Do you remember photo albums? We don’t see them much at all anymore, not the way we used to. Our lives have largely eclipsed the era of physical media, and because of that our photos live in the cloud, on our phones, at the whim of corporate interest. Most regularly, I share my photographs on instagram, twitter, or a handful of websites. And while there is a boutique interest in analog media—vinyl pressings of albums recorded entirely through digital means, amateur and fine art photographers who pride themselves on shooting film and making prints, scrapbook hobbyists—our lives are collected digitally and kept transient. A flowing river of content.
But I love photo albums. The big bindings, the creaky backing paper and the crackle of cellophane cover sheets. But mostly the feeling of someone sitting next to you guiding you through their travels and memories. It’s a matter of format, but also orientation, a specific context.
There’s a focusing quality to holding an album in your hands, like the way church vestibules are designed to impress a sense of stillness and quiet, that prepares you for the sensorial and mnemonic journey you’re about to engage in.
And while the Nintendo Switch may seem like just a small tablet or oversized phone, it commands a different emotional and semiotic space. It’s something I realized playing Breath of the Wild with the Switch pressed up against my face like a viewfinder. But when my partner loaded up their photos from Super Mario Odyssey, I came to realize there was another way this device could change our standard ways of interacting with a console, the games we played, and memories we forged and shared. They handed me the console, curled next to me on the sofa, and guided me, image by image, through their journey. The Nintendo Switch can make a surprising analog to the traditional photo album, it turns out.
I haven’t played more than an hour or two of Odyssey. I dislike the Joycons, the movement controls that restrict certain actions when undocked or using the Pro Controller, the way Mario glides and bounces around like a hyperactive, off-balance, melting aspic. I could have brute forced my way through it, gathering just enough Moons to unlock the next section of gameplay, observed Bowser’s doomed non-consensual wedding, and Peach saying “Fuck all of this, I’m out.” I could have, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.
Instead, I got to be told a story, in the bursts of excited memory, photographs, and the individual stories each image held. Beyond the game’s own story, I got the individual narratives my partner created along the way for themself. From Mario’s working vacation in New Donk City to the time he went among the people as a grim reminder of the doom consumer capitalism will bring to us all, or the time he became a very cold, little meatball person, or even just a photo of a dog’s butthole.
It was in sharing their photographs with me that my partner shared with me not only the story of Super Mario Odyssey and their development as a game photographer, but also their experience of its many worlds. This was their travelogue, and for a game about tourism, I can’t imagine a more fitting way to share this virtual experience than seated with a broad rectangle across my lap, flipping “page by page,” each turn inciting a new exclamation from them or question from me.
I’m focusing on Super Mario Odyssey because it is explicitly a game about tourism, but there’s no reason this can’t apply to any of the virtual worlds we inhabit. I could easily sit down with my partner and show them my travels in Hyrule in much the same way.
“This was the horse farm where I finally learned to ride a horse without fear—flip—and I stole this man’s logging axe, but don’t worry, he’s not really a woodcutter, he’s the long dead king—flip—and this is the really hot fish prince that everyone wants to bang.”
The handheld console isn’t a new concept. Mario has always been an empty vessel for virtual tourism, and game photography is as old as videogames themselves. And yet, after years of taking photographs on a PS4 and PC, flipping through them with a D-pad at a reasonable viewing distance, or mindlessly swiping on a phone, these concepts have come together and presented a novel way of engaging with both developer-created media and stories, and the media and stories we create ourselves for each other. I may have been underwhelmed by Odyssey, and even the Switch’s limitations, but I can’t ignore the possibilities for connection and transmission this little machine has created. I’m awed by this tiny magic. We need more of that.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.