The Long Take in "This Is America" Underlines Why 'God of War' Needed a Cut


#22

I think the critique that it’s not “hard” in a game is misunderstood, though. It’s not hard in the same ways that it’s hard in a movie. A single take in a movie is a specific moment in time, and the longer that moment, the more impressive it is that that moment was captured properly, that everyone was in precise harmony to create this perfect sequence.

A ‘take’ in a game is extremely, intrinsically different. It’s decidedly NOT a specific moment in time. It is, however, still quite difficult, just for very different reasons, and it evokes a different response from the audience. We aren’t anxious that one of the characters is gonna trip or forget a line. We know they will nail every mark; it’s already been decided, every action scheduled in advance. What we might marvel at, though, is how they hid the load times, as you point out. The cinematographer for this game said it himself: they did the long take partly because it’s very impressive and technically hard and no one had done it before for a variety of technical reasons. It serves the same purpose of drawing attention to how technically difficult it is. But what does that do for the storytelling?

It’s also possible for games to have no apparent loading times, like God of War, while still having cuts. We just tend to think of cuts in games as cuts from gameplay to cutscene and back again. But, like many are asking, what purpose does the single take serve beyond being a technically impressive trick? It lacks the tension that a long take often imparts unto a scene when captured on film, and even then, many are disputing the value of a long take in film beyond just being hard to do. I think that’s the real sticking point here.


#23

It seems like God of War does that video game thing of using certain techniques and tricks from movies to feel more “cinematic” without fully grasping why you would use them or how to change them to fit a different medium. By sticking to the no cuts rule for the entire game, for both the highs and lows, fast action scenes and slow calm moments, it makes everything kind of run together. It’s a book written in one giant paragraph where a scene never ends and there can’t be more interesting narrative tools like, say cutting to a different perspective to show the audience something the protagonist doesn’t know.

I think the video game equivalent to a long take would be something like smooth transitions in and out of playable sequences. It feels super slick every time a game ends a cutscene with the camera floating back into position and you regaining control, or in action scenes like using Batman Arkham Knight’s team takedowns to switch characters. This has the benefits of a long take (keeping a scene “grounded” and flowing from point to point, not interrupting the action or giving the viewer a second to rest) without overstaying it’s welcome or limiting what other tools can be used.


#24

I feel like a benefit of the “no cuts” approach in GoW is that it creates a level of visual cohesion. Games with clear “gameplay” and “cutscene” modes can often feel like two separate works of media stitched together, and a big part of it is because camera cuts are so potent.

The sudden introduction of cuts for short cinematics in between 90-minute chunks of cut-free gameplay is super jarring; like suddenly the game is speaking in a totally different language. Which is fine if jarring is what you’re going for, but GoW clearly wants a more naturalistic aesthetic, and so the cutscenes stick to using the same swings and pans of the camera that are used frequently in the “gameplay” mode.

It’s not perfect, and it’s sold as a gimmick, but it’s an interesting experiment regardless.


#25

My take on this topic is similar to what others have written here; the the continuous cut aids in preserving a sense of player agency and immersion as Dori alluded to in the video. Narrative-heavy/cinematic video games often transform players into spectators whenever Cuts are used to transition into scenes. Austin is right about Cuts being powerful visual storytelling devices, however I feel as though that razorblade-power is ultimately borrowed from the medium of film wherein it is a given that viewers are just that.

From the opening scene of God of War, the player is tasked with starting the first Cut of the game- the axe swing that begins the felling of the last tree which protects Kratos’ peace-in-exile. From that point on, every scene that’s not straight-up gameplay carries with it the potential to call upon the player to continue their part in playing the role of Kratos; which are just infrequent enough to avoid the series’ past reliance on the QTE fad and just subtle enough to be present at times which would mirror a player’s own desire to stop remaining a passive spectator and take control.

Take for example one early scene wherein the player is placed in a surprise forced bondage and is forced to watch Atreus be carried off into apparent mortal danger at the hands of enemies, and must initiate a button prompt to break out of the role of being a captive audience and save their son. Moments like these, throughout gaming, differentiate video games from cinema and other art forms, and God of War’s single cut helps move the medium forward.


