Defining the Box: ‘John Wick,’ ‘Hitman,’ and Systemic Spaces

There’s a shot in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum that epitomizes the series’ prime fixation. It’s a tracking shot following Halle Berry’s Sofia during a chaotic gunfight in Casablanca. The camera follows behind her back as she takes shots from behind the cover of a pillar. There’s a horizontal plane on which the action operates; she is on the “bottom,” and the enemy is on the “top.” Most gunfight scenes are content to stick to such a simple axis of engagement, but most gunfight scenes aren’t in movies called John Wick. Without cutting, Sofia moves to another pillar along a completely perpendicular plane, and takes shots from cover there. She does this two or three more times in the shot, reorienting the direction of the action while further settling the geography of the space. It’s a brilliant moment.

The climax of John Wick: Chapter 2 takes place in a hall of mirrors-style art exhibit called “Reflections of the Soul.” A loudspeaker voice describes the work as John enters, and it might as well be describing the whole trilogy: “Within this exhibition, the interplay of light and the nature of self-images coalesce to provide an experience which will highlight the fragility of our perception of space, and our place within it.”

The John Wick films have always been concerned with space. It defines their beloved fight scenes as much as it does their narratives. These films always focus on defined spaces, the delineations between them, how the spaces are different, and (in Chapter 3) who gets to draw those lines. It’s one thing to say a fight scene has “clear geography.” Wick has always made that geography mean something. It matters where these fights are taking place.

The first important space we learn about in the series is the Continental Hotel, a New York respite for weary assassins to catch their breath and talk shop. The most important rule is that no “business” (i.e. murder) can be conducted on Continental grounds. The series introduces early on this idea that certain spaces have defined rulesets, and that the consequences for breaking them can be dire. It’s not just that the law exists — the space itself imposes its will on the people inside it.

It reminds me a lot of the recent Hitman games, which are a low-key twin to the Wick films. In these games, you play as the tabula rasa assassin Agent 47, whose ability to disguise himself as just about anyone helps him get close enough to take out his targets, often in elaborately designed accidents. It’s about as far from the directly confrontational action in Wick, but the two share an obsession with demarcated spaces. In Hitman, Agent 47 is prohibited from entering certain areas depending on the disguise he’s wearing. It’s a system the developers call “social stealth.” Certain floors are restricted only to bodyguards, for example. The kitchen is off-limits except to chefs. The laboratory is only for scientists. You get the picture. Each space has a set of rules 47 must appear to obey. Once he manages to construct that appearance, he can pass through unnoticed…provided he doesn’t break any of the other rules. A scientist or chef can’t openly carry a firearm, and being seen doing so in one of those disguises will cause a scene. The game can become something of a logic puzzle, with the player figuring out how to get from point A to point B traversing through various areas with different rulesets.

John Wick has no need for social stealth. He and the rest of the assassins he interacts with barely seem to exist in the real world at all. In one scene of Chapter 3, two young killers are taken out by a more experienced gang in the middle of Grand Central Station. Their throats are slit and they fall to the ground. No one around them seems to notice. A few shots later, the bodies have disappeared. In the most memorable sequence of Chapter 2, Wick trades silenced shots with another gunman in a subway station, the dozens of passersby around them none the wiser. The chaos caused in the first John Wick’s famous club scene is the outlier here. I’m willing to grant director Chad Stahelski that he hadn’t yet conceived of this aspect of the series’ wider world.

Still, Wick does follow the rules of the real world to some extent. In Chapter 3, a confrontation between him and fanboy killer Zero is halted when a line of hand-holding children cut between them. “That’s what makes you special, John Wick,” Zero says. “I wouldn’t have stopped.” Wick finds himself unique among his brethren because, having left the game for a time, he finds himself still tied to a basic social contract. He can’t float like a ghost through these public spaces like the rest of them can. He lives in both worlds at once.

