“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart, and head.” So says Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photography pioneer. Cartier-Bresson had the knack for capturing moments at their most intimate – he had an eye for the candid, and a mechanical sense of timing that came to define him. He understood that, in capturing moments, you were capturing whole stories.
It’s hard not to think about Cartier-Bresson when you’re playing Toem. The game – the BAFTA-winning debut title from independent Swedish studio Something We Made – is all about these small moments. And how you, as a young photographer driven to ascend a mountain to capture the eponymous Toem phenomenon, knits together a story through snapshots.
It’s something of a love-letter to photography, in its own way, showing you the world from different perspectives. Whether you’re looking over your unnamed protagonist’s shoulder as you guide them around the wilderness and meet a weird and wonderful variety of animals, or seeing exactly what they see through their camera lens, Toem is a wonderful exercise in being in the moment – and learning to put yourself in the shoes of others.
Like the casually bustling lives it wants you to observe, Toem is playfully challenging. Solving a variety of puzzles with nothing more than your camera lens has more gameplay capacity than you’d think, and the tactile, diorama-like way you must interact with the environment means there’s always something hiding there. Just out of frame. It’s up to you and where you focus to determine what comes into view, though – and therein lies its charm.
Toem is so affecting and attention-grabbing because there’s so little, really, to be affected or compelled by: it’s just little moments. Lots and lots of little moments, serving as chainlinks on the fence guiding you up – always up – towards your goal. It’s not making any big statements or injecting dour Scandinavian philosophy right into your cortex, no. It’s giving you room to do that yourself.
Toem is the sort of game that will make you revisit your own Camera Roll on your phone (or on your digital device, or through old negatives, if you’re lucky enough to have any) and make you piece the fragments together in your own head. It gives you the tools to write a narrative, discern the storyboard(s) of your life into something more grand. More interesting.
With its penchant for being cryptic and amicably poking fun at the way you think you should do things, and then giving way to a straight-forward go-here-do-this puzzle, Toem breezily lampoons the genre. It’s a very modern puzzle game; an arthouse, monochrome playground for anyone that loves to take pictures as much as they love finding answers.
Even if you only boot it up for a few moments, it’s clear that Toem was not made with monitors and keyboards and software, but – as Cartier-Bresson would attest – with “the eye, heart, and head.”
Toem is available on Xbox Game Pass now, and is also available on Switch, PC, and PS5.