PS. Another great example from outside of God of War is in Metal Gear Solid 4. I know, I know- it’s probably the most egregious example of the kinds of games I was talking about where cuts are used to take control away from players to just basically show them chopped-up movies. But, the strongest and most evocative scene in MGS4 is toward the end (so some spoilers), where Snake is forced to crawl through a “Microwave Corridor” (I know, I know), taking immense physical pain and torture in order to save the day. The player controls Snake, and while they are pushing Snake forward they are simultaneously treated to a splitscreen experience where they can look on as the entire rest of the supporting cast is struggling to survive and fight against an onslaught of AI-controlled giant robots. As the player pushes farther and farther into the corridor, the struggle above ground escalates while Snake struggles more and more as his equipment and body dramatically deteriorates and it becomes more and more of a struggle for the player to control Snake as more and more button mashing is required to progress. It’s a perfect example of storytelling techniques that only video games can accomplish.


#26

Just so you know, I also enjoyed the long take in the game. I didn’t have the same issues as Austin did, or some others it seems. It worked very well, from my view.


#27

I also liked the long cut in God of War. I only just finished the game, and haven’t had time to unpack all of my thoughts yet, but I liked the lack of distinction it allowed for QTEs and other gameplay sequences to appear in the middle of cutscenes. At times, it almost felt to me like it was taking a page out of the branching path game playbook—making the player an active participant in its most mundane moments alongside its most energetic. There were times when I honestly felt like I’d been dropped into Firewatch, or What Remains of Edith Finch, and I liked that feeling.

That said, I disagree that this is actually a novel thing in games at all (which is a point I’ve heard implied, not necessarily here, but around). Both Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are attempts at the exact same thing from a first-person POV. The former does have a single cut, but it comes when Gordon goes unconscious. The latter, if I remember correctly, doesn’t ever cut. Now, I love both of those games, so maybe I just have an affinity for this kind of perspective, but I do think they do it successfully and that it can have a place in the medium.

That said, there are games on the other end of the spectrum that do cutscenes incredibly well, and in particular I’d point out both Wolfenstein: The New Order and The New Colossus as examples of games that heavily benefit from not just extremely good animation and acting in their cutscenes, but their willingness to just cut whenever the story needs it. Those games are almost a complete opposite point on the spectrum from God of War in their willingness to completely sequester story and gameplay, and it allows them to create a very specific atmosphere and tone that I think they’d be much lesser without.


#28

I think people are fixating a little too hard on the technical difficulty of long takes. That’s something that can certainly be impressive, and a large part of why they’re enjoyable for the people who like them, but if that’s all it were about then it would be nothing other than showing off. But taking This is America as an example, the reason for the long take is to emphasise the sense of mayhem, the sheer amount of stuff going on in the background. If it were cut more traditionally, it would feel more like a collage of elements, rather than a single scene playing out behind the music video happening in the foreground. Which isn’t to say that that would be bad, or couldn’t achieve something similar a different way, but I think emphasising the pure technical showmanship – even if it does heighten the tension for some viewers – does an injustice to the deliberate artistic choice.

I’m only an hour or two into God of War, but while I haven’t found the long take conceit bothersome, I’m doubtful that it has a particularly strong justification. For me, the problem isn’t with long takes as such; it’s more broadly with trying to treat games as cinema. While I don’t think it’s impossible for games to embody cinematic traits, and certainly have moments of cinema, in most cases the demands of cinema will at some point be at odds with the realities of interactivity. I think a lot of it comes down to time: a film is fixed, and its pacing is carefully crafted. Usually editing plays a huge role in that, but in the case of a long take, choreography of actors, action and camera have to take up the slack in determining the rhythm. While this can be achieved in cutscenes (which are essentially mini movies), it’s hardly ever feasible when the player is in control. Maybe the player suddenly puts the brakes on the action to go and search for collectibles, veering way off-course, swinging the camera around haphazardly searching for sparkles. Maybe they keep dying at a particularly difficult part and have to repeat the same sequence over and over. Perhaps they’re just doing something silly because none of this is real and they’re in charge. Even if they’re invested in the drama and following all the implicit rules, the game design will usually include sequences that don’t fit into any kind of cinematic rhythm because what’s good to play is different from what’s good to watch.

I guess what I’m taking far too long to say is that games are different from films, which of course is news to no-one. But that’s why, while I have no problem with it, I’m not particularly impressed by the idea of a game being a single take, from an artistic perspective. I think for it to be really impactful it would have to be core to the game’s design, which would probably have to emphasise ideas of rhythm and pacing, though I’m not sure exactly how.

