and behave. A doorway that appears to be 3-dimensional as you approach it is actually a 2D image on the wall; a portal that lets you step into a completely different art style; a set of signs that appear disconnected when viewed from the right angle The images form a coherent picture and then become part of the world. I don’t want to spoil the weirdest and cleverest twists, because the best moments of the viewfinder come in two flavors: the moment when you realize what a fantastic new trick has just been played on you, and you Eureka realizes you How will the moment pass.

(Image credit: Sad Owl Studio)

This variety ensures that there’s always something new to discover in each set of levels, but Viewfinder is a small enough game that individual ideas often don’t get the time they deserve. I finished the entire game, including all optional levels, in five hours–that’s not a lot of time, even just to explore the potential of the core camera mechanics, let alone everything else included here. Usually, I end up at the end of a level thinking, “That’s a great tutorial on this concept, I can’t wait to see how they use it in the right puzzle!” Only to find out… well, here it is The right puzzle, and the concept is never coming back.

Even the photo mechanic, which is present in some form throughout nearly the entire game, feels like it could stretch its wings even further. It’s awesome to fiddle with the camera and see how far you can warp the environment, and I’d love to be able to use it really wildly in some sort of larger sandbox level, or in some final, extra-difficult challenge. Maybe even just the tools to let users make their own levels are enough to make such a fantastic idea more enjoyable.

(Image credit: Sad Owl Studio)

But if I’m complaining that the viewfinder isn’t as important as I’d like it to be, it’s only because the potential here feels so vast and exciting. It’s the first game from a small new developer called Sad Owl Studios. In this case, its Achilles’ heel, understandably, is its lack of scale, which also makes the game’s triumphs all the more surprising.

Even though Viewfinder strives to reach its full creative potential, the content here is still absolutely fantastic. It’s a pretty mind-bending set of puzzles, but even as a sightseeing tour of the wonders this team has wrought in the digital space, it’s still a real must-play. If you love the surprises that video games can bring, give Viewfinder a try and you’ll find that they can still show you the world from a whole new perspective.

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Bart Thompson
Bart is's List Writer . He is from Houston, Texas, and is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in creative writing, majoring in non-fiction writing. He likes to play The Elder Scrolls Online and learn everything about The Elder Scrolls series.