January 26, 2020
This is the fifteenth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”
Among the year’s most-honored films is 1917, Sam Mendes’s harrowing tale of two British soldiers finding their way across the corpse-paved trenches and ruined villages of the Western Front to stop an attack that will cost 1600 British lives.
As more than a few critics have noted, in terms of narrative, it’s thin stuff. Mendes admits as much: “It’s a fairly simple story: Two men have about eight hours to get from one part of the Western Front to another” (Featurette 2.03). The protagonists are thinly drawn, though vigorously performed by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. Mendes cops to that, too: “I wanted the audience . . . to feel that they didn’t know them” (Featurette 1.10-1.14). Ultimately, Schofield and Blake are types, the callow, stolid youth we’ve seen in dozens of war movies. And the obstacles they face are familiar: ruined cities, fallen bridges, snipers and explosions, fear and exhaustion, death and destruction, horror.
But character and plot are not what 1917 is about. 1917 is an immersive, intense, and categorically cinematic experience. And more than anything, it is a technical marvel, filmed and edited to suggest a single, unbroken take as we follow Schofield and Blake on every step of their journey. (If you don’t jump out of your seat at least a couple of times, your theatre needs to update its sound system.) 1917 may be conventional in terms of the story it tells, but it marks an unprecedented synthesis of the technical possibilities of digital cinematography, portable cameras, and the big-budget production capacities of contemporary action cinema.
Inventing the empathetic eye
“One-shot” or “continuous-shot” films are relatively uncommon. We think perhaps of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), maybe Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) or the episodes of Mr. Robot (2016) and The Haunting of Hill House (2018). Wikipedia lists around 40 movies (and many more music videos). In contrast, long shots in otherwise conventional films are fairly common: The opening sequences of Touch of Evil (1958), Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and Gravity (2013) are famous examples. There’s that hallway fight in Oldboy (2003), the traffic jam in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), the Dunkirk scene in Atonement (2007), the rescue of Kee and her child by Julian in Children of Men (2006). Regardless of how long the long shot may be, it draws attention to itself. It is virtuosic act of filmmaking, a cinematic flex.
From Oldboy (2003, dir. Park Chan-Wook, cinematography Chung Chung-Hoon)
It is a flex that is inseparable from the history of technological innovation. As Karl C. Ulrich puts it, “[T]he ever-evolving technology of motion picture production has continuously freed both the camera and the imagination of its operators to create even more sophisticated shot designs” (535). It’s no accident that the number of films using long shots has increased with the development of camera-stabilizing inventions like Steadicam and, especially, small, portable digital cameras, which can go anywhere and film endlessly, unlike celluloid film cameras.
The history of long-shot cinema is part of the history of large-scale production management, too. A long shot requires extensive preparation, meticulous coordination of performers and crew, and more than a little good luck. And that’s even if the movie takes place in a single location, with a small cast of characters, and few special effects. That’s decidedly not the case with 1917, a sprawling epic with hundreds of extras, dozens of sets, and breathtaking special effects—almost all of it happening on location and outside. To get a taste of exactly how complex a task Mendes, Director of Cinematography Roger Deakins, and Production Designer Dennis Gassner set for themselves, see the making-of featurette, which I’ve already quoted and will quote from again. In sum, 1917 is a perfect example of the way new technologies and big-budget production design can reshape the way we experience movies.
But that’s not why 1917 is a movie worth writing about for a blog about videogames.
The emergence of videogame cinema
1917 isn’t just a creature of camera technology and production design—it’s a movie that reflects an evolution in the way we see and feel movies. In an interview with Variety, Mendes says the idea for the film’s look came to him when watching one of his children play videogames. And not just any videogames, but third-person action-adventure games like Red Dead Redemption and Star Wars: Battlefront. “I find them remarkably mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. I just wanted to do something like that, but with real emotional stakes,” Mendes has said.
Thus, as remarkable as the film’s combination of cinematography and production may be, that’s not what makes 1917 an unprecedented event in film history. 1917 marks an evolution in cinematic language, an evolution not so much inspired but catalyzed by the videogame as a storytelling form and the way videogames have changed the way we experience visual narrative.
1917 marks the emergence of videogame cinema.
Is this the first movie to attempt such an adaptation or remediation of the visual language of videogames? No. But it’s the first one on this scale and for this kind of audience. Not too many years ago, one could imagine that an experienced theatre and film director (and inexperienced game player) like Mendes would look at a videogame and be, if not confused, simply uninspired. But that wasn’t the case when he watched his child play. He saw something on that screen that made sense to him, that unlocked a possibility for storytelling—and for connecting with characters. Mendes explains, “It felt like the best way to give you a sense of all this happening in real time. I wanted you to feel like you were there with the characters, breathing their every breath, walking in their footsteps. The best way to do that is not to cut away and give the audience a way out, as it were.” But if Mendes could see in the third-person videogame a way to make the experience immersive, it’s evident that he didn’t see how that experience could be made emotionally moving. He didn’t recognize how videogame players can be moved by the games the play, that there are real “emotional stakes” to our play.
