Why is game cinematography so much worse than it used to be?
Last year I wrote a story about God of War’s single-take presentation. Though I spoke more to how that game suffered from a lack of editing, as well as how games have successfully utilized editing techniques, the problem of God of War’s visual element was actually twofold. This was a game with its nose upturned at not just editing, but cinematography as well. But unlike its one-shot trick, this wasn’t innovation on God of War’s part.
For a medium so powerfully obsessed with appearing superficially cinematic, mainstream video games have rejected the basic tenets of shot composition for over a decade. Play any big-budget hit from the past couple years and you’ll find at least one consistent thread: Player control of the camera. You can orbit the camera 360 degrees around and above the player character at any time during gameplay. You’re typically restricted by physical objects like walls and floors (which often strikes me as a failure of imagination as much as a design necessity, an insistence on implying the existence of a real camera in the digital space) but for the most part you can look wherever you want, whenever you want. It’s a design decision based in the notion of “player freedom,” this idea that the best games allow the player the most leeway to choose their own courses of action.
This has always been a false premise, of course. Nothing you have ever done in a video game has truly been your choice, because you can do nothing that isn’t prewritten by the rules of the game’s mechanics. Great games may make you feel like you’re playing by your own rules, and indeed there are often ways to break those rules and play in unintended ways. But ultimately, no matter how far you dig, you’re going to hit bedrock eventually. You can’t simply do whatever you want simply because you want to do it. There is no such thing as true “player freedom,” and chasing it down can sometimes lead to much more restrictive experiences.
As a case study, I’m going to take the two games called Resident Evil 2. The first was released in 1998, the second in 2019. The latter is a remake of the former, preserving the game’s narrative, map layout, and most of its interactions. You’re doing more or less the same exact things in 2019’s version that you did in 1998’s, finding the same items, solving the same puzzles, etc. The remake was created with the goal of updating the game’s visuals and mechanics to be in line with what most players expect from a modern release. That means gorgeous environments and quality-of-life improvements, but it also means losing out on the best aspect of the original game: The camera. That is to say, the cameras.
I talked a bit about this in the God of War piece, so I’ll try and keep it brief here. In the original Resident Evil games, the environment was broken up into individual chunks, each viewed from a distinct, stationary camera. As you moved from one chunk to another, a cut took place as your view changed between the two cameras. What’s notable isn’t just the use of basic editing language here, it’s that the placement of each camera was unique. You were never just viewing the player character (either Leon or Claire) from behind as they moved forwards. You might have a profile view, or a low-angle shot, or a dutch angle, or any number of variations. Each shot was carefully composed to best capture whatever area of the map it was assigned, and each shot told a different story about that particular space. Sometimes a high-angle placement implied a surveillance camera, giving the impression that the character was being monitored. A more symmetrical composition comes across as more Gothic and intimidating. A low-angle makes you feel that something is lurking in the shadows, ready to strike. A dutch angle is the universal cinematographic symbol for “something fucked up is going on!” And so on.
If the fixed camera angles of the original Resident Evil 2 are a compromise forced by technical limitations, they’re a brilliant one. It’s a great example of how games can adapt the cinematic arts without shoddily imitating them, building out a new art form that is influenced by another one rather than adhering to a misunderstanding of that other medium’s rules. This is what good cinematography looks like in a video game, not the idiotic single-take gimmick of God of War or the laughable “cinematic camera” in Red Dead Redemption 2 that pulls the camera back and adds letterboxing.
So it’s a shame that the version of Resident Evil 2 released in 2019 was a video game released in 2019.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the remake. I think its map construction is still ingenious and its set design properly creepy. But I mourn for what was lost with the ditched fixed cameras of the original. Ironically, this means less visual mutability than the original. The remake’s free-floating camera is going to stick right behind Leon or Claire’s back most of the time. Every part of the game’s world that you see will be from this one single (you might call it “fixed”) perspective. Gone are the visual implications of all those different camera angles. You’re seeing every inch of the map as part of a contiguous whole, viewed straight-on ahead at eye level. Nothing is communicated by this perspective, nothing besides “this is what the player character can see.” The game stabs itself in the back by relinquishing the power of cinematography for the sake of “player freedom.”
The game makes up for this in some small part with its set design. I noticed a paltry few moments where something shocking or scary was positioned to be revealed just as I opened a door or turned a corner, and that’s decent work. But it doesn’t come close to matching the tremendous impact of fixed camera angles. It’s tragic that games being made on this scale will likely never play around with cinematography again (even in cutscenes, if God of War is any indication). Maybe they’ll patch in a “fixed camera mode” somewhere down the line. I’d be keen to see that version of the game. For now, though, 2019’s Resident Evil 2 is a sadly compromised vision. As much fun as I had with it, I can’t help but pine for the version of this remake that preserved the best aspect of the original instead of trashing it. I pine for a mainstream gaming landscape that isn’t shackled by such a restrictive conception of what a game camera can produce. But I think too much time has passed for that to ever happen. Outside of the underappreciated experimental space, we’re probably stuck with “free” cameras forever. It’s something that can’t be fixed.