If you’re feeling bummed out at the general state of the world going into 2022 and need a pick-me-up, here’s an idea for you: how about taking a bunch of photos of cute dogs?

Specifically, the dogs in Pupperazzi, the latest game from indie studio Sundae Month. It is for the most part, per lead developer Isobel Shasha, what it says on the tin. “It’s a game where you’re taking pictures of dogs, and I think people might really connect with that.”

Popping into Pupperazzi myself the other day, I find that Shasha is exactly right. I emerge in front of a beach shack where a chill pup named Sea Dog instructs me on how to use my camera and demands a photo of himself, before unleashing me on a dog-covered beach to take photos to my heart’s content. There’s a pile of dogs, big and small in all different colors, chasing one another around the beach and, once I pet them, happily following after me, too. I can throw a stick or (goofily) a banana for them to run after, or try to line up a nice shot of a happy dog sitting in front of the lighthouse at the end of the beach, framed by the ocean. And then I upload my photos to “Dog Net,” an in-game social network where I receive feedback on my numerous photos until my audience gets annoyed at me for spamming them with cute dog pictures (how dare!) and stops rating them temporarily.

Shasha has been working at Sundae Month since the studio started eight years ago, when its founders met in Vermont at Champlain College. The team, which currently consists of between ten and 11 folks working on Pupperazzi, has an eclectic portfolio including a side-scrolling comedy-adventure game called Dad Quest where you use your indestructible child as a weapon, and the anti-adventure game Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. They’ve also kept the lights on by taking plenty of work for outside clients, mostly game development as well as some educational apps.

Maintaining that balance has meant Sundae Month has had to quietly cancel a lot of projects, Shasha says, but with Pupperazzi the team has been able to come together for a proper “big” project. The idea for Pupperazzi stemmed from an internal game jam the team did at the end of 2018 into 2019, where someone came up with the idea of taking photos of dogs. The jam was initially intended to only last two weeks, but instead it went for two months. The game that came out of it was very different from what Pupperazzi would eventually be, but it did provide the seed.

What I was hoping we could emphasize is allowing players to just mess around and take photos however they want to.

“At the start of 2019, what we had was a head-to-head, local multiplayer dog photography arcade game where basically you were in the little arena, and it was split-screen, and the goal was basically to take pictures of as many different dogs as possible,” Shasha says. “It was very silly.”

Though the initial experience was messy, the team thought the dogs were so cute and fun to play with that they opted to reboot the project into a proper full experience. They swapped to single-player and evolved the scoring system to focus more on taking creative photos rather than a simple dog scavenger hunt.

Shasha is delighted that Pupperazzi has seemingly come along as part of a wave of new photography video games, alongside New Pokemon Snap, Beasts of Maravilla Island, TOEM, Eastshade, Umarangi Generation, and Toripon — though it wasn’t trying to capitalize on that specifically. They say they think Pupperazzi’s ultimate form may have been inadvertently inspired by “the memory of Pokemon Snap,” but was shaped more by their fascination with game photography communities online — people who go out of their way to take interesting photos in all kinds of virtual environments.

“Personally, though I love Pokemon Snap, I don’t think it’s so much a game about photography, in a weird way,” Shasha says. “The game doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on expressing yourself through the photos. It’s more of a scavenger hunt kind of vibe. Which is fine, and it’s perfect for what it is, but…ultimately what I was hoping that we could emphasize is allowing players to just mess around and take photos however they want to.”

They add that because Pupperazzi is fairly open-ended in how it lets you progress — be it through exploration and playing with dogs, finishing photo requests, or taking photos for fun — it avoids the trap of “overly mechanics-ize-ing” a genre that can easily fall into a trap of centering too much on arbitrary scores and hindering creativity. It does include plenty of customization tools, such as lenses and film that add different effects like fisheye, black and white, and others, but all of that is optional and at the photographer’s discretion.

“I think, for players who are very interested in taking unique photos, we tried to put in as much as we could for those people,” they continue. “Probably what most photographers in [games] are after is just being able to have a lot of control over the image so that they can make it feel unique, and that, in some ways, is interestingly at odds with democratizing photography and making sure that everyone has access to something that they can use to take a photo. Every player in [Pupperazzi] is going to start by taking the same picture of Sea Dog at the lighthouse cove, and that experience will still be unique for every player. So it’s not a problem that we have all of these photos that are basically the same, but trying to add those tools was a big aspiration so that some players can get more in-depth with the photos if they want to.”

It is uncomplicatedly joyful to just pet dogs.

Shasha tells me they suspect that Pupperazzi may be the last “big” project Sundae Month works on for a while, and that the team is in the process of figuring out its own future as it scales down outside client work and considers what its individual members want to work on. But they’re still committed to keeping Sundae Month together, making their own games, and supporting Pupperazzi long-term. For now, anyway, Shasha says their biggest hope is that Pupperazzi is able to surprise its audience, who may not expect there to be hidden depth to a game that appears to be so straightforward.

“Yes, it’s just a game about taking photos of dogs, and there is kind of an instant, viral, surface appreciation that people have for that,” they say. “It is uncomplicatedly joyful to just pet dogs and see little hearts come out of them, and throw some food at them and play with them and snap a little pic, and that’s totally fine.

“I’ve played this game more than probably anyone else on Earth at this point, so far, and I still enjoy taking pictures in the game, which surprises me because you’d think it would get old. But I like to line up a cool shot and rotate the camera in between portrait and landscape and snap it at just the right time so that it’s crooked and post it on Slack and have the rest of the team be like, ‘Oh wow. That’s a cool picture. How did you get that?'”

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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