Screenshot from the trailer for God of War Ragnarok, where Kratos sits by a fire sharpening a knife, staring pensively towards the viewer, while the shadow of someone looms behind in the snow, half man or half animal, or a boy carrying an animal...

All The World’s A Stage

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  • Upon its release in 2018, God of War was widely hailed as a technological powerhouse and a bonafide system-seller for Sony’s PlayStation 4. One key selling point was the use of the unbroken single-shot camera, which follows Kratos for his whole journey without ever cutting to a loading screen. While some saw this as a technically astounding narrative tool, and others more of a distracting gimmick, a throwaway exchange in last year’s sequel God of War Ragnarök re-contextualizes it completely, and brings into focus a subtle facet of videogame presentation.

    Kratos’ companion Mimir bemoans the fact that Greek plays “consist almost entirely of watching people give speeches and receive terrible news” and that “it might have been nice to see more events dramatized instead of described”, to which Kratos responds that it is “Greek tradition for a story to unfold in a single time and place, uninterrupted. It is more clear.” In these few lines, the pair highlight a direct connection between actors on a stage and the characters in the game, and in doing so, reframe their whole story as an extended performance, rather than an open-ended adventure. 

    It seems unlikely that the unbroken camera was a deliberate homage from Sony Santa Monica from its conception, but this exchange gives a new appreciation as to why it works so well. By making us constant companions to the protagonists, character moments feel less like bombastic cinema and more like intimate, immersive theatre – and the reason why this is such an effective way to conceptualize a video game is that it embraces the artifice of the medium as a whole. Games have often struggled to find balance between open-ended interactivity and consistent narrative structure, but by thinking of gaming protagonists as actors on a stage reacting in real-time, we unconsciously allow for this imbalance. No two stage performances will ever be completely identical, and the unpredictability of live theater can be a helpful analogue to explain the individual choices and expression of different players as they move through a predetermined story.

    This artificiality is highlighted by Kratos’ visit to the Norns (the Norse fates), who upon his arrival mockingly narrate Kratos’ every move and predict every word from his mouth. They’re reading lines directly from his script, reminding him that he ultimately has no agency, and it is this very script from which he’s trying to free himself as a central struggle of the narrative. In adding those few lines of dialogue with Mimir, and acknowledging the theatricality of the whole situation, the writers aren’t just having a cheeky wink at the audience, they’re directly highlighting the themes of destiny that are core to the game. 

    Theatrical allusions don’t, however, need to hit you over the head with high-concept meta-textual narratives in order to be effective – often they can be just as well employed for aesthetic purposes. In 2014’s Child of Light, each character speaks in simple rhyming patterns, which combined with the magical realist visuals and tragic familial stakes, conjure a Shakespearean atmosphere, without being too maudlin or melodramatic. Games like Bastion and the Stanley Parable, meanwhile, use narrators throughout as a way of highlighting and having fun with the moments when characters stop playing their assigned roles and following the stage directions, and instead do something less expected and coherent as part of a straightforward narrative structure.

    An animated gif of the title screen for Super Mario Bros. 3; where a curtain rises and Mario and Luigi enter from stages left and right in front of the usual towering hills but this time with clear shadows indicating they're cut out stand-ins on a stage

    The idea of the game worlds being mere stages for performance is by no means a modern phenomenon. 30 years before God of War, Super Mario Bros 3 opens with a rising curtain. Mario and Luigi enter the stage from stage left and right, and the show begins. Platforms are bolted to the background, suspended from ropes and tracks, while Mario ends each level by exiting into the blackness of backstage. Miyamoto himself confirmed that this was an intentional allusion in 2015, and the motivation is not hard to surmise. Videogames, not least Mario games, can be surreal, the things you’re doing in game often nonsensical when you attempt to slot them into a sensible narrative chronology. By presenting games as performance, as theater, they are freed from the constraints of needing to feel “real”, and instead find joy in the performance of it all.

    You can see the DNA of this technique across eras and genres. In Hollow Knight, the world is beautifully hand drawn, but stuck in 2 dimensions. The game uses this constraint for comedic effect as a small building you’ve become familiar with through hours of play is suddenly left abandoned, and collapses forward, revealed as nothing but a flimsy cardboard cut out. Meanwhile, more explicitly textual examples can be seen in There Is No Game and  Return to Monkey Island, in which the beautifully illustrated backdrops which tend to adorn point-and-click adventures are revealed to be exactly that – backdrops.

    In the 2010s, there was a strong focus on big-budget games feeling “cinematic”, exemplified by games like the Uncharted series, where it feels like the end goal was to reach the level of blockbuster movies. But does this really capitalize best on what makes games unique? Sure, we want to be wowed, and God of War Ragnarök certainly still has its fair share of grand set-pieces, but the really impactful moments are when the camera lingers on Kratos’ beleaguered face after we’ve spent dozens of hours with him, knowing that regardless of what happens next, we’ll be stuck with these same characters from one moment to the next, through triumph or tragedy, retaining a constant interaction between player and protagonist throughout.

    When watching a play, there is an implicit suspension of disbelief, an unspoken agreement between audience and the actors, that while everyone knows they’re ultimately a collection of people sharing a room, we’re choosing to buy into the facade and be swept away. There’s definitely a risk of games descending into easy meta-humor with a bluntness and regularity that becomes exhausting, but when done in a considered and smart way, games can use our implied knowledge of the absurdity of game worlds to great effect. Just don’t make Aloy bow to the screen at the end of Horizon 3.

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    Jonathan is a biological researcher by day, but spends much of the rest of his time obsessing over games, music and music in games. You can follow him on Twitter @JayPeaFenn

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