Hot off the heels of all the awards in the world (including Destructoid’s own Game of the Year and Community Game of the Year!), 2018’s God of War was a rebirth for a franchise that was never really down, but perhaps on its way out? I think if there were any doubts, it’s clear now: Kratos and Atreus are here to stay.
However, I’ll confess, I don’t really love God of War like a lot of folks do. I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly, but the whole experience felt a little dry to me; like there were never really setpieces or characters, enemies or items that really blew me away. In a way, maybe, it’s the restraint and consistency that makes Kratos’ latest pantheon-ruining romp such a hit.
It tells a sophisticated, character-driven story, but God of War also manages to employ some very striking, very interesting cinematic stylings in its presentation.
The idea of the game unfolding in a single take is an incredibly ambitious concept particularly for a game whose narrative is such a crucial aspect of its impact. We all like killin’ monsters and such, but that’s so 2005! And ‘07! And ‘10! Kratos’ Greek saga came from an era of gaming defined by simpler, perhaps more visceral goals for the player; it was pure blood, guts, and gameplay. With God of War in 2018, wittle Kwatos was all grown up.
The long take is a concept long-established in cinema. The idea is that by removing the “tools” of filmmaking (in this case, editing) there’s a greater immersion in the world being depicted. Though video gaming often involves a long take of sorts (I’m playing Sly Cooper and lookout Sly! There’s a cameraman following you! He’s right behind you… all the time I’m playing?), God of War’s ambition to segue in and out of cutscene, “standard” gameplay, and “interactive cutscene” without the camera switching its position is… well, pretty effin’ cool.
With this in mind, my trek through the snow, and the cold, and the giant guts recalled a few films notable, perhaps, for their use of extended takes or tracks. That in mind, I give you:
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) and The Revenant (2015) Alejandro González Iñárritu
Yeah I went for that full Birdman title, because you do something audacious like that and you just gotta give credit. Two films directed by Mexican auteur Alejandro G Iñárritu and, this is crucial, shot by everyone’s favorite three-year-in-a-row Oscar winner for cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki. Now you see The Revenant, and you’re thinking “Snow, bears, survival. Okay wise guy, I see the God of War thread. The hell is this Birdguy thing?” to which I say “Pish-posh good fellow! It won Best Picture at the Academy Awards! And it’s all about the long take.”
Birdman tracks actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) as he spirals through a day of preparing, frantically, for his ambitious Broadway production while simultaneously balancing familial strife and the titular avian antagonist, a fragment of Thompson’s imagination (or is he?) that flutters over his shoulder, playing devil and angel. The way in which we’re strung along by Lubezki and Iñárritu’s camera, whipping through backstage hallways, segwaying seamlessly through time via wandering pans to blank space, recalls the way in which we follow Kratos in his latest quest for blood, upgrades, and… self-discovery? The transitions employed in God of War’s fast travel system, for example.
The player will step through a mystic gateway, transporting them to an otherworldly path to another door, which will drop them in the other side of the game world. Typically fast travel in a game means bring up the map, click the dot, and our hero will either poof and re-poof somewhere else, or we get a short fade to black (hidden loading screen!) and we’re there. Making the loading of a new area into a stroll about the extra-dimensional park is both a technological feat on the part of the devs at Santa Monica Studio, but also a clever way of maintaining that “single shot” that defines God of War’s pacing.
For similar reasons I mention The Revenant, which doesn’t look to convey the same illusion of a single take throughout as Birdman does, but endeavors upon excessively intense long takes in which action, brutal and quick, unfolds. Remind you of any god-killers you know?
Seriously, the grueling conditions under which the film was produced show here. I almost don’t want to share a clip, because there’s something that just needs to be seen and concentrated… on to… be… belie--just look at this!
That is insane.
Brief personal anecdote: My buddy and I were fortunate enough to catch a show of The Revenant with Iñárritu before it opened back in 2015 up at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (great place, great people!) House was packed, obviously. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Robert my pal on one side and a total stranger on the other, and scene after scene like that played out… It was just silence. Like everyone was holding their breath for 156 minutes.