The nature of Hitman’s medium means it must allow the player to decide for themselves whether or not 47 is similarly bound to the basic social laws of a public area. It does, however, penalize you for killing anyone who isn’t explicitly identified as your target. That includes people who are shooting at you, if your mission has gone especially haywire. The penalty affects your score upon completing the mission, which doesn’t really have any impact on gameplay. Once again, it’s up to the player whether or not they care about how many points they get. Hitman does what it can to nudge you in the John Wick direction, though. 47 can take very few bullets before he’s killed, so getting into a gunfight is never advisable anyway. And if nothing else, it’s just more fun to take out your targets without any collateral damage. The game is designed to incentivize obedience to simple human relational law wherever possible. Except where your targets are concerned, of course. Nothing to be done about that. They just gotta die.

Things come to a head in Chapter 3 when a representative of the all-powerful assassin High Table deconsecrates the Continental, meaning that “business” can be conducted on its grounds. The laws that held the area together completely change with a single phone call. Chapter 3 builds on the previous films’ ideas about the rules that govern certain spaces by asking: Who makes those laws, and why do they get to do so? It explores the notion that these laws are not immutable, not born of some inherent human ideal. They were created by individuals who had some incentive to make them that way, perhaps to the detriment of the people below them. And no matter how long these rules have stood, they can be taken away in an instant, because these rules ultimately aren’t for the benefit of the people on whom they are imposed. They’re there to enrich and empower the already rich and powerful. These spaces don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a web of intersecting laws and guidelines, all governed by a few specific actors. Is any of this sounding familiar?

Hitman being a video game means that it can’t change the rules of its maps at random as happens in Chapter 3. However, it hits at the same theme in a similar way. Almost every target in the two most recent games are part of the upper-upper-class, the mega-wealthy and uber-powerful. They are capitalist cretins, destroying the lives of people below them for their own enrichment. When 47 enters these maps, he is entering a space dictated by class divides. The Paris map in Hitman: Season One is the most obvious example. 47 must advance up a four-story mansion to reach one of his targets, each floor becoming home to a more and more exclusive club. By the time he reaches the top, he finds himself at an auction where people are purchasing everything from fixed elections to entire islands. In the basement, meanwhile, he comes across a weeping server being consoled by her coworkers. She’s been reduced to tears by the boorish, condescending behavior of the people she’s working for. The basement is her space. It is, in the eyes of the people in charge, where she belongs.

What makes 47 unique is his ability to traverse all of these spaces. He can be a waiter in the basement one moment, and a war economy patron on the top floor another. His baseline anonymity allows him to slip into any space he desires, provided he looks the part. He is the master of these spaces, his very presence denying the power of the people who created them.

John Wick masters spaces, too, albeit through force rather than deceit. His films have him smashing through windows, charging down hallways, racing across bridges, and causing his fair share of property damage. In one especially memorable bit from the hall of mirrors fight in Chapter 2, he susses out an enemy’s position behind one mirror by looking at his reflection from afar. He shoots through the mirror next to him, and hears the thud of the body hitting the ground. Even in a space deliberately designed to bewilder and disorient, Wick is never caught off-guard. He is in full command of his surroundings at all times. He even turns them into improvised weaponry on occasion. In Chapter 3, a brawl in a library is ended when he picks up a heavy book and begins slamming it into his opponent’s head. A little later on, he’s in a stable, and he gives a horse a hearty smack to make it kick his pursuer right in the head. He always knows where he is, and that has a tremendous impact on how he fights.

In 2019, so many action blockbusters don’t seem to care about where their action is set. How many of them end in anonymous rubble-strewn battlefields, or flat open ranges, or airport parking lots? This is a major aspect of what makes the John Wick films so special. It’s not just that Stahelski’s direction makes your mental map of a location crystal-clear. It matters what that map looks like. It has narrative and thematic purpose. John Wick is using these spaces to say something about its world and the people in it, as are the Hitman games. In these works, the worlds around their protagonists aren’t just staging or backdrop to the story. They are the story.

