Nature happens around us. It ebbs and flows with or without us. As humans, we are a part of and apart from it. We destroy nature to create “habitable” spaces for ourselves—endless rows of apartments, strip malls, car dealership lots, parking decks, and all of the other concrete pieces that fit into the vast puzzle of endless urban sprawl. Our ingenuity is often a cruel thing. Charleston, South Carolina was built on a swamp. Entire biomes can be shifted, filled with dirt, and paved over. Thus capturing nature, as it really and truly is, has always been important. It is growing increasingly important due to rapidly developing climate change (I wrote about the power of the nature documentary as a time capsule for future generations who will not know nature as it is now or was before us and them). That is where nature photography comes in—if done well and in a way that merely observes nature rather than trying to manipulate it in any way, it is a truly noble act. And I guess that is where New Pokémon Snap comes in.
We’ve spent nearly three decades making Pokémon fight each other. Capture these wild creatures, put them in a pocket-sized ball, and only let them out when you want them to beat the shit out of another animal. A fucked up concept, yes? Well, yeah. We don’t really have to dwell on that here as it has been written about elsewhere and talked to death. These games are fun, the animals are cute, but why do we always have to take them out of nature to make them fight? Why can’t they just exist? Nintendo answered these questions in 1999 with Pokémon Snap. In that game, you played as a kid, Todd Snap, and you went through different Pokémon biomes in a little on-rails vehicle and took pictures of Pokémon on Pokémon Island/documented their lives/observed their interactions with nature and other Pokémon for Professor Oak. It was a quaint little Nintendo 64 game that dared us to just let these animals be. Observe them, catalog them, and that’s all. It was a beautifully repetitive experience that also acted as a simple photography simulator. A point-and-shoot game made in an era where the point-and-shoot camera was as big as it has ever been (thanks to the influx of disposable film cameras that accompanied every family vacation for most people for nearly two decades).
New Pokémon Snap doesn’t reinvent the wheel all that much. It more-or-less just expands on the original 1999 game in every conceivable way and also brings the camera functionality into the digital age, for better and worse (more on this later). A new professor, Professor Mirror (get it? Cameras!), tasks you with helping him survey and catalog the Lental region of the Pokémon world. What makes this region unique is that it is wholly new and has barely been charted by humans. Unlike the real world, this provides a sense of mystery and of true nature. Old friends pop up and friendships are formed across this biome-spanning journey. There is a genuine narrative now that gets players from point A to B, but the bulk of time spent with the game is spent discovering, taking pictures of, and observing the 200-or-so Pokémon that can be found throughout New Pokémon Snap. You never capture them or make them fight. The most you can do in adding a human footprint to nature is feeding them fruits and/or tossing shiny ball things at them that make them dance or jump or whatever. The player is funneled along a specific on-rails path in a hovering craft called the NEO-ONE (an updated version of the original game’s ZERO-ONE). Thus nature happens around you, more or less untouched and undisturbed by your presence in each biome. Just observe and take photos. That’s it. And it is a beautifully relaxing thing. The Lental region is varied and beautiful, and each photo you take speaks to that. The way the various little fictional animals are animated gives them agency and life unseen in other Pokémon games. New Pokémon Snap asks us to take nature as it is, to let it be what it is, and to just try and understand it rather than exist within it or shape it in some new way.
There is an inherent and undefinable joy and feeling of wonder when playing this game that, in every way, feels akin to what it means to engage in nature photography in real life. But what makes it more special is that the spaces the Pokémon are in remain more or less undefined. If I grab my camera and go bird watching and cataloging, most of my photos contain the touch of human expansion within the margins of the frame—a road here, a building there, litter, a sign, and etc. New Pokémon Snap tasks us with delving into absolute nature. The only touch of humanity in the world is you, the player, and the weird little pod you float around in. While this warms my heart and gives me a feeling that I will never experience in my actual nature photography, that essence of absolute discovery is a double-edged sword. Okay, so the Lental Region is more or less an uncharted territory with an uncharted PokeDex accompanying it. Professor Mirror, his crew, and the player chart this territory and fill out the Pokedex. In the moment, it feels like a beautifully, easy-going adventure. But what comes next? What happens when we fill in the margins and define this region? What will Professor Mirror do with his data? It is only a matter of time before Pokémon Trainers flock to this territory and fill it in with gyms, battles, and then the Lental region will just become another Pokémon map. Maybe we will visit again someday but we will no longer have a camera in our hands. Instead, we will have a bundle of Pokeballs and a hunger for capture and conflict. That is the sad inevitability of this game. The Lental Region will not be undiscovered forever. The pictures we take are snapshots into a time that is no more, and the present we capture through our viewfinder becomes the past the moment we snap that picture. The Pokémon world will follow and the Lental Region will be sapped of wonder and filled with gyms, routes, shops, and the usual fare we explore in other Pokémon games. New Pokémon Snap never directly reckons with this and it never asks us to give in to the inevitable. We are asked to express and exist within the moment. If the camera is a sacred object, then we are the acting extension of it. And if what we capture goes from unknown to known, undefinable to defined, then that becomes our cross to bear whether we want to carry that burden or not.
New Pokémon Snap drags the original game’s mechanics into the modern world via the Re-Snap feature. As someone who believes that true nature photography exists solely in the moment, this inclusion deeply irks me. The Re-Snap feature is the Pokémon world version of Adobe Lightroom. Want to make your in-game photos look like the usual shit, edited-to-death photography that can be found in droves on Instagram and VSCO? Well, New Pokémon Snap might be for you! I understand that this is a rather negative way to look at this feature but, unlike the moving image, I hold close that photography is an act of in-the-moment manipulation (of lighting, color, etc.) and that most post-photo edits sap the original image of its life and character. This is a broad statement that can easily be poked full of holes with various examples of post-shot edits that work, but the Re-Snap feature in New Pokémon Snap never creates an image that is more compelling formally than what you have already taken in the game. This also brings me to the game’s rating system. Professor Mirror doesn't know shit about good and compelling photography. At the start of the game, he informs you that the best photos you take will never be inspired or compositionally interesting. Pokemon look best when they are centered in frame and as big as possible! And, like, Professor Mirror, my guy, no. New Pokémon Snap becomes an infinitely more compelling and fun experience when you stop worrying about picture ratings and task yourself with composing shots that make you feel something because a Pikachu in center frame where its body swallows the viewfinder will never, ever be interesting.
Nature photography is not an act of conservation because it usually leads to human expansion or meddling of some sort. But it is an act of history. Nature photography shows us what was, what still is, and what could’ve been if we cared about nature at all. New Pokémon Snap drops players firmly in the “what still is” category. What was can be seen in the margins of the frame and what could’ve been is only ever implied as we understand the inevitability of what will occur once the full PokeDex for the Lental Region is widely shared alongside Professor Mirror’s research. If we can’t truly save nature, we can at least capture it as it still is. In fact, there is an obligation to. Future generations will need to know what was, and most importantly, they will need to know what they (and we) lost. I will be very sad if we one day see a normal Pokémon game set in the Lental region but I won’t be surprised—just remember that Charleston, South Carolina was built on a swamp and Venice, Italy was built at the head of the Adriatic Sea. Humanity will find a way to reshape and change nature for our own benefit. The digital humans in Pokémon really aren’t all that different—we’ve got like 25 years of a capture-and-battle-focused legacy to show us that.