The integration of action and story in the third-person videogame
Mendes’s remark about videogames has sparked dozens of stories—and just as many uninformed takes about what it is precisely that1917 borrows from the medium. What I wish to do in this post is identify precisely what Mendes and his team adapted from videogames, precisely how that borrowing shapes the visual logic of the film, and how that borrowing affects how we feel about young Schofield and Blake. This will require a fairly deep dive into what our eyes do when we play videogames—and how what our eyes do affects how our heart feels.
To begin with, let’s understand exactly what kind of videogame inspired Mendes: third-person action-adventure games. In these, the player observes the action from just behind their avatar, the “camera” following close behind as we guide it through the game’s spaces. This form of videogame storytelling was first perfected by Epic Games’s Gears of War (2006) and the third iteration of their Unreal Engine.
The over-the-shoulder view and cover-based shooting mechanics of the Gears series might seem a relatively innocuous innovation, but the way it enabled players to move and shoot and explore; the way it enabled players to identify movement paths, targets, and places to hide; and (no small feature) the way it enabled players to watch their avatar in action proved breathtakingly immersive. Indeed, while one might assume that the first-person view would be a much effective way to promote identification between player and avatar, the third-person view proved uniquely engaging.
This isn’t entirely due to the look and feel of the game.
But regardless, that look and feel of Gears had an immediate and “huge knock-on effect,” as Rob Leane puts it, most notably in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, in production at the time of Gears’s release. Lucas Pope, hired by Naughty Dog in 2007 late in the game’s development, explains, “Uncharted 1 was announced, and then Gears came out. . . . So we changed everything, six months before release.”
Gears may have invented the visual logic of the third-person shooter, but Uncharted perfected the storytelling—and that has made all the difference. Credit for that must go to Amy Hennig, director and writer of the first three Uncharted games, and one of the all-time great videogame storytellers. One of the hallmarks of Hennig’s tenure with Naughty Dog was, as she puts it, a focus on “the integration of story and gameplay” that went beyond the almost exclusive focus on plot typical of most narrative-focused games at the time. As Hennig explains, action-focused games tend to focus on plot—on events, the discovery of new settings, the overcoming of physical obstacles, the elimination of antagonists, etc. They have generally paid far less attention on character and character development, and when that attention was paid, it tended to occur in cut scenes that removed the player from the action.
In contrast, Hennig wanted the Uncharted series to “engage [players] viscerally and interactively, but . . . also engage them on an emotional level.” This required a high-quality script, obviously, but also talented actors like Nolan North, Richard McGonagle, Emily Rose, Troy Baker, and Claudia Black who could bring engaging, complex, evolving characters to life—and not just through their vocal performances. They also performed in motion-capture, ensuring that the physicality of their performances would be in play, too. Remember, when we play in the third-person, we watch our avatar.
As a result, storytelling—and character development—happened on the fly and with a new level of performative physicality. Some of the best moments in the Uncharted series happen as characters talk to each other while we solve puzzles—or when Drake talks to himself when alone. And some of the best moments in the development of characters happened as they moved and climbed and jumped–their character expressed through their physicality. In sum, when we speak of the way the third-person action-adventure tells a story, we need to speak of the integration of character, action, and space and the particular ways that the player sees and feels while they play.
So, what does all this mean in terms of 1917? What does it tell us about how that movie tells its story? Most importantly, what does it tell us about where visual storytelling may be going and how we may be seeing a change in the way empathy is structured in action-adventure film?
1917 and the procedural adaptation of the third-person action-adventure game
To state the obvious, 1917 is not a videogame movie. It portrays neither videogames nor videogame players.
Rather, 1917 is a videogame movie because it adapts the visual and storytelling procedures of videogames. As I explain in detail in my post on Spike Jonez’s Her (2013), “procedural adaptation” is a formal technique in which a creator remediates a specific videogame procedure, mechanic, or game feel for some purpose or another. Procedural adaptation enables playwrights, poets, and filmmakers to tell stories in new ways, to create different kinds of characters, explore different kinds of emotional experiences, or explore familiar experiences in new ways. It can occur in texts that otherwise make no reference to videogames, videogame players, or videogame culture, as is the case with 1917.
1917 adapts the visual procedures of the third-person action-adventure game. This is evident when we consider how similar the film looks to third-person shooters . . .
. . . as the camera follows characters entering new, uncertain spaces . . .
. . . or struggling to reach an objective . . .