The Twin ‘Resident Evil 2’s and Video Game Cinematography

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.

No Man’s Sky Doesn’t Need Multiplayer

The game’s most-desired feature would spoil what makes it great.

I want to tell you a story about an experience I had earlier this year playing No Man’s Sky, the 2016 space exploration game that became the center of a violent internet mob when it released without features that were supposedly promised by the developers. Most of these “missing” features were never explicitly promised to begin with, their absence resulting mainly from assumptions made by the media and general public based on the wide-eyed aspirations of the game’s director, Sean Murray. The most egregious one in the mind of the game’s detractors was the lack of multiplayer. No Man’s Sky takes place in a galaxy full of trillions of planets, all procedurally generated so no two are alike. While players explore the same galaxy simultaneously, at the time of the game’s launch there was no way to interact with others within the game’s space. For players who wanted an almost-infinite space MMO, this was unacceptable.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, not at first anyway. I want to talk about this experience I had.

First, a bit of history. When the game launched, the lack of multiplayer made it overwhelmingly lonely. Even if you happened across a galaxy discovered by another player, they’d be long gone by the time you got there. All that was left to find was lingering memories of them, like whatever creatures and plants they’d named. I think a lot of people who were disappointed with the game wanted a sandbox that they could conquer. They wanted to feel like they had some control over whatever corner of space they wanted. But No Man’s Sky gives the player no such satisfaction. This is a game about feeling small, and solitary, and completely overpowered by the enormity of it all. And I loved it for that. I loved exploring a planet, knowing that I’d probably be the only one to ever see it. But I never felt like the planet belonged to me, because before long I’d be back in my ship blasting off to another, leaving it behind for no one to find. At launch, there was no way to leave your mark on a world besides giving it a name, no way to claim it as your own, because none of these worlds belonged to you. See the title?

The studio that made No Man’s Sky, Hello Games, worked diligently to improve the game over the past two years. By “improve,” I mainly mean adding features that I never thought the game needed to begin with, but to their credit they’ve made some changes I’ve really liked as well. I Last summer, for the first time, they added a sort of multiplayer. Now, should you run across other players, you’d see them represented as floating orbs of light. This was the version of the game I was playing earlier this year, when something interesting happened.

I had seen a post on an online community about the game that referred to a player-built farm where one could gather resources to build rare and expensive technology. I wanted to get some money to buy a freighter, as well as pad my pockets in advance of an upcoming game update, so I decided to check the farm out. The problem: It was on a planet halfway across the galaxy. The solution: Portals.

Portals are rare, towering structures which can be difficult to find. Entering a planet’s coordinates using twelve alien glyphs, a player can instantly teleport there without having to slowly warp system-by-system. I walked through the portal to find myself on a toxic world, full of violent poisonous storms which chewed through my suit’s protection. The glyphs I’d found online were slightly incorrect. The farm was on another planet in the same system. I could see its beacon if I looked skywards. But here’s where I ran into another problem: I had no spaceship to get me there.

See, the portals are player-sized. You can walk through them, but not fly. Once you’re on your new world, your feet are on the ground for good. You can always walk back through the way you came, of course. But getting your ship onto the new world involved exploiting a complex loophole in the game’s rules. I needed to find a habitable base in order to get my ship back. Unfortunately, the nearest base was a forty-minute walk from the portal. I decided to hoof it.

But before I did, I noticed something. One of those orbs of light was bouncing around near the portal, as if it was waiting for someone to come through. I said hello by jumping up and down a few times, and then set off for the base. A few minutes later, I noticed that the orb was following me.

They couldn’t share resources with me. They couldn’t give me a lift in their ship. They couldn’t even really communicate with me. All they could do was join me on my long trek to my new home. And that they did. We fought through those poison storms, took refuge in small huts, danced around some hostile creatures, and finally made it to the base. It was a sublime moment, the most profound experience I’d had with the game since it came out. We two people had found each other, but were still so far away. Our every interaction was a pounded fist on the walls that separated us. I claimed the base as my own and decided that was enough for today. At this point I took out my headphones, as I was listening to a podcast or music or something, and I heard a voice.