Come and See (1985) Elem Klimov
“Russian World War II movie, whaaa?” Oh yes friends. Make sure you have a loved one or delicious meal nearby, because Come and See is bleak. Anyone who’s seen the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan might shrug this off for lack of violence as blatant and guzzling as that film, but Come and See strikes a nerve of utter sadness and, often, surrealness. In a way similar to the aforementioned Mexican manipulations of machinery, director Elem Klimov keeps the audience in a shot for a lengthier duration than might be typical, wandering the countryside as we follow Russian partisans just scraping by through the war’s violence and mundanity.
While the visuals of Come and See aren’t as slick as a digitally-enhanced Iñárritu film, I’d argue that the rawness here is to our advantage, creating a documentary-esque feeling. Perhaps a stretch for our Nordic journey in God of War, but I’ve always felt Come and See to have informed The Revenant, and the former being one of my all-time favorite films, I’ve just gotta get it in here.
Furthermore, Come and See follows Flyora, a boy of maybe fifteen, through the nightmarish German occupation of Byelorussia. What starts as a gung-ho drive to repel the Nazis ends in a thousand-yard-stare of hopelessness for young Flyora. It’s difficult to mention the turnaround in attitude brought on by war experience as a cliche, because I’m sure such exposure would inform even the staunchest would-be combatant. But the growth Flyora goes through could be compared to Atreus’ own journey with Kratos over the course of the game; from frustrated and alien to his angry, tattooed papa to understanding a whole lot more about his father’s rage, and his own place in the world.
And of course, God of War 2: 2 (Santa Monica Studio, if you need a title for the follow up you can use that) will push his character even further, no doubt.
Valhalla Rising (2009) Nicolas Winding Refn
Before he hit it big with Drive (a masterpiece), Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn was hot off the heels of his own viking adventure, Valhalla Rising. Mads Mikkelson as One-Eye, a mute slave fighter, brutalizes his way across a hellish, surreal landscape, accompanied by the surviving boy (“BOY!”) from his captors’ band. Eventually pairing up with a cadre of seafaring Christian warriors, the trek becomes increasingly surreal as they venture in search of the Holy Land.
Now for my money, Valhalla Rising isn’t exactly defined by its sweeping camera tracks or long takes. The hell, Sam, you were actually consistent for awhile there. It’s VALHALLA Rising! The midnight sun, Swedish meatballs, and Kratos chopping up draugar!
One-Eye’s pilgrimage isn’t explicitly-fantastic in the way God of War tackles Norse mythology, but the allusions to legend and symbolism (Odin: One eye; One-Eye: One eye--Ooooh!) are present for those wanting to a bit of the supernatural.
For its stark Scandinavian landscapes and brutal (seriously, brutal) violence, Valhalla Rising is worth the time of anyone tickled by Kratos’ latest. This be a strange one, with much left unsaid and, for some perhaps, too many long stretches of “Huh?” But for those with a little patience and imagination, as well as a stomach for the gruesome, Valhalla Rising offers a relatively-short (92 minute) trip. Imagine Kratos snapping his head up at the end, going “Atreus… I just had an odd rumination…”
Rope (1948) Alfred Hitchcock
A little Hitch never hurt anyone, right? Decidedly-less intense than the other films, Hitchcock’s late-’40s thriller was his first color film and an earlier pioneer of the long take. Unfolding over a single night in their apartment, John Dall and Farley Granger strangle one of their former college classmates (with rope!) in a nihilistic “exercise,” testing their ability to perform and get away with muuuuurder! The body is hidden in the flat, where a number of guests are brought in (including James Stewart as a former teacher of theirs) to see how close the stranglin’ schoolboys can get to detection, and the night rollicks grandly.
Hitchcock moves things along in grand fashion indeed, with the film playing out in real-time, in “one take.” Actually, there are a few hard cuts and, naturally, hidden edits. Actors will obscure the frame and dammit, man, I can’t see a thing but your black jacket! Oh okay, we’re back! That technique of making you look at something like a characters back and then moving to more footage, masking an edit, is similar to the flashes of light that will overcome the player when Kratos enters portals, or long stretches of uncontrolled cutscene, where the player can’t muck things up while the game loads, sneakily, the next interactive segment. Watch the hands, not the cards.
A master of his craft, and a pioneer of technique, Rope being made by who it was made by isn’t a film that is forgotten or even overlooked, but one would be forgiven for not recalling it immediately in the grand scheme of ‘ol Hitch’s filmography.