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God of War’s camera was a huge risk that paid off

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The value in never looking away

God of War - Kratos, Atreus and a disembodied head in a canoe SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

One of the most interesting details in the new God of War is that the game is presented as a single, unbroken tracking shot. There are cheats, although they’re very limited in number and are hard to spot, but the camera stays with Kratos through the entire game and tells the story from his point of view.

“Sometimes we had to pull a few little tricks, but, you know, we’re talking about six-to-seven, six-to-eight tricks in all of the whole game,” Cory Barlog, God of War’s director, told Polygon. “The rest of it is just an absurd amount of planning and technical tricks.”

This would be an interesting artistic choice for any third-person game, but it’s even more of a departure for the God of War series. Previous games stuck the camera in one place for each scene, zooming way back to show off the scale of the environments. That’s because the series has focused on spectacle in the past, and emphasizing the backgrounds and size of the enemies instead of Kratos in these shots is a good way of communicating the literally godlike nature of his adventures.

But 2018’s God of War keeps you pinned to Kratos, and the camera shows you the game’s immensity by showing how things would look from his perspective. And the camera doesn’t blink or cut away; if Kratos experiences something, you are experiencing it as well.

Using the camera this way changes how the game feels to the player, and it’s fun to look for how the team tackled the trickier angles and try to spot the cheats. But the nature of what’s going on with the way the game’s shot may go unnoticed by many players.

That’s a good thing, by the way. It means that the camera is doing its job to deliver the emotional punch of God of War.

It was also a huge technical challenge for the team. Attempting a single tracking shot for the entire game increased the work that went into production and design, and there wasn’t another game Barlog could point to in order to prove it was a good idea.

“They had to take it on faith that when I was saying like, ‘Look, you’re gonna get a sense of immediacy and connection to these characters, an unrelenting feel, to the adventure that you can’t get in any other way, and I can’t cite something else,’” Barlog told Polygon.

We tend to hear about these single-shot scenes when movies or television shows attempt this — remember True Detective? — but neither players nor critics pay as much attention to the camera in games as long as it’s working. This had to feel like an unnecessary complication to an already huge game.

But it paid off, as Barlog’s reaction to the game’s positive reviews shows. And the finished product justifies his dedication to this approach. The game feels human and much more immediate than other entries in the series. The characters are emphasized over the spectacle for the first time in the God of War franchise.

“Forty percent of the team came to me after the game was done, and they played it, and they finally ... said, ‘oh I get it now,’” Barlog said. “‘I didn’t agree with any of your decisions on this. I thought we were wasting a lot of time. I don’t want to do this ever again, but now I play it, and I get it. OK, this is cool — this is how we should totally do this from now on.’”

We’re fine with that.