Next stop: Hyrule
Double take

Safari with me


I've played lots of games lately: InFamous, Prototype, Zeno Clash, Blueberry Garden, Tiger Woods 10 (play the Wii version, folks), Punch-Out!, Plants vs Zombies, Space Invaders Extreme, Zen Pinball. Summer game drought? I don't think so.

I've greatly enjoyed some of these games, but none has captured my imagination like Afrika, a safari simulator developed by Rhino Studios in collaboration with National Geographic. First announced at Sony's E3 press event in 2006, the game was released last year in Japan, China, and Korea, but never appeared in North America or anywhere else. Eager to get my hands on it, I recently imported the Korean version (renamed Hakuna Matata) which contains an English language option, and I've been playing it nearly every day since.

In Afrika, you take photographs of animals and other wildlife. That's it. That's the whole game. I'm calling it a game. You may decide to call it something else.

Afrika does offer a familiar gameplay formula: you're a photojournalist, and you receive assignments via email. Successfully completing assignments opens up new areas to explore and unlocks new equipment, such as camera lenses and camping gear. But this framework adds little more than structure to the experience. The real heart of the game is simply being there, in the Serengeti, with your camera.

When I write about games, I usually look for a hook; something about a game that makes it distinctive or meaningful to me. Afrika throws me a curve. I don't know what the hook is. I love this game - I mean, I truly adore it - but I'm struggling to account for precisely why. I can describe the things I like about it, but none of them quite captures the essence of the experience this game delivers.

Maybe that's because Afrika relies so much on my imaginative engagement. What I bring to the experience is at least as important as what the game brings me. When I play Afrika, I feel like an explorer with a purpose. My camera is a personal extension of me, and it encourages me to define my own objectives, capture my adventures, and share them with others.

For example, sometimes I focus on taking good pictures (you can see a few of my photos here). Lighting, camera angle, and choice of lens are all dynamic factors in Afrika. If I want to set up a tripod to capture a family of meerkats at dusk with just the right depth of field and a backdrop of reds and oranges, I can do that. No mission on my in-game computer is imperative. If I want to spend three days tracking a herd of elephants, I can do that too.

Sometimes, I explore just to explore. I wander around and watch the animals. The environments and animations in Afrika are astoundingly vibrant and detailed. Occasionally you may encounter a group of flamingos all locked in an animation loop, but such occurrences are surprisingly rare. For the most part, the world of Afrika seems to exist on its own, regardless of your presence, and its inhabitants do what they do...including hunt and kill each other, which you can photograph. If you're looking for violent content, that's as close to it as Afrika gets.

The game insists that you remain an observer. Some players may find this separation from the environment disconcerting. You cannot run over zebras with your jeep. You cannot kill or set fire to anything. If you bump into a shrub, it's like bumping into a wall. You can't destroy or otherwise alter anything in the environment. You can only photograph it.

The animals, on the other hand, are keenly aware of your presence, and if you approach a hippo or elephant, they will charge at you. Other animals are skittish and flee if you move too quickly or get too close. This element of interactivity affects how you function as a photographer. Climbing a tree may offer your best vantage point for capturing your subject. Unfortunately, the game's missions sometimes insist on those moments happening elsewhere, and you'll discover that the nature magazine cover shot of elephants bathing can only be found at the waterfall.

Afrika may be the game that best illustrates the folly of inserting ludic elements into an interactive experience that really doesn't need them. To be sure, Afrika is a PS3 "game." Most players will approach it as such, inserting the game disc prepared for a game experience. Afrika conforms, but it could have been the game that purposefully didn't, providing a model for self-directed interactivity, unbounded by arbitrary gates and locks.

What if the whole map was open to me from the beginning? What if I could navigate my own way around the various environments, mapping the locations myself, and discovering where the game's dozens of animals can be found? The base camp could remain and so could my laptop computer. I could still send off my photos for publication and earn money for better equipment, but what if I initiated these contacts myself, taking charge of my own career and pursuing my own interests, rather than waiting for the next email to tell me what to photograph?

Maybe, like me, you'll decide to be subversive. After proceeding far enough into the game and unlocking enough content, you can turn Afrika into the game you want it to be. In my case, I show our 20-month-old daughter an encyclopedia photo of a Hartebeest, and I ask her if she'd like to help me find one. She invariably says yes, so I hand her a battery-dead controller (so she can "help" me) and we hop in our jeep and go searching. When she locates one, we park the jeep and head out on foot to take the best photo we can. Then we show it to mom.

Of course, the designers clearly built Afrika to enable such freeform gameplay (once you open the locks), so maybe I'm not as subversive as I think.

Afrika has lots of other content, including a Field Guide, a huge selection of photos and video from the National Geographic Library, and a wonderful Viewer mode that cuts from one virtual camera to the next as a day slowly passes from sunrise to sunset. You can also upload your photos in online competitions or save them to a USB drive for your own use. Afrika's terrific soundtrack was composed by Wataru Hokoyama, who channels John Williams without aping him. All in all, it's quite a package.

If you're willing to shift your perspective and expectations a bit, Afrika is a pretty sensational experience. And good news: you don't have to import it like I did. Natsume is publishing the game for North America and, presumably Europe and Australia, with a release scheduled for August. Hakuna Matata!