TOEM Review

Filled with small joys

My first camera was a Polaroid Joycam— a gift from a family member, and my first foray into photography. Yet this hulking item was too unwieldy for my child-sized hands, which made using it awkward. Nonetheless, it was incredibly precious to me; I was careful with my film, knowing that shots were finite as I take photos of treasured moments, like a picture of my aunt, or a really cool statue. If you asked me where any of those photos are right now, I couldn’t tell you, but that doesn’t really matter anyway. What mattered were the moments I captured at that time, and the small, fleeting joys that transpired. 

TOEM is a game about reliving these very moments. It starts much in the same way; you get a vintage camera from your grandmother, and you make your way to find the titular TOEM, a mysterious event atop a mountain that your grandmother wants you to see for yourself. It’s far from the typical hero’s journey. In this game you’re just a kid who listens to cassette tapes, and now has an old camera to document that adventure with. 

It reminded me of my summer trips to the Isle of Wight, making my own fun in ways only children can. Travelling by bus to get from place to place in TOEM was much the same as getting around the island (as if there is no other island in the world, as Jane Austen once wrote about the Isle of Wight), with the bus being the only form of public transport. Even through its monochromatic visuals, warmth and familiarity radiates from the game. 

I grew up in London, and being somewhat of a nervous child, never felt entirely safe in the big smoke unless accompanied by an adult. Yet on the Isle of Wight, there was a sense of liberation I hadn’t experienced in my city upbringing. I could confidently take the overpriced bus anywhere I liked, and even if I didn’t end up anywhere notable, I was still excited about getting there. TOEM let me relive those moments from my childhood, with each location in the game being a playground to experiment in while unearthing secrets. 

It’ll Last Longer

TOEM may seem like a photography game at first, but it isn’t really. Yes, the bulk of your time is spent looking down the barrel of a lens, but unlike other photography games such as Umurangi Generation or NEW Pokemon Snap, you don’t earn rewards or have your pictures rated. 

Instead, it’s all about using your camera to interact with and discover the world around you. Sometimes that’ll be chancing upon some scouts playing hide and seek, or unearthing  obscure things to take a picture of for the photo challenger guild, like a photo of yourself as a farmer even though you can’t dress as one. More often than not, you’ll be using your camera to help someone, like finding a lost pair of socks, or helping a ghost move on to the next life. These scenes, while seemingly insignificant, are marked by acts of kindness. And you do all of this with your newfound trusty camera. 

TOEM the line

It’s unlikely any of these experiences will translate to stellar photography. You can only zoom through your camera lens (and after a while, honk your horn), while the focus can’t be altered. Having these features aren’t crucial though, since they would complicate the game’s message: that photography should be more instinctive rather than deliberate, more playful rather than premeditated. Maybe you saw a cool mushroom and just wanted to take a picture of it

Then there’s your character, whose age isn’t stated. They’re clearly young. The lack of these features was perhaps age-appropriate; when I was a child I certainly didn’t care what an aperture or a frame rate was. 

This carefree approach to photography is incredibly liberating as you don’t have to fuss over minute details. If I saw a funny duck in a flying saucer, or skiing down a steep slope, I could take a quick picture and move on. There are no composition rules to follow, and no one else to hold yourself accountable to but, well, yourself. You’re just spending a day out, looking for the TOEM phenomenon.

I found my Polaroid Joycam some time in the last couple of years, and after a quick look online, I found that its film is out of production. With enough money and effort, I could find some older stock somewhere, but I don’t think I need to. The Polaroid has served its purpose in my youth, and I’m happy to just have the camera as a memento of the memories it captured. 

Likewise, TOEM doesn’t have any particular resolution nor lesson to impart. You have no idea if your character would choose to pursue photography after their adventure, or if they even keep their camera. But these are inconsequential matters. What matters more is that you’ve captured those little moments, even if you won’t remember them forever. And I don’t think I need anything more from the game, too.