. . . or firing upon an enemy . . .
. . . or frantically seeking cover.
But the simple fact of visual similarity is not a particularly fruitful point of comparison. Rather, it is the way Mendes and Deakins combine camera movement, mise-en-scene, the actor’s performance, and the dramatic unfolding of the plot. The movement of character and camera into spaces of ambiguous threat and promise shapes a visual experience pioneered and perfected by the third-person shooter. And this is where we need to take a bit of a deep dive into the visual logic of videogames and the way our eye plays within that logic.
Understanding how the eye works in videogames
To perhaps state the obvious, the eye works differently when we play a videogame than it does when we watch a movie.
To begin with, a videogame player’s visual attention shifts across different frames of reference. For example, in this screen shot from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009), we see that the player must look back and forth between the diegetic frame (Drake’s involvement in a firefight with three bad guys) and the non-diegetic frame (the user interface which shows the kind of gun the player-character carries, the amount of ammunition left, and the fact that the player-character is injured, indicated by the red haze at the margin).
The diegetic space is where the player’s eye does most of its work—and many different kinds of work. In this second image from Uncharted 2, we see Drake being shot at by an enemy who is hidden inside a building (a fact we have deduced from the tracer path of a bullet it has fired at us). The player sees that Drake is safe from harm for the moment, having found reliable cover, but they also see that they need to traverse the space between themselves and the enemy, doing so without being hit by the enemy’s fire and losing all their health, which would require them to start over. To accomplish this, we must devise a solution to the challenge—possibly several solutions, in case the first (and second and third . . .) doesn’t work out. This requires us to visually analyze and identify (1) potential paths across the space, (2) possible points of cover, (3) potential obstacles between them and the enemy (4) and potential targeting solutions with our current weapons (in this case, a pistol and a hand grenade). And all of this analytic work will need to be adjusted as Drake—and the camera that follows him—changes position.
In addition to this analytic work, the eye must also play the role of psychic and see into the future. As Barry Atkins explains, the player’s gaze is always situated within a “specific temporality . . . where the aesthetic is generated in a maelstrom of anticipation, speculation, and action.” In this case, the player judges the current situation in the context of previous situations and in anticipation of the next. Drake and the player have been in this situation before—that’s how we got here—and we know there are many more to come. Atkins further explains that this precognitive gaze is essentially performative, in the sense that it is constructed by our participation within an unfolding and evolving situation, a situation affected by our connection with the avatar. As he puts it, “Videogames prioritize the participation of the player as he or she plays, and that player always apprehends the game as a matrix of future possibility” (127).
In the case of this moment from Uncharted 2, the player is not just devising a solution to the present problem—how to traverse a space that will expose the player-character to damage—but anticipating the next challenges that may emerge during their attempt. We need to consider what will happen if we use our pistol or our hand grenade. We need to consider the additional enemies and obstacles that will likely emerge as we take our chance. That combination of contingency, anticipation, and surprise is one of the things that makes a videogame moment like this thrilling and fun. In videogames, the screen image “is full of rich possibilities of future action, pointing always off to the moment at which it will be replaced by another image then another.” (Atkins 135)
In sum, when playing third-person shooters, the eye is busy, engaged in multiple kinds of work.
And it is busy in a fashion that is distinct from, say, a first-person shooter. In a fascinating study of player eye-movement patterns in videogames, Magy Self-El-Nasr and Su Yan demonstrate that, first, the gaze is generally task-dependent: our eyes need to identify and achieve objectives, typically in situations where the failure to do so will result in the need to retry. Once this more utilitarian analysis is complete, the eye will attend to what might broadly be deemed “aesthetic matters,” ascertaining the features of the environment that communicate narrative content, atmosphere, and so on. In other words, when we enter a game environment, we look first to what Jorge Muñoz et al. call the “useful grid,” then to the narrative. In this respect, the gaze performs similarly in most genres of games.
Seeing (and feeling) in third-person
However, the visual logic of third-person games shapes the player’s gaze in three distinct ways. First, as El-Nasr and Yan show, the eye continually shifts between avatar and environment, the result of the need to simultaneously position the avatar and identify and accomplish objectives (4-5). Second, unlike first-person games (in which the gaze of the player and the avatar coincide), the gaze of third-person players continually shifts between the perspective provided by the camera and the perspective the player imagines their avatar to have. This process is further complicated if the game enables the player to voluntarily shift camera mode; for example, to take a tighter position over the shoulder of the avatar to enable more accurate targeting, shifting the ratio between player-gaze and character-gaze.
As a consequence, the eye in the third-person shooter is an unusually active eye, as shown in this diagram of eye movement patterns in Halo II (2004, a first-person game) and Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain II (2002, a third-person game).
