There’s a running thread in the new game God of War, a reboot of a series that once exemplified the loud and frenetic action of mid-2000s entertainment, where main character Kratos finds himself unable to pat his son on the back. In classic rule-of-threes style, he twice reaches out his hand and then pulls back, and finally finds the strength to show his son some affection on the third try. But the game finds itself unable to treat this payoff with the weight that it’s due. There’s no close-up on Kratos’ hand, no insert shots of either of their faces reacting to this gesture, nothing that would suggest that this is a payoff at all. The camera just floats behind them, unfocused and untethered, prisoner to God of War’s self-imposed cinematography rule.
See, God of War doesn’t have any cuts. Applying terms of cinema to a medium that uses an entirely different set of tools is difficult, but in this context a lack of cuts indicates an image unbroken by loading screens or fades in and out of pre-rendered scenes. From the moment you start the game to the final credits, the virtual camera never turns off, flowing seamlessly from gameplay to cutscene and back again. That is, assuming you play the forty-plus-hour game all in one sitting without ever dying or pressing pause.
I’ve long been irritated by the single take as a cinematic trick. While it can be an effective dramatic emphasizer, the visual equivalent of underlining a scene, it’s too often used in film as a show-offy example of a director’s technical skill. “Look what we pulled off,” it seems to scream, while failing to actually say or show anything interesting. The interminable film Birdman is the worst example in recent memory, its “the whole film is one shot! gimmick” belied by its drab imagery and haughty story. It’s often a technical accomplishment, but rarely an artistic one.
God of War isn’t even the first game in recent years to attempt this gimmick. The interconnected world of Dark Souls made it possible to play for hours on end without hitting a single loading screen or cutscene. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain pulled a similar trick to God of War, shooting most of its cutscenes in single takes and having them flow directly into gameplay. But Phantom Pain didn’t flow the opposite direction, from gameplay into cutscene, making it a half-measure compared to God of War. Phantom Pain’s cutscenes also ran in contrast to God of War’s staid and dull photography, with simple shot-reverse scenes composed with a madman’s abandon, running back and forth across the digital set and abusing the zoom function. Phantom Pain director Hideo Kojima’s next game, Death Stranding, has been advertised with one-shot trailers, indicating a return to or evolution of this style. A recent trailer for The Last of Us Part II is also in a single take. All of this foreshadows a trend in prestige game design which we probably won’t be able to shake for years to come. God of War’s sterling critical reception may be a sign that this is to become expected of games on this scale for the time being.
In a way, this is the promise of any open world game, and furthermore the promise of the past decade of AAA game trends; the ability to play freely uninterrupted by level segmentation or story cutscenes for as long as you want stands right alongside the single take. God of War stands alone for its commitment to the bit. Its promise to never ever cut away turns a cinematic gimmick into a back-of-the-box promo, right alongside “brutal action” and “a massive open world.” The game’s developer, Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, have taken their flagship franchise as the basis of a game design experiment.
And it doesn’t work.
Part of this is down to the game’s story. It follows perpetually mad demigod Kratos and his son Atreus, on a journey to the top of the realm’s highest mountain to scatter the ashes of their wife and mother, respectively. It’s a deliberate 180 from the tone of previous entries in the series, which reveled in their protagonist’s barbaric violence. The Kratos of 2018’s God of War is melancholy and emotionally restrained. He still partakes in ferocious combat, but only in defense of himself and his son. The game seeks to overturn the series’ previously uncritical penchant for bloody murder and instead tell an intimate story about a grieving father and son.
The word “intimate” is key here, and it’s the main reason why the single take doesn’t really work in God of War. The cut is a powerful tool in creating empathy. In connecting two disparate images, an emotional bond is created between them in the viewer’s mind. God of War is a game entirely about an emotional bond between two people. Why would you willingly give up the cut in attempting to tell that story? There are so many moments in just the first hour of the game when an inserted reaction shot or reverse angle or wider view could’ve enhanced the drama and emotional impact of a scene, but the game is shackled by a camera that can do nothing but hover listlessly around the central figures. It flattens the the emotion of every scene, turning what might have been genuinely touching moments into dull and banal ones.
The above sequence from early in the game gives a good overview of what the technique looks like, as well as showing off a sneaky problem caused by the refusal to cut. Near the end here, we see Atreus being attacked in the background of a shot, and Kratos in the foreground. Atreus calls out for Kratos, and it takes a couple beats before Kratos responds in any way. With editing, the scene could have gotten closer to Atreus in what ends up being an important moment for him, while letting enough time pass during that shot for Kratos to finish his struggle with the bandit and immediately respond. As it stands, we’re too far removed from Atreus, and Kratos’ delayed reaction feels awkward.
There are also simple logistical issues that cutting could have solved. In one scene, Kratos fixes the strap of Atreus’ quiver. But since Kratos is quite a bit bigger than Atreus, he physically blocks his son from the camera’s view. We can’t see what he’s doing at all, nor can we see Atreus’ reaction to his father’s little teachable moment. There are a shocking number of moments like this, where the camera struggles to capture all of a scene’s relevant information without cutting to show specifics in isolation. This leads to bizarre instances where the camera will shift in and out of Kratos’ point-of-view to make sure the audience gets a good look at whatever the game wants them to see. If this is to be the future of AAA game design, someone should at least teach these people about blocking. The scene linked below shows this off well, though it’s from late in the game so beware of SPOILERS.