There’s the G-Man face bits, and you get teleported a couple of times. It doesn’t break the continuity of Gordon’s perspective, but it is a disjoint in what you’re actually seeing.


#29

The ‘no cut’ camera made me feel like I was in the scene, right there beside Kratos, walking and looking around as the scene unfolded. It gave me a sense of immersion that I’ve only felt in first-person games. If the cost of this feeling is “an entire toolbox filled with storytelling devices” then I’ll gladly pay it.


#30

Just because you CAN use the entire toolbox doesn’t mean you should…

Count me in as a fan of the “no cut”. To me it is as intimately tied into the theme of the game as the close 3rd person perspective is:

Kratos can no longer escape his past…there is no running away from it anymore.
Kratos can no longer escape his responsibilities to raise his son nor the consequences that organically manifest from that journey…

…what better way to attempt to have the player internalize those themes than to present them in a way where the player cannot have a breather or spectate from afar?

There are moments in this game that actually made me uncomfortable in ways I did not see coming; at those moments I was wishing that they’d just cut away to give me a chance to collect myself, but the game never does…and to me, that’s the entire point.

It’s not a tool for every game, but for the specific goal the team is trying to accomplish here, it works.


#31

So I haven’t played the new God of War, but one thing that’s always bugged me about the old games is that fixed camera, which is one of the biggest examples of what’s good to watch is not good to play.

I wish someone would do a deeper dive on this, but my gut feeling on weird, fixed/auto-controlled cameras is that they were just as much an artifact of old console tech as loading screens used to be. Being able to control the camera angle means being able to control exactly what part of an environment gets rendered, and when. Saying it’s “filmic” or whatever was always a convenient excuse.

Fixed camera angles in older games are usualy not remembered fondly, because they almost always work to the detriment of the player. I’ve lost count of the number of times I had to kite enemies in the early GoW games, just so I could actually see what the hell I was doing. Sometimes, the camera being zoomed out was a tool to hide an item or an important bit of environment that would be super obvious if the player had any sort of camera control. Another recent example on a Waypoint stream was Danika struggling with the camera in Yakuza 2, where there seemed to be no logic to the choice of camera angle, how it relates to the in-game map, or how it switches when you hit a screen transition.

It’s why whenever I hear people argue about whether a camera angle in a video game is using cinematic language correctly or not, I roll my eyes and play a game that actually lets me control the camera. If you want to be a film director, buy a fucking camera and make a short movie. If I’m playing a game, I’m the director. I decide what I need to see, not because it looks good, but because I need to not die playing the damn game.

This isn’t always black and white; there are plenty of games that will control the camera to deliberately show you something important or cool when you’re outside of combat and just exploring (or put those things into cutscenes, or some mix of the two). But when you’re explicitly choosing a camera angle to the detriment of gameplay, you are giving the player the message that you do not actually care about whether they’re having fun – only whether they look cool while your camera is murdering them.


#32

Not the only one! I thought the long take was great, even though I (and I bet 99% of players) never would have noticed it if they hadn’t made it a marketing bullet point.

A thread running from Austin’s article through a lot of the comments is the assumption that GoW’s no-cuts is trying to mimic the experience of a one-shot from a movie, and I really don’t think it is. Most movie one-shots use fancy camera work and impeccable timing to keep you on the edge of your seat, as perfectly exemplified by This is America. GoW uses a sweeping, slow-moving camera to keep you firmly planted in your seat. It’s not just trying to exhaust the player, but also reinvigorate them. They’re almost doing the exact opposite, and I can only assume that’s intentional.

As an example, if the scenes with the World Serpent had been cut scenes with multiple camera angles, they would not have had nearly the impact as standing on the bridge watching it loom over you from the horizon, then being left standing there, feeling awed and insignificant, after it leaves. The one-shot isn’t just conveying the feeling of watching something momentus play out, it’s also conveying the way Kratos, Atreus, and the players feel after it’s over. The brief moments, when you’re not entirely sure you comprehend what you just saw, the full body slump when you realize it’s definitely over, then the regroup to continue on. That’s the part you don’t get with a cut scene, and I don’t think it’s something film one-shots generally try to convey, because it’s not you they have to convince to keep moving.


