While games like Far Cry 2 or Minecraft create beautiful stories by leaving the vast majority of the plot and game dynamics up to the player, heavily-scripted games must convey their messages by carefully constructing narratives supported by their most basic components. Every decision, even ones that seem obscure or incidental, are integral in communicating a linear game’s rules as thematic elements. As an example, we can analyze God of War III’s camera and how it functions as both a tool to explain game systems and as a storytelling device.
The game’s opening battle against Poseidon employs cinematography that sets the narrative tone while also illustrating the game’s basic structure. In the first enemy encounter, the camera is positioned to form God of War’s standard battlefield: a basically circular arena shot from a slightly elevated perspective. This view creates a raked stage whose angle allows the player to clearly grasp the three dimensional space in which characters slide between the foreground and background. The distance and angle of elevation at which the scene is framed also demonstrates Kratos’ imposing size and power without sacrificing too much visibility. The player’s view is rarely locked to a specific axis, and scenes are often composed in ways that avoid straight lines. The circular flow of combat is emphasized; enemies attack from all angles and the player is required to consider height, length, and depth as they move. Kratos’ attacks are multidirectional, as his blades spin around him rather than just attacking people immediately in front of him.
The camera also communicates the world’s dynamism while illustrating Kratos’ persistent characteristics. The stage i situated on Gaia herself as she climbs mount Olympus, which means the playing field is in constant flux. This gives the player a chance to practice maintaining disciplined movement even if wild things are happening in the background. Poseidon’s massive stature and huge attacks often create a necessity for dramatic wide-angle shots and set changes that force Kratos to shift his angles of attack. By maintaining control throughout these changes, the player is shown that Kratos retains his potency regardless of his surroundings. His abilities function persistently whether he is on solid ground or scaling the back of a Titan.
This cinematography’s ludic practicality complements its narrative importance. Dramatic close-ups juxtaposed with sweeping panoramic shots remind the player that Kratos is an imposing figure who lives in an equally gigantic world. Shots are framed so that Kratos’ immediate battles happen alongside the larger struggle between the Titans and the Olympians, thereby connecting the many small skirmishes with the sweeping war for revenge. Throughout the fighting, the camera often becomes dislodged from any stationary angle, thus mirroring the chaos that Kratos is bringing to the world.
Regardless of their stature, Kratos’s enemies all die by his blades. At the end of the fight, a beaten and battered Poseiden can only look up at his killer. The camera alternates between a raised shot that emphasizes Kratos’s domination over his foe and a first-person shot from Posiedon’s perspective that both illustrates his own fear and Kratos’ brutality. The player maintains control of Kratos as they watch the murder through the eyes of the victim. Kratos fills up the entire screen, making him seem larger than any god or monster. It is a terribly intimate perspective that invites the player to question any notion of Kratos’s heroism. The first-person view brings the player face-to-face with arguably the most vicious monster in the game.
The battle against Hercules is another standout example of God of War III’s expressive cinematography. The camera closes in and flattens its angle of elevation to show that Kratos barely reaches Hercules’s chest. Views shot from Hercules’s perspective make Kratos appear slope-shouldered and small, an impressive feat seeing as how Kratos is a giant among normal men. When the fight begins, the camera stays low, thereby emphasizing the terms on which the battle will be fought. Kratos and Hercules are on a relatively level plane in terms of abilities, resulting in a battle that tests melee and dodging skills rather than climbing or aerial attacks. At the battle’s climax, Kratos once again towers over his foe, and the scene is framed to accentuate his dominance.
The first part of the final battle against Zeus is framed in a more pictorial sense. Historical allusions, rule systems, and story themes are conveyed through the time honored 2D perspective. God of War III constructs a digital homage to the Grecian friezes like the Elgin Marbles: the battle is mounted on a two-dimensional plane, but its combatants are shown in various levels of relief. While the game takes liberties with old myths, it derives inspiration from its predecessors.
This scene also alludes to video game heritage. By adopting the look of a quintessential 2D fighter, God of War III capitalizes on latent knowledge that most players will have. Seeing two fighters square off on a flat plane hearkens back to classic games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. This viewpoint communicates information about the story and the gameplay situation; the two characters are reasonably matched in terms of ability, movement will happen along 2D axes, timing and combo attacks will be crucial for success. It is fitting that, at the end of the game, both the player and Kratos must apply their modern skills in a classical setting against an ancient god making his last stand on a historical battlefield.
As the battle progresses, the old viewpoint gives way again to the modern, raked stage introduced at the very beginning of the game. The player again finds themselves in a circular arena, fending off a crowd. This is Kratos’s arena, and by this time, it has also become the player’s home. The familiar view completes the cycle that began in the very first battle, and tests the player’s knowledge of the system. At the same time, Kratos is wresting control from the gods. It is fitting that the final battle be staged in the way that exemplifies his power.
However, before the battle is over, one last cinematic technique is used to link the player to Kratos. As Kratos delivers the killing blows to Zeus, the player controls the action from Kratos’s perspective. For the first time, the player is able to virtually inhabit their avatar’s body rather than observing it externally. In doing so, they are connected to the bloodlust that defines Kratos and the overall story. Every button press delivers another blow to Zeus, splashing blood on Kratos’s eyes, thereby obstructing the camera and blinding the player. The player can punish Zeus for as long as they wish, but it soon becomes clear that the battle and the blind rage that has driven the story will never end unless they choose to physically stop pressing the button. Had this scene taken place in a third-person perspective, the player would have been able to make this realization as an observer. By using an obscured first-person view, God of War III forces the player to take part in Kratos’s decision to open his eyes.
The first-person slaughter of Zeus is not necessarily a pleasant perspective, nor one that many players would choose if left to their own devices. However, it and the rest of the cinematography in the game conveys a powerful message about the illusion of power and the cyclical nature of violence. Thanks to the God of War III’s heavily-scripted structure, it is a message players actively experience.
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.