‘God of War’s’ Single-Shot Approach Borrowed From Language of Film, Broadway

At its heart, “God of War” is the story of a journey, an odyssey undertaken by father and son in the face of incredible odds. It’s a game with an incredible story, and one that’s masterfully told, but it’s not a “story game” that sacrifices gameplay for narrative. Its an important distinction, and one that’s supported by a novel one-shot camera that never wavers or cuts, regardless of whether we’re in a quiet scene of Kratos and his son interacting or a bombastic action sequence where gods and giants clash.

For the ninth game in a franchise, “God of War” is remarkably pioneering. While many games treat the ephemeral nature of the camera in games as one of the medium’s strengths, allowing them to do things with it that would be impossible in film, “God of War” treats it like a physical object. The camera becomes a key part of the way the story is told, a proxy for the player, attaching them to the narrative in a way that’s both consistent and intimate.

“The camera was essentially an additional character in the scenes,” says Dori Arazi, the game’s camera director. “The intent was to create deeper immersion in the story and to promote stronger empathy towards the characters by making the viewer feel like they are literally taking the journey with our hero.”

The decision to use a single, unbroken shot was transformative, and it shaped the entire game from the moment it was introduced early in the development process.

“The idea came from our game director, Cory Barlog. There was a mountain of challenges without industry precedence that needed to be proven out; experientially, visually and technically. As the emotional goals were becoming clearer, so were the cinematic needs. It needed to be shot in some form of documentary style — we needed to accentuate the sense of scale for both creatures and the environment.”

“God of War” is a game that exists in a very starkly defined and evocative setting, a frozen northern world populated by myths and legend that the player discovers through the eyes of the protagonists. The camera is integral to that sense of discovery, panning to reveal startling vistas or expose the scope of towering mountains, but never losing track of the real stars, Kratos and young Atreus.

“When we set out to tell this story, we knew we wanted to make it incredibly personal,” “God of War’s” lead writer, Matt Sophos, tells Variety. “Using a one-shot camera kept everything feeling intimate because we couldn’t use camera cuts to jump around in the scene and take the focus off of what Kratos and Atreus were going through. In previous games, we would often use things like wide-angle establishing shots or even camera fly throughs in the environment to show players the large expanse of area they needed to traverse. Eliminating that language and keeping Kratos in the shot prevented players from ever disconnecting with the main characters—always getting a window into how Kratos and Atreus felt about what they were witnessing, not just what the level looked like.”

While this no-cuts approach is exceedingly rare even in film, Arazi says there were some filmic influences that the team drew on when they were navigating uncharted territory.

“The shooting style would have to support very clean camera movement and transitions,” he says, “and it had to have enough stability and visual clarity to support game play and combat. We staged the scenes to be shot from ‘within the action’ using wide angle lenses. And the camera was physically handled like a hand-held, WWII found-footage documentary. After some experimentation we ended up with a language that was somewhat like Saving Private Ryan meets Revenant with a twist of Coen Brothers.”

The effect is a sense of attachment to Kratos and Atreus that deepens throughout the game, the feeling that what’s happening to them is happening to you. It’s a new way to deliver a story in games that doesn’t detract from the experience of play, one that’s sure to be imitated in the future by creators looking replicate that sense of intimacy and closeness with their characters. But it presented obstacles beyond the obvious technical challenges, mandating a new approach to the way the game’s script was written.

“A traditionally written script does not lend itself well to a no-cut camera. Most narratives are subconsciously thought through in cuts. The writers (Sophos and Rich Gaubert) and I needed to work more closely together to avoid ‘painting the camera into a corner’, or calling for an impossible movement.”

Sophos concurs, adding that “using a one-shot camera removed some tools from our toolbox by making us actually get into a shot without cutting to it. It forced us on the script side to consider the transitions more carefully since we could never use the words, ‘CUT TO:.’ So for instance, going from something wide to a close-up meant working closely with Dori to break down a scene in a way that the transition from shot to shot would feel natural and true to the emotions of that scene.”

In terms of telling a coherent story, leaning into this sort of camera style was like tying one hand behind your back in a fist fight. It hamstrung the story team’s ability to fly from scene to scene at will, or access the unlimited perspectives that games’ freedom from physical camera gear normally permits. This meant a grounded approach that might be familiar to filmmakers but that game designers rarely have to grapple with.

“The language of film is ingrained in all of us as viewers of movies, television, and games whether we’re consciously aware of it or not,” Sophos explains. “We intrinsically know when a shot doesn’t feel right for the action that’s playing out onscreen. In games, it’s very easy to break this language because the camera isn’t a physical thing. We can create whatever shot we want because noone’s actually lugging around a heavy piece of camera equipment or working a crane or dolly. But players feel when a move isn’t right for the moment, so the camera—what it sees, how close it gets, what’s in light versus what’s in shadow—is as much a part of telling the story as the script is.”
And it wasn’t just the script that needed to be molded to fit a one-shot perspective. Effects rippled throughout the game’s design, influencing how characters were positioned and animated. Principal animator Bruno Velazquez found that choreographing the characters became easier if he treated a sequence less like Hollywood and more like Broadway.

“In essence the way we shot each scene was approached more like a stage play rather than a film; each was a careful ballet between the virtual camera operator and the actors, each remembering their cues and placement within the scene.”

With that framing in mind, production became much smoother and easier, Velazquez says. “It allowed the rehearsals and shooting in the Motion Capture stage with the actors to become much more fluid and efficient. It pushed the actors to truly reach a level of intimacy in each scene that required them to stay in character throughout the duration of each take.”

Velazquez also mentions how the camera hobbled some of the team’s traditional approach, but how that limitation became a strength.

“With traditional camera methods it’s possible to move characters between cuts, allowing for positional changes to maximize the staging of each actor in each shot. However with a single camera the characters had to move in and out of the frame dynamically and naturally with a very precise special awareness by the actors. Having the camera frame both leads allowed the audience to feel and see the thoughts of both characters at once, which was a critical part of that relationship between Kratos and Atreus.”

As one of the core pillars of one of the strongest games of the generation, the results speak for themselves. The tight, no-cut, one-shot camera is critical to the powerful alchemy Santa Monica Studio has managed, transforming a hateful killing machine into a thoughtful, troubled, pensive patriarch. It lights the way forward for a medium that often struggles to find solid footing narratively, and Arazi makes it clear that this is only the beginning.

“Now that the precedent has been set and the style proven out and better defined, it leaves us with fertile ground to expand upon. Considering the challenges, I don’t believe I would have done anything differently. This was the path we needed to take to pave the road moving forward and ultimately it achieved a great result.”

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