The orb was talking to me.

I didn’t even know this game had voice chat.

Being the mess that I am, I panicked and turned the game off. This was too much, too sudden. The profundity of the moment was ripped away. We weren’t two ships passing in the night anymore. We weren’t floating anomalies, the barest representations of humanity sharing an hour of struggle and triumph. We were just people playing a video game.

This, to me, is the fundamental problem with the upcoming No Man’s Sky update, which adds full multiplayer with customizable player models and various emotes. It turns a beautifully solitary game, an experience defined by separation and distance from others, into an outer space party with your friends. It takes something that I found beautiful and deeply immersive and makes it just another game.

I know a lot of people are really excited about this update, and I’m happy for them. It’s not my business to stomp on people’s pleased reactions. And I know that the scale of the game makes multiplayer pretty much optional. It’s just disappointing to me to see something that I thought was great bend to the will of people who couldn’t appreciate it for what it was. Maybe that’s the fault of Hello Games, for overpromising before the game’s release. Maybe it’s the fault of Sony, for not standing by their developer and allowing a hate mob to dominate discourse about their product. Maybe it’s my fault, for having the wrong expectations. In any case, I’m excited to see what else the new update has to offer. May I never meet another player again.

How God of War’s Long Take Experiment Fails, and How Editing In Games Can Succeed

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.

Property of Santa Monica Studios

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.

Property of Santa Monica Studios

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.

Property of Campo Santo

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.

Casting a Shadow: Why Did Everyone Forget How To Communicate Scale?

Recently I played the game Shadow of the Colossus for the first time. I don’t know if you’ve heard anyone say this before, but it’s very good. It’s at turns exciting and disturbing, hollowing you out and letting you stew in the emptiness. It’s the rare “modern classic” that lives up to its reputation.

One thing that caught me by surprise is how well Shadow of the Colossus imparts the scale of its titular creatures. The player character, Wander, is dwarfed by his sixteen foes. The smallest of them is still the size of an elephant. The way that the game conveys this shows a deep understanding of the language of cinema. It got me thinking about how many games and movies seem to have forgotten these techniques in recent years.

Here’s a shot from the upcoming film Pacific Rim: Uprising.

Property of Universal Pictures

These are the Jaegers, gigantic mechs designed to take on equally gigantic monsters called kaiju. But in this shot, they don’t feel gigantic. The blue Jaeger in the center is shot straight forward and from the waist-up. It’s framed in the same way you’d frame an ordinary person. The three Jaegers behind it look to be about half as tall as it, and all four of them look tiny compared to the buildings in the background. They’re supposed to be these towering titans, but they look like action figures. They feel about as tall as one of those flapping tube men outside a car dealership.

Here’s a shot from last year’s Kong: Skull Island.

Property of Warner Bros. Pictures

This one is just hilarious. Kong looks like a kid in a Halloween costume here. It’s even worse than the Pacific Rim example because you can see the director making an effort to show off Kong’s size. See that tiny human down there between his feet? The problem here is that the human is barely visible at a glance. They’re not the focus of the shot, being on the same plane as Kong himself, so your brain doesn’t even register their presence. Instead you see Kong, pinched between two mountains that dominate much more of the frame than he does. This shot is trying to communicate how big Kong is, but instead it makes him look so much smaller.

Now for a good example, here’s a shot from a late-game cutscene Shadow of the Colossus.

Property of Sony Computer Entertainment

This is our introduction to the fifteenth colossus, nicknamed Argus by the game’s fans. Here we see a better version of the Kong example. Wander is clearly visible in the foreground, marking a distinct contrast between him and Argus. In the background, Argus absolutely dominates the image. His body spans the diagonal length of the frame, and his weapon nearly does the same on the other axis. Note that unlike the Kong shot, this one is still from Wander’s perspective, rather than the perspective of an anonymous floating camera. We feel as dwarfed by Argus as Wander does in this moment.

