US: 25 Feb 2016
There’s a pretty strong critical consensus about how to best portray an action scene in an action movie. Presentation is the key to it all. It seems that action should be presented in a way that’s comprehensible. We should be able to follow how one shot leads into the next shot, how the characters move in relation to one another, how the environment impacts the action, etc. The action doesn’t necessarily have to be clear, blurring the screen and shaking the camera are perfectly acceptable, but only as long as they reinforce certain moments of action, rather than obscure them. In short, we should be able to tell what the heck is going on.
For example, in an article on “The Editing of Mad Max: Fury Road”, Vashi Nedomansky explains one of the big reasons why the action in Mad Max: Fury Road was so effective. Vashi writes, “Because almost every shot was center framed, comprehending the action requires no hunting of each new shot for the point of interest. The viewer doesn’t need 3 or 4 frames to figure out where to look” (“The Editing of Mad Max: Fury Road”, VashiVisuals, 30 May 2015). The action was shot and edited with an emphasis on readability.
Games have adopted this cinematic approach to action for a while now. Not Fury Road‘s specific “center frame” style, but a similar emphasis on presentation. A video game camera will always move to emphasize the most important action in a scene. In Gears of War, the camera pans to the side when we cut a monster in half. In Max Payne 3 when we kill the final bad guy in an area, the camera looks away from Max completely in order to focus on the final death throes of that last bad guy. Fighting games do this all the time. When Superman launches a foe into space in Injustice, the camera doesn’t stay earthbound, it flies into space with them. The camera is like the eye of God. It has to see everything because we need to see everything because seeing is necessary for understanding. Thus, presentation is everything.
In all of these games the player has control of the camera during normal gameplay, but that doesn’t stop the game from taking control at certain moments. A player-controlled camera might frame things off-center or even miss the action altogether. In other words, sometimes you just need a director’s touch.
It makes sense why games would do this. Presentation is the key to making a comprehensible action scene, and if an action scene is incomprehensible, then it fails to be exciting or interesting. Presentation is everything.
But only for movies. The medium of film is limited in how it can present information to an audience, especially during a fast paced action scene. It can only show. It can’t stop the action to tell us what’s going on, that would kill the pacing. So, every trick of movie making is used in order to most effectively show us what’s going on. Presentation is everything because presentation is the only thing.
Enter SUPERHOT, an action game that completely rejects this idea of the presentation of cinematic action.
SUPERHOT is an action-puzzle game in which time only moves when you move. You’re put into several action scenarios-—a fight in a bar, in a ring, a shootout on the streets—in which you are surrounded and outnumbered and outgunned. Your only goal is to kill every red guy in this stark white world. It can be tricky because the odds are against us, but because we perceive everything in slow-motion, we have time to plan our movements accordingly. In truth, this supernatural ability really just allows us to act like an action hero. Basically, we suddenly have the ability to keep track of a dozen things at once so that we can slaughter everyone in a room, like Neo or John Wick can. Slowing the action down allows us to live out this power fantasy more precisely than we could if things were running at normal speed.
But for all of its emphasis on action (grabbing guns out of the air, slicing bullets with katanas, spearing guys with swords, blocking bullets with cueballs),SUPERHOT doesn’t really care about showing off its action. It doesn’t care about framing or angles or cinematography. As a result, when sped up to normal speed, the action scenes look kind of dumb. The first person view means that we will miss anything that’s not right in front of us, and some of our more elaborate actions happen too fast to comprehend. I’ve seen multiple replays in which two enemies seem to die at the exact same time from nothing at all. It isn’t clear that one accidentally shot the other and that I shot him. Things move too fast and the camera is too limited to determine this. It’s an anti-cinematic presentation. The game doesn’t care if you can’t tell what’s going on.
And it’s still one of the best action games that I’ve played in a long time. Why?
I touched on this before in another post, but now that I’ve had time to refine my thoughts, I think that i can say more clearly what is important about this idea. A good action scene is, at its core, all about expressing an idea. A movie has to be effective in its presentation of action because that is the only way that it can express an idea to its audience. Games are weird because they’re interactive. I know that when I’m punching or kicking simply because I hit a button that corresponds to that action. I consciously chose that action myself for a reason, so I naturally have an idea of that action in my head. The camera then doesn’t need to emphasize that action because I already understand what’s going on.
We’re part author and part choreographer in a game, so we know what will happen before it happens. Also, we know what will happen even if we don’t see it happen. We don’t need to explicitly see each action that we take because we already understand that we’re impacting the world. If I shoot at a man running towards me, I know where the bullet is going, so I don’t need to see it hit. After all, I know where I was aiming, I’m the one that pulled the trigger. Without that demand to see every action and its consequence, I’m free to turn my attention elsewhere, to dodge a bullet from the side and then throw my pistol at a guy with a shotgun, to continue the fight.
This would be unsatisfying from a cinematic perspective because I don’t get to see the bullet hit its target, and if I don’t see it, there’s a possibility it didn’t happen. However, this is very satisfying from a gaming perspective because I know the moment that I take the shot whether it’ll hit or miss, and when I know that it will hit, I become the badass who doesn’t look back, who is so confident in his abilities that he can afford to look away.
That omniscient knowledge is one of the perks of authorship, and it’s how SUPERHOT can be such a fantastic action game even with such awful cinematic action. This is a reconfiguration of the old adage “show, don’t tell” because SUPERHOT ascribes instead to the school of “do, don’t show.”