Furthermore, making the entirety of God of War a single take removes the capability of distinguishing certain bits from one another. Action beats can’t stand on their own because they’re blended together with slower and quieter interludes that would normally keep them separate to help them stand out. The ostensible intention is to put the player fully in Kratos’ perspective, but the inherent limitations of the form prevent the full one-to-one connection that this seeks. There’s a reason why tools like editing exist, and it’s to shepard the audience’s perspective towards the intention of a work. Abandoning these tools is a step backwards, not forwards.
Then there’s the issue of the blend between cutscene and gameplay. The action in God of War is relentlessly vicious, with Kratos and Atreus taking on everything from ten-foot trolls to colossal dragons to skyscraping giants. Normally, a game like this would allow the player some breathing room between these fights. But God of War is incapable of truly separating its uptime from its downtime. Its loudest and quietest moments just sort of blend together into an indistinct mush. The game can’t draw any real contrast between them because they’re all forced to be part of the same single image.
All of this is in addition to the fact that, as alluded to at the beginning of this article, a single take game is never going to function as such in practice. God of War has a pause button where you can do things like read up on the world’s various enemies and change Kratos’ gear. Checking these menus cuts away from the otherwise “unbroken” image to show something entirely different. And it’s not like you’re not going to be pausing regularly. The game constantly pops up little text boxes imploring you to check some new detail that’s been added to your journal—a new quest, a new monster, a new bit of lore.
Not to mention the fact that God of War is a loot game, meaning that you’re constantly changing the gear that Kratos has equipped as you pick up new items. It’s also possible for Kratos to die in combat, which causes a cut to black and another cut back to the most recent checkpoint. Even playing on the easiest difficulty, I died several times over the course of my run through the game. There’s also the game’s length to consider. God of War took me around 30 hours to complete, over the course of several days. It is interminably long, even for a release of this magnitude. It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to finish this game in a single sitting without pausing or dying, but that’s the only way to experience it as a single take. It really only exists in single take form in theory. The most the average player will get out of this experiment is a lack of loading screens during their multiple sessions with the game.
Oh, and by the way, the game cheats.
I’m not going to make any grand pronouncements about whether or not the single take can ever work in games. God of War doesn’t bode well for the technique’s future, but I can’t say that there’ll never be a game that figures out how to do it well. What I can say, however, is that editing is an art that games should really engage with more frequently. When they do, the results are often fantastic.
Older games used to make more frequent use of editing, due primarily to technical limitations. One of my favorite examples is the original Resident Evil. The game has you exploring a spooky mansion that’s been beset upon by zombies. As you move through the 3D space, the game cuts to different fixed angles to better show you the surrounding area. This is used for more than just practical effect. You’ll be running down a hallway when you hear an ominous groan, only for the game to cut to an angle that shows a zombie bearing down on you. These camera placements, full of melodramatically canted angles, were terrifically gothic, taking inspiration from silent horror cinema as much as classic zombie fare. But they could only be so effective because the camera didn’t have a full range of motion. A single-take Resident Evil would’ve forfeited these images.
For a more recent example of editing in games, we can look at Firewatch,. Unlike God of War, Firewatch has no cutscenes and is experienced from a first-person perspective. You are always in control of main character Henry as he explores the state forest where he’s taken up a job as a fire lookout. The beginning of the game cuts between short bits of Henry travelling to his outpost for the first time and text-based flashbacks of the events that led him there. When you first play the game, you’re unaware of where Henry is headed or who he even is. As the text segments flesh out his backstory and lead him to the moment when he accepted the job, the player walks Henry further and further into the woods, committing to the work more with each step. It’s not until the sequence ends that you realize the terrible choice Henry made by coming out here, but by that point it’s too late. You’ve already propelled him to his new fate. The intercutting here is genius. You think you’re moving Henry towards something right up until the moment you realize he’s really running away. It’s a revelation that only exists because of editing.
NieR: Automata’s editing is probably the boldest I’ve seen in any game. It splits the player’s time between different playable characters. You play through the first half of the game with one of them, then again with another. This separation can be thought of as a sort of cut, a distinguishing line drawn between two distinct images, with new meaning born from their contrast. This almost recalls the dialectical origins of film editing itself. Where things get really interesting is in the second half, when the time spent with each character before switching off gets shorter and shorter, until finally the cuts back and forth come at such a rapid pace that the two characters seem to blend into one. This contributes so much to the fabulous tension of the game’s final act.
I’m not optimistic for the future of the single-take game. Most players and critics have fallen so hard for it that it’ll surely pop up again in major releases for years to come. Maybe there’ll be a game to crack the code, a game that’ll find a place between Phantom Pain’s frantic nonsense and God of War’s styleless dullery. But I’d much rather see games learn to make use of editing techniques than try to master a challenge with so little reward. I just don’t see any good reason to make your game in a single shot. And if there is one, God of War didn’t find it.