#33

For me the “long take” in GoW actually worked really well. Looking at it as some technical thing or comparing it to different mediums sorta misses the point. The long cut helped make the game feel like one singular journey rather than a series of levels or scenarios you are progressing through. It helps frame the game as a (relatively speaking) contained quest and you are with the character throughout. It seem kinda weird to me that some people react so cynically with “they didn’t have to do this” … so? Isn’t that its the technique the creators wanted to tell their story with enough?


#34

Gotta say. I pretty much fundamentally disagree with a lot of this. As a huge film geek, I gotta say that I find the idea that long-takes in cinema are more valid because of the technical achievement to be a really weird take. If you’re putting a long-take in your movie solely because it’s impressive or a challenge, than that’s a bad long-take. Story needs to drive every creative decision. It’s a big reason why I’m NOT a fan of Inarriatu’s recent work, as I feel that many of his decisions are driven by stylistic desire, rather than story-telling.

The long-take at the end of Children of Men is one of my favorites. Because it is absolutely driven by story. It’s hard to even be cognizant of the long-take on a first-watch, which is how it should be. This stuff should disappear into the story-telling, not call attention to itself. The long-take in Children of Men serves to communicate a feeling, the feeling of everything coming to a halt and falling away as the characters in the scene are witness to what they perceive as a genuine miracle. It communicates a feeling, an emotion. That’s what makes a great long-take impressive, that’s what should make any great creative decision in a piece of visual story-telling impressive.

With regards to God of War, I think the single-shot aesthetic actually works quite well, as I feel it accomplishes a few different things. Like the poster above me said, I think the single-shot aesthetic helps to genuinely communicate the feeling of a long journey, and makes the world feel more organic than in many other games.

But what I also love about it is how it adds a sense of subjectivity, that fits completely with what the game is after on a thematic level. The entire narrative is told through Kratos’ PoV. We, as the player, don’t learn anything before Kratos does. We aren’t privy to conversations characters are having away from Kratos. We aren’t also ever away from Kratos, we’re with him every step of the way.

This accomplishes a few different things. It strengthens the emotional bond between the player and Atreus. We don’t see him as the protagonist’s son, we see him as our own son in a way. When Atreus would do or say something dumb, I was right there with Kratos as he let out an exasperated “boy…” When Atreus would be in life-threatening danger, I felt more immediately connected with Kratos desire to help his son.

It also ties into the fact that so much of this game’s narrative revolves around the theme of secrets. Kratos has a secret from his son. Freya has a secret from Kratos. Fey’s true nature was a secret beyond her death. By creating this very subjective narrative, through the use of a single-shot aesthetic, we’re more closely tied into the secret that Kratos holds and held further back from the secrets other characters are keeping from him.


#35

Are you by any chance talking about Film Crit Hulks brilliant, long-ass essay on Birdman? It’s one of my favourite pieces of film criticism I have ever had the pleasure to read and just like you said, I’m getting the same kind of vibes from Inarritu and Barlog. Has Barlog responded to any of the criticism on it’s troublesome representation of women so far? I’m willing to give him somewhat of a benefit of the doubt.

Here’s the link to the Film Crit Hulk piece for those interested: http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2015/03/26/film-crit-hulk-smash-ignorance-the-expected-virtue-of-birdman


#36

I wasn’t, though, after having skipped through your link (FCH tends to drive me fuckin nuts, even when he’s right), this shares the sentiment of the critiques I was representing, yeah. Sometimes the conscious execution on an aesthetic is so much the intent of the film that it begs to be recognized for its (or rather, the director’s) technical prowess. I get that impression from Barlog and Co. in interviews about this game. They are very impressed with themselves. And hey, rightly so! It’s very impressive - technically. Not sure yet what it contributes to the story, but the fact that they go to how hard it was to do before what it contributes to the story when talking about the long take worries me.

Also, hey, speaking of form over function,

13%20AM

:expressionless:

09%20AM
21%20AM
47%20AM
10%20AM

:relieved:


#37

The interesting thing is that this isn’t unique or special in any way. Basically every video game tells its story like this, it’s usually a fundamental assumption of the medium. A whole lot of games - maybe most games - could be long takes with very few changes.

Subjectivity is a weird thing. I think there is a valid reading that it actually reduces subjectivity in the long run by presenting a single point of view (that of Kratos and the player’s projection onto Kratos, since he is supposed to be a cipher for a particular type of player, which become one and the same) as an absolute and particularly because the game does very little work to actually interrogate Kratos as a character, ultimately presenting his behaviour and worldview as correct.

