What Does God of War's One Take Achieve?
In order to realize the author's vision, this article contains spoilers.
You have been warned.
Films and games are entirely different forms of media, yet games persistently chase after movie qualities, whether it be through the adoption of motion capture or taking familiar franchises and remixing them into darker, more “serious” pieces of media. The former isn’t a bad thing, and the latter is a trend God of War reiterates as noted by Caty McCarthy over at Eurogamer. God of War does introduce a new trend for other games to potentially chase after: the one take game, where everything presented is uninterrupted by loading screens or camera angle cuts.
Due to this, playing God of War was a twofold exercise in taking in the story it was telling and, at the same time, keeping an eye open for when it was loading new assets. Most of these, I’m guessing, were when I was climbing, in an elevator, opening a large door, or descending from a ledge and turning to catch Atreus. Despite the intention of the “one take” presentation of God of War, that was all I took away from it: a reason to hunt for hidden loading screens.
Having an adventure presented without any cutaways was supposed to make it more personal and focused on Kratos to “get to know the character.” However, seeing the back of Kratos’ head for a large majority of the game doesn’t translate to intimacy, even if I now have more familiarity with his bare back than his second dead wife (!) probably did. The game does no service to Kratos as he continues to remain an asshole. He’s begrudgingly helping others despite a lecture on the responsibility of being a god, discouraging empathy, and failing to show love, and it makes him a hard character to sympathize with, even if he holds some guilt over killing the Greek gods. A permanent camera perched over his shoulder isn’t going to change narrative failings.
God of War attempts connect the player to Kratos’ adventure by getting rid of cuts, but this has already been accomplished in other games without its usage. After the introductory chapters of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, there is only one hard cut to black that passes a large amount of time as you travel from the streets of an unnamed Nepalese city to Shambala’s destruction with plenty of transitions that don’t lessen the adventure Drake, and the player, are on. This intended connection between player and character is also broken by menu screens, which the loot filled world of God of War encourages you to bring up often to compare gear and purchase new skills.
In film, a one take requires intense coordination between actors and camera, audio, and other crew members. One slip up means you begin anew. Game avatars, meanwhile, are digitally produced and their every movement dictated by the keyboards of countless developers. Christopher Judge is motion captured, but the visuals on display are digital polygons, not Judge’s face. This removes the impressive technical aspect of having everything unfold in one take, since the entirety of it is artificial.
Birdman, a prominent example of the one take, emulates it in order to reflect the stage play taking place within the film itself. The meta commentary of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) trying to escape the shadow of Birdman (Batman) is reflected by the film’s presentation as a play where characters enter and exit from just off-camera, and set changes occur through the cramped hallways of backstage. The same emulation in God of War lacks this reflection or any other deeper meaning and exists partly because director Cory Barlog saw it as a “challenge.”
As mentioned by Astrid at Bullet Points Monthly, the closeness of the camera eliminates the scale of previous games since the camera refuses to leave Kratos’ bare back. Despite the journey featuring larger-than-life elements such as the World Serpent and a fallen giant, we never get to compare Kratos’ insignificant size to them. Instead we only get to see as much of them as a behind the shoulder camera can afford. A sequence in which a dragon attacks you while on an elevator and the following death sequence called to mind the impressive scale of violence on display in previous games, but is disappointingly never touched again.
Despite all the potential a free form camera has in a polygonal world, God of War never takes advantage of them. There is no angle shown where Kratos towers menacingly over Atreus in order to reflect his overbearing and intimidating parenting. There is no overhead view showcasing nothing but Kratos and the emptiness when he is journeying without Atreus by his side. However, at one point the camera does position itself so Freya and Kratos can discuss his son in the foreground by a window through which Atreus can be seen. Long, unedited takes in film allow the viewer to more fully occupy a space and become familiar in the detail of what is on display. Attempt to be still in God of War and Atreus will pester you about things you could be doing, lest the player grow bored.
God of War’s technical achievement is nonexistent since everything is rendered by software, the meaning behind it is undercut by its narrative, other games achieve the same goal of intimacy with cuts, and the potential for meaningful camera movement is wasted away. Worst of all, the implementation is constantly undermined by a gameplay system that throws loot at the player constantly just begging for you to bring up a menu and see what the shiny new thing is. God of War’s one take is successful at masking a feature unique to games, and in doing so continues the chase after a form of media it will never be.