Cinematic video game is somewhat of a misnomer in video game parlance. It refers to a style of game like that seen in Uncharted, The Last of Us, or any other similarly constructed game in which the intent is to have a sense of presence be evoked by the game, making the player feel like they are participating in the action of a movie. But these games don’t really take advantage of the techniques or ability of that medium.
The basic unit of film is the shot. Where the camera is in the relation the set, the actors, and the action is paramount, not only as a way to deliver its content, but as the artistic soul of the medium. All experimentation and technique is fundamentally about manipulating either the camera or the image in front of the camera. Video games don’t have that ability. They give the player the power over the camera because the player needs that control so he can see what he’s doing. Given that action in video games is not predetermined on a moment by moment basis like film there needs to be that leeway.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons goes a different route. The game grants a certain amount of control over the camera, in that the player can rotate it with the R1 and L1 buttons, but that is the limit of the player’s control. The player cannot alter the level or pitch of the camera, merely it’s cardinal direction. And the game will often take that ability away in certain circumstances.
It’s clear while playing it that Brothers was made by an outsider to the medium. There are so many choices that when implemented in the final product are obvious that the game should work that way but that would never be considered in a traditional school of game design thought — the single player co-op style of control of the characters featured in Brothers being the most prominent of those choices. However, it becomes fairly obvious that unlike designers trying to ape film directors, a real film director was at the helm of this project. His name was Josef Fares in case you didn’t know. You can read about his personal history here.
I say it’s rather obvious because the camera doesn’t behave like a video game camera would, but as a movie camera would. We are getting a real cinematic experience in the way that the game borrows and adapts the techniques of film alongside the necessities of video games.
The necessities of a video game camera are centered around spatial awareness, while the techniques of a film camera revolve around juxtaposed relationships. The former requires play to consist of a single unbroken tracking shot. The player needs to see everything that happens in the area of play and to be able to map the land as a single continuous entity. We are traveling in real time in the virtual space and need the video portion of video game to give us an accurate portrayal of that space. Film, on the other hand, works best with cuts. The shot is the unit of film, but the meaning comes from the shots’ relations to one another. Jump cuts, cross cutting, close up, and shot/reverse shot are all basic film techniques that you can find in almost every movie made after 1917 and are necessary to convey information through the medium.
Think about those games that do include cuts, like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Devil May Cry. The static camera angles that would jump cut when the player moved beyond a certain point are antiquated design born from hardware limitations. They also caused problems with regards to the unity of movement as the player would either find themselves stuck with tank controls that would remain consistent regardless of the camera angle or find their character changing direction abruptly as the camera angle changed the meaning of the signal. Such a thing works for horror games, in which the pace is different and the less precise controls added to the danger, but for a combat heavy action game, in which direction was a key part of performing combos, as in Devil May Cry. it was a major limitation. That and any major changes in architecture during the cut (say, a hallway changing direction or forking) could cause disorientation regarding that internal map.
Brothers is not a film. It needs a continuous camera shot throughout play. Instead of placing the needs of the video game in submission to the camera, the developers made the choice to instead combine the camera techniques used in the video game with those of the medium in which the camera is everything.
One of the most noticeable sections of the game is when the brothers are pressing their backs to a wall and shimmying along a narrow ledge. The standard camera placement would be to keep the characters in center frame with both their destination and their starting point in clear relation on either side of the screen. You can see this during the climbing sections of Uncharted. Instead, Brothers shoves the characters into a corner and changes the camera angle. At the ledge over the farm, it pulls back and rises up so that you are looking down over the valley that you just came from. Later in the mountains, it lowers your view so that you can see the world rising high above. There’s nothing tricky about the situation that you are playing through, but it allows the game to use the camera to create the impact of your locale without ever needing to cut.
The camera in Brothers is often readjusting itself into the proper position and changing the amount of control that the player has over it. In more open areas, like the town or the underground fountain, you can rotate the camera 360 degrees without any trouble. In other sections, you can shift the camera a little to the left and to the right, giving a total of maybe 90 degrees of movement or less, and it will center again — once you let go of bumpers. And then there are sections when you have no control over the camera at all. Often you don’t know which of the three levels of control that the game is providing because while playing the camera is not a concern.
The levels are designed not for their organic nature as a believable world. In fact, the fable-like nature of the story hides the fact that little about the geography makes sense. Instead the game is designed to allow the camera to work on its own, mostly independent of the player’s control while still meeting the needs of the player. Camera movement and framing are the other main methods — besides cutting — that convey information and meaning in film. These are the techniques that Brothers borrow and adapt for the video game medium’s own uses. The rest of the game had to be designed to accommodate this.
Another inspired use of the camera is when the game’s benches are in view. For the whole game, the camera is to some degree pointed downwards to keep the brothers in view. But there are benches scattered throughout the game that you can have the brothers sit on by holding down the triggers. The camera angle will change and move behind their heads, granting the player a view of a vista. One early bench that you reach before a descent into a mountain has the camera pull down and look up at the towering mountain that the brothers will have to climb before their journey’s end. The benches show where you will have to go or the distance that you’ve already come. It’s a small moment of reflection accomplished by a simple changing of the shot.
The greatest power cinema has is how the camera looks at something. That is probably the most important lesson that video games could learn from film, not through film’s situations or story beats. All that is needed is to show the player important information that can convey a feeling, an emotion, or a plot point. A master director can tell a whole story through properly framed and shot images alone. The camera in video games lends the medium the same ability. Designers just have to know how to use it to their own ends.