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Interview: Thomas Cole Simmonds is creating real-life photographs of Star Wars Galaxies

A new way of preserving our virtual memories.

Who doesn’t love taking photos of their characters or favourite locations in an MMO?

Yet, like all digital photography, there’s something ephemeral about these snapshots. I’ve lost hard drives full of screenshots in the past, and greater numbers of shots have been lost forever when online photo-hosting sites have bitten the dust. Every dead link to Photobucket or ImageShack represents a little bit of gaming history lost to the digital aether.

It’s still fairly common to print off physical copies of personal photos to safeguard somewhat against the loss of a digital photo, but who has ever printed copies of their MMO screenshots? I’d wager very few.

Provided by Thomas Cole Simmonds

The art of virtual photography isn’t a new thing, but when I read Thomas Cole Simmonds’ blog post ‘A JOURNEY INTO THE VIRTUAL WORLD #1‘, I was intrigued by his unique take on the form (not least because he was taking shots of my favourite MMO).

Sure, his landscape photography is pleasantly captured and edited, but Simmonds doesn’t stop after he’s hit PrtScn, or Save As after a bit of tinkering in Photoshop. Instead, he picks up his trusty Fuji GX680 and takes a snapshot of the screen.

Shooting on instant film, Simmonds is left with a batch of beautiful, oddly nostalgic prints of a galaxy far, far away. He calls the process [VR]ography.

This unique way of preserving MMO memories made me want to know more about the photographer’s own experiences with the genre so I reached out to ask a few questions.

Can you give me an overview of your time in Star Wars Galaxies? What type of character did you play? Do you have any specific memories which stand out?

I first played the game sometime during the Pre-CU phase, and in short order, I realised how fantastic it was. I had never played a game with such scope, and it was a terrible frustration when I could no longer afford to play. Getting a tenner a month together was rather a challenge back then and it took a while before I could revisit the far away galaxy.

By the time I finally got back the game had just undergone the Combat Upgrade. Took a bit of getting used to – but that was my favourite time. My character shifted about profession-wise (I was hungry for badges), but I spent most of the time as a combat medic and commando. Eventually, after some thrifty trading and loot hunting, I got into collecting as many of the game’s rare items as possible and spent an inordinate amount of time decorating – eventually making a museum. The housing system and the creativity it allowed were one of the highlights of the game for me.

Provided by Thomas Cole Simmonds

Other than this, it was the community that kept me in the game for so long. After re-joining the game, I played right up until the end. Seeing ‘Connection to SWG lost!’ come up for the last time was quite sad and marked an end of an era for me in my gaming. Nothing quite scratched that itch.

I’m so thankful for the great people who have kept the game alive in so many forms – SWGEmu and Legends specifically. I do sorely miss logging in to my old characters on a Saturday morning and hearing Nym’s theme playing as I sifted through vendor emails and caught up with guildmates. *Insert forlorn sigh*

What other games do you enjoy? Do you, or have you, played any other MMOs?

I have tried a few other MMOs over the years: EVE, WOW, TOR, Guild Wars, Path of Exile, and Vanguard; they were all enjoyable to a certain extent, but none of them got under my skin like Galaxies did.

Provided by Thomas Cole Simmonds

Overall, I’ve always been more into single-player games. Tomb Raider, Knights of the Old Republic, and Deus Ex, Elder Scrolls, Baldur’s Gate, GTA, Divinity – these are some of my favourites. Lately, I’ve been enamoured by Vampire Survivors and Hitman 3. I’m keeping my eye on Galaxies of Eden for the future though, as it looks to be replicating many of the systems of SWG.

What are the most frequent obstacles you face in trying to get that ‘one perfect shot’ in your virtual photography? Do you set out with an idea of the image you want to capture already in your mind, or just play the game and let the images reveal themselves to you?

Most of the time, it is a broad prompt – but it’s usually something like landscape, memory, sense of place. As for the process of capturing the image, it’s both really. Sometimes a game might need modding, or some of the assets might need isolating within the engine.

This depends, but often it’s just as simple as exploring the game space as I would within the real world, photographing scenes that catch my eye. The real trick as with most of my work is rephotographing the images using analogue camera equipment and film – all part of the fun though!

Provided by Thomas Cole Simmonds

How do you feel about in-game photography modes, such as the GPose system in Final Fantasy XIV? Is this something you’d use if it existed in SWG or do you prefer the holistic style of imagery that comes from taking a regular screenshot?

I’ve not used [GPose], but overall, I think the addition of photo modes in games is fantastic – and very well implemented in some games. Mad Max, The Witcher 3, and GTA V all have great options in this regard. My favourite ways of photographing within games have been the Sandbox 2 engine that came with Crysis, and the Arma 3 mission editor.

Having said that, simply removing the UI can yield excellent results, and of course, forces you to be more creative when attempting to get the shot you need. Nothing quite beats a simple /noclip command from a 90s or early 00s PC game though. Would be great if SWG had a more robust system for taking screenshots – I’m yet to experiment with the God Client though, this could perhaps help with capturing more interesting angles… maybe I’ll try one day!

Where do you see your virtual photography journey headed next? Any specific games you want to capture? How about selling some of your prints? I could certainly imagine there’s a market for people wanting to display a framed snapshot of their favourite virtual spots.

It’s something I haven’t engaged with properly for some time – after my university projects came to an end I felt as though I had exhausted my creativity with it. However, since starting my Substack blog and reviewing my old work again, my desire to revisit the process has been rekindled.

Provided by Thomas Cole Simmonds

I’m not sure what games I’ll mine for content next. I mentioned that the photo mode for Mad Max was great, and I did start gathering some images from that game but never got around to creating a cohesive project, maybe I’ll start there.

I’m not sure what the copyright issues for selling prints of in-game scenes would be, but I wouldn’t be against the idea, I am certainly attached to the images I took within SWG, and I definitely feel that screenshots of a game, especially one that you spent a lot of time in socially, can be just as important as real-world photographs. I do have a print shop, but it’s not game related, perhaps I should blend the two!

A massive thank you to Tom for taking the time to chat with me. You can keep track of his future blog entries and forays into virtual photography at TypedByTom on Substack, and you can also check out his portfolio here.

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