Also, Barlog has talked about how a long take is something that he wanted to do for a while and seemed to give the impression to me that he was a bit more concerned with implementing his pet idea and designing around it now he had access to the tech to do it than with writing a story and figuring out how best to present it.


#38

This is something I’ve been thinking about. I assume, without doing the research, that Half-life 2, Doom, etc. had load screens at some point in the game, but the idea of an FPS that never takes the camera control away from the player is not unusual. The danger being that while someone is giving important instructions or exposition, you’re on the other side of the room seeing if you can reach the ceiling by jumping on pipes.

In fact, I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen a bunch of “Game X Did it First” stories pop up.


#39

I guess I kinda disagree with your point about Kratos’ worldview being presented as correct. I’ve actually had conversations with people about the opposite, that I really loved how the game still presents Kratos as a flawed person, despite being the protagonist. Most games are either afraid to, or uninterested in, letting the player play as a protagonist who isn’t always right.

There are moments where the game is definitely chiding Kratos’ actions, the moment where he storms out of Freya’s house after learning she’s a god, played as a pretty poor moment for Kratos, in my perception.

But presenting only Kratos’ pov is exactly what I mean by it being a subjective narrative. There’s no objectivity as to the overall conflict. We don’t ever see what Baldur and his brothers are discussing away from Kratos, like we might see in other games.

Sure, plenty of other games also have subjective narratives. Not all, or really even most, do though. Cutting away to cutscenes focusing on the villains or on side-characters are fairly common.

I’m also not really a fan of the idea that something needs to be unique or special to be good. When it comes to storytelling, there’s very little one can do that’s actually unique or special, at this point. Everything is about remixing ideas that other stories have done before. It’s the execution that matters. My point was to discuss how the long-take aesthetic’s execution fits within the story-telling of the game, not to argue it’s uniqueness.

I’m also just, frankly, not all that concerned with what Barlog has or hasn’t said about the technique. The work should speak for itself.


#40

I gotta say I agree completely, the game seems to be pretty explicit about Kratos’ world view Not being correct and much of the game is dedicated to examining this and his character relative to Atreus.
“My point was to discuss how the long-take aesthetic’s execution fits within the story-telling of the game, not to argue it’s uniqueness.” —> YES Thank you, I don’t understand the “it’s not even that cool” kind of reaction around this.

It seems a lot of the reaction to this long shot isn’t actually a critique of the way it’s used but just a reaction to a lot of the praise it received (which seems to be a running theme with the discourse surrounding this game around here).


#41

I don’t bring up that it’s not unique to be dismissive (okay, maybe a tiny bit), but because I don’t think it’s possible to meaningfully understand how or why God of War’s long take works without looking at it in context of a whole lot of other games that are structured similarly and in many ways have aspirations towards a similar goal.

I think that’s important because it highlights things like the seamless transition between gameplay and cinematic, and the way the camera is used and particularly how it frames Kratos, as things that are worth digging into over the simple fact the game is a single take.

There is a difference between a story that is presented in a subjective way, and a story that is written to be subjective. God of War is the former, but I’m not sure it’s the latter. The exclusion or rejection of other points of view looks a whole lot like objectivity when the one remaining subjective view is treated as the only one worth considering or being given time to. I feel like the long take reinforces this given the way it’s executed centres Kratos so heavily.

Even if the game thinks he’s irredeemable (I’m not sure it does), even if it thinks his “close your heart to the suffering of others” values are awful (I think it considers them a better form of masculinity in contrast to Baldur’s aggression and Atreus’s curiosity), it clearly wants you to inhabit and observe him and consider his perspective far more than it wants you to look at and consider the perspectives of the other characters - I mean it literally refuses to let you inhabit the perspectives of anyone else or observe them in situations that are not focused on Kratos.

It seems to me that framing is one that wants the player to be in awe of Kratos - a contrast to the pulled out camera in previous games which wants the player to be in awe of the things Kratos does - in the same kind of way that we’re expected to be in awe of characters like Rick Sanchez or Walter White. To recognise them as awful… but also to think they’re kind of badass and worth our respect.

I suppose most games like this mitigate the issue by making sure dialogue is always audible or by putting the protagonist/player in a locked room whilst that scene is taking place.

I’d love to hear some examples since I’ve been struggling to think of any in popular or well known games.