Property of Sony Computer Entertaiment

It’s not just the colossi that make the player feel small. Even the environments in Shadow of the Colossus are oppressively large. The photo above is of the entrance to the area where you fight Argus. Before the colossus even shows up, you’re made to feel like a tiny intruder in a much grander space. You feel like you’re not supposed to be there, and you aren’t. Part of the narrative of this game is that Wander is literally an invader, breaking into each colossus’ home and murdering it. You’re not meant to feel powerful after finishing each fight. This isn’t a world you can conquer. Even when every colossus is dead, the broken-down arches and pillars still loom overhead, intimidating reminders that these lands don’t want you here.

For a good example from a recent film, here’s a shot from 2016’s Shin Godzilla.

Property of Toho Pictures

It was hard to single out a good example from this film. Director Hideaki Anno has been doing this masterfully since his giant mech show Neon Genesis Evangelion, and that experience comes to bear here. This shot is more akin to the Pacific Rim one above. In both shots, skyscrapers tower above the being that’s the focus of the shot, but that’s not a liability in the Shin Godzilla shot. Like Argus, Godzilla commands this frame, and he doesn’t even take up the majority of it. The purple light on the buildings ensures that Godzilla monopolizes the image. The low-angle camera helps too, a classic technique for making the audience feel smaller than the subject of a shot. It doesn’t matter that Godzilla isn’t the biggest thing in this shot. It feels as though he is.

Property of Toho Pictures

I like this other close-up shot as well. If you’re wondering how to communicate the scale of something without direct visual comparison, here’s a great example. Godzilla is so big that he bursts past the edges of the frame, so big that it’s hard to even coherently construct an image of him. If this was the first time you’d ever seen Godzilla, you’d still be able to tell that he was a titanic creature.

So why do films like Pacific Rim: Uprising and Kong: Skull Island fail in this department? Besides a general incompetence and inexperience on the part of many blockbuster directors, I think it’s largely out of a desire to display the effects that so much money was spent on. Notice that the shots I pulled from both films frame their subjects in such a way that best shows off their designs. The Jaegers are framed like ordinary people in costumes, and the head-to-toe shot of Kong screams “look at how realistic this big monkey is!” In neither shot was it a priority to suggest the scale of these things, despite that being the most interesting thing about them. Shadow of the Colossus was originally released in 2005, but today’s filmmakers and game designers could still stand to learn from its excellent direction.

These Are Our Woods: Wolfenstein II and the American Nazi

In The New Colossus, Nazism is as American as apple pie.

Nazi General Engel speaks in front of the Lincoln Memorial

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and the Amazon Prime TV show The Man in the High Castle operate from a similar premise. Both take place in an alternate America where the Nazis won World War II and took control of the country. I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, but it’s hard to avoid its marketing. It all plays on American iconography being tainted by Nazi iconography. A popular poster shows the Statue of Liberty draped in a swastika sash and doing a sieg heil salute, with another swastika looming over the New York City skyline. The message here is that America has been painted over in bright red Nazi colors. These classic American images have been poisoned by Nazism, but the poison can be removed and the old country restored.

You don’t see much American iconography in Wolfenstein II. There are no shots which ominously dwell on a swastika-covered White House, no Mount Rushmore with Hitler’s face. The Statue of Liberty is briefly seen in the underwater ruins of Manhattan, but it’s not even the focus of the single shot it’s seen in. In a key scene, a massive Nazi rally takes place at the National Mall. The game’s main antagonist, the despicable General Engel, speaks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You can just barely make out the statue of Lincoln in the background. Decades after the Nazis took over, it’s still there. Wolfenstein II refuses to acknowledge the America of old as a thing that could be soiled by Nazis. Instead, it loudly declares that America was always a violent, oppressive, white supremacist nation. All the Nazis did when they moved in was change the color of the drapes.

In one level, we walk through Roswell, New Mexico. The KKK has been given some measure of control over the American south, and robed-and-hooded members patrol the streets alongside Nazi soldiers. The two groups chat about the KKK’s German lessons. Nearby, a woman pops out of a storefront to let her aunt know that she’s getting married. Her aunt gleefully congratulates her on the engagement, and asks her to let her dad know that she’s auctioning some “hard-working slaves” in a couple days. In line for a movie theater box office, two men rave about the latest Leni Riefenstahl movie. They praise its moral purity compared to the degenerate filth that used to be made.

It’s a stereotypical all-American downtown. The Nazis haven’t changed it so much that it’s unrecognizable. They didn’t need to. Wolfenstein II shows us how cleanly Nazism integrates with white American society. For the straight, white, Christian Americans of the game’s world, the laws imposed by the Nazis weren’t too different from the laws already in place, and certainly not objectionable. America so often depicts itself as the crusading hero of anti-Nazi narratives. In Wolfenstein II, America was already complicit in many of the same crimes.

Grace Walker and Super Spesh greet B.J.

This, more than anything, is what makes Wolfenstein II stand out among a deluge of Nazi-fighting simulators. Not a single revolutionary in this game is interested in taking America back to how it was before the Nazis invaded. For protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz, that America is represented by his father, a virulent racist and anti-semite who berates and abuses his Jewish wife and son. For the black freedom fighter Grace Walker, it’s a land of oppression and segregation. For her lover Super Spesh, it’s a fascist police state that silences dissidents. For the former concentration camp prisoner Set Roth, it’s the country that failed to save him (and in real life would have denied him entry). For the communist labor organizer Horton Boone, it’s an exploitative capitalist hellscape. For all of them, it’s a place run by those who would happily sell them out to ensure their own survival. None of these people want to take America back. They want to make America better. When they triumph, they don’t raise the star-spangled banner. They raise their fists.

This is the game’s answer to what would otherwise be a troubling question. If they win freedom for their country, what will they do with it? Will they re-instate the presidency and Congress? Rebuild the old intelligence agencies? Will they pick up where they left off? Wolfenstein II gives all these questions an emphatic no. In one scene, Super Spesh passionately rants about the government “pigs” who persecuted activists like Grace before surrendering to the Nazis. In any other game, he’d be treated like a well-meaning crank, by the filmmaking if not the characters. Wolfenstein II takes him at face value. Yes, it says, the FBI is full of pigs. The White House is too. Fuck ’em.

But this game isn’t just about the why of revolution, it’s about the how. Only a few short years ago, it was the received wisdom that Nazis were played out. To make them the villains of your movie, your TV show, your video game, was to take the easy way out. They were like storytelling shorthand, something for the heroes to fight that didn’t require explanation or characterization beyond their aesthetic. We all know Nazis are evil, after all. Right?

This has been the necessary assumption of the Wolfenstein games since their inception. When Wolfenstein 3D pioneered the first-person shooter genre in 1992, Nazis were the recipients of the shooting. It was a sensible choice. The game put you behind the eyes of someone pulling a trigger on hundreds of people. Making those people Nazis made it easier to pull that trigger again and again and again. There was an unspoken agreement between the game’s creators and its players: Nazis deserve to die.

B.J. suppresses a Nazi’s freedom of speech

Wolfenstein II comes to us in a much different time. In 2017, even non-lethal violence against Nazis is the subject of finger-wagging discouragement. The media at large has welcomed their re-entrance to the public sphere, and insisted that their beliefs must be respected even if one disagrees. Committing violence against a Nazi makes you just as bad as a Nazi, we’re told. Better to take the high ground and meet them on the battlefield of ideas. When they go low, we go high. This bromide for the sensible center has become a liberal rallying cry. But it’s useless in application.

The problem is that when you invite the Nazis onto that battlefield of ideas, you’ve already lost, because you’ve granted them legitimacy. You’ve raised them to the moral high ground with you, rather than stomping them into the ground where they belong. Wolfenstein II takes on this center-left perspective just as strongly as it takes on the alt-right. In one section, I snuck a pair of Nazis chatting about the “terrorists” (that’s me) who had been attacking them. “How can they promote violence towards us, just because we hold a different point of view?” asked one. The other agreed, “We are humans too, aren’t we? Violence just begets more violence.” “You’re right,” replied the first. “Acts of violence are never okay. Never.” I threw a hatchet into the head of one of them, and swung it deep into the other’s chest.

Besides the irony of Nazi soldiers condemning violence, what struck me was how these two were using liberal talking points to argue for their worth. In the name of fairness and free speech, self-labeled progressives are handing Nazis the rhetorical tools to justify their propagation.

Wolfenstein II isn’t having any of that. Its message is the same as the series has always had: Nazis still deserve to die. And oh, how they die. Early in the game, B.J. picks up his first hatchet and thinks, “Lotta things you can do with a hatchet and a Nazi.” The game follows through on that promise with aplomb. There are dozens of unique animations for carving up Nazis, and that’s just for melee attacks. You can shoot them with pistols, rifles, and shotguns. You can blow them up with grenades and sticky bombs. You can melt them with lasers and set them on fire. Just like with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, there’s no wrong way to kill a Nazi.

The context of the killing is significant as well. B.J. enters each level in secret, unbeknownst to the Nazis within. You can kill them all stealthily, without them ever knowing you were there. B.J. never enters a level and is immediately fired upon. The Nazis only attack once they realize you’re attacking them. You are the aggressor, the invader, the instigator. Except that you’re really none of those things. This is how the game manages to make Nazi enemies interesting. B.J. is a Jewish man. The Nazis want him dead on that basis alone. To wear a swastika armband is to tell B.J. that you want to exterminate him. Wolfenstein II contextualizes the killing of Nazis not just as a moral imperative, but as an act of self-defense.

B.J.’s Jewishness has never been explicit in the series until now. He’s never been a practicing Jew; it’s hard to find time to go to services when you’re on the front lines of a revolution. But the reveal that his mother is Jewish is confirmation. Judaism is a matrilineal culture, meaning that Jewish identity is passed down through one’s mother. B.J.’s mother is Jewish, so he’s Jewish. As a Jewish person, I was thrilled at the (surprisingly rare) chance to play as one in the fight against Nazis.

For me, killing Nazis just means something more when it’s a Jew doing the killing. Even more so in a world where the Final Solution was carried out and the Jews were all but obliterated. Of course, B.J. is still a cishet white man. His “Aryan features” are remarked upon more than once. But his Jewishness is what truly defines him. B.J. is possessed by the spirit of his people. He is their instrument of righteous vengeance, pulled back from death’s door time and time again to channel their rage. He wreaks havoc through Nazi facilities like a furious poltergeist, an intangible specter of bloody comeuppance.

The creators of Wolfenstein II couldn’t have predicted that their game would speak so powerfully to its cultural moment. It was in development years before Nazis like Donald Trump and his cronies seized power, before Nazis marched openly in the streets and murdered their protesters, before the media rushed to give Nazis a seat at the table. It would have been a smartly written game regardless of who was elected president in 2016. Nevertheless, it comes to us now, when we need its voice most. It rejoices in the act of snuffing out Nazism. It proudly champions leftist perspectives and celebrates leftist activism and social justice. Most of all, it honors the marginalized and oppressed and exiled as the true representatives of America, the ones who put in the work to usher in a brighter future. They aim to build a country that lives up to the poem from which the game takes its name:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That poem never truly described America, even long before the Nazis took it over. The hope at the heart of Wolfenstein II is that maybe someday it can.