As we can see, the player’s eye in the third-person game (indicated by the pink lines) is scanning a significantly greater part of the visual field than the player’s eye in the first-person game (indicated by the blue lines), due, as El-Nar and Yan explain, to the disconnect between player eye and character eye.
Which leads to the third, and I think crucial, difference between how we see in the third person and how we see in the first. When we play the former, we are continually reminded of the difference between ourselves and our avatar. As we play, we simultaneously observe and identify with the protagonist. In other words, as we attempt to see as the avatar—to see as a player-character—we must adjust our seeing to a character performing within the narrative space. In games where the protagonists grow and change, our way of seeing must also grow and change, adjusting not only to the evolving capacities of the avatar (who may be gaining new powers or new applications of old powers) but also to their evolving persona.
We see character. And we see as character.
Though it might seem paradoxical, it is precisely because we our never allowed to experience identity between our own seeing and the avatar’s seeing that we empathize all the more strongly with the avatar. Gabriel Patrick Wei-Hao Chin explains that we relate to the avatar in two ways: first, as an “Other” that we observe and manipulate like a toy or puppet; second, as an imaginary extension of the self with which we must empathize in order to properly enact agency within the game’s rules and fictions. The peculiar combination of objectification and subjectification enables a form of imaginative identification similar to that experienced by viewers of dance, puppet performance, drama, and other kinetic arts. Dee Reason and Matthew Reynolds call this “kinaesthetic empathy,” which they define as “a response constructed through the embodied process of engagement rather than through direct access to [the observed body’s] feelings” (For more on kinaesthetic empathy, see Reason and Reynolds’s edited anthology Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices.) I would take this a step further, adding to the mix the effects of good storytelling and compelling character. Kinaesthetic empathy, I would argue, is shaped not only by camera, mechanics, and interaction, but by the way we relate to the character and the fictional world in which they exist. To recall Amy Hennig, there is an empathy constructed by the integration of play and plot, and there is an empathy created by the integration of play and character.
1917 and third-person action-adventure cinema
So, how does the spatial and temporal character of the third-person action-adventure gaze translate from a videogame to a movie screen—specifically, to the visual language created by Mendes and Deakins?
First, unlike the roving camera in Russian Ark, the camera in 1917 is not a character. And unlike, say, the long shot in Soy Cuba (1964) (you can see it here, starting at 2’10”) that moves from a rooftop beauty pageant to a woman in a bikini diving into a swimming pool, casting harsh light on the decadent lifestyle of bourgeois Cubans and tourists, the camera in 1917 does not communicate a specific perspective on what it shows. Quite the opposite.
Deakins explains that he didn’t want the camera to draw any attention to itself: “It’s not that kind of film,” he says. “You just wanted it to disappear in the image, and for the most part, I think that’s quite successful.” In other words, the camera in 1917 is a neutral eye, providing the viewer the opportunity to engage in the kind of multi-faceted seeing that we associate with videogames, particularly those told through the third-person perspective.
Second, like the third-person action-adventure videogame, the actions of the characters are meticulously integrated with dramatic space. Mendes explains, “We had to measure every step of the journey” (Featurette 5.03). Dean-Charles Chapman describes early rehearsals with Mendes and Deakins on an “open field that was pretty much nothing there”: “We had the script in our hand and we literally just walked and talked every single scene to see how long it took us to get from A to B (Featurette 5.06).
Mendes elaborates, “The scene has to be the exact length of the land, and the land cannot be longer than the scene, and the scene cannot be longer than the land, and so you have to rehearse every line of dialogue on location. And that’s where it overlaps with doing theatre, because the world has to be crafted around the rhythm of the script” (Featurette 5.23).
Michael Lerman, co-producer and first assistant director, describes the process as alien to the usual way of doing things: “You almost have to change the way you think about how we view movies . . . and how we make movies as a filmmaker” (Featurette 6.17).
Finally, suspense is generated through the limited perspective of the protagonist. In a conventional film, suspense can be created by cutting across the spaces of a scene. A tripwire trap in an underground bunker might be shown first, then the characters entering the bunker, then a rat moving towards the tripwire, then the characters’ approach, etc. Or the camera might rove in a continual shot in and around an abandoned farm, perhaps capturing the characters approaching from distance, perhaps suggesting the gaze of a hidden enemy. But in 1917, suspense is created entirely from the perspective of Blake and Schofield.
So, how does this all come together? Let’s take a close look at a scene from the film’s second half. Schofield has moved into a town devastated by artillery, occupied by Germans, and under attack by the British. It is night; light is provided by the flickering flames of burning buildings and the harsh, shifting glare of flares. Attempting to evade enemy fire and find allies, Schofield moves into a plaza, the camera close behind.
A church is burning, casting both the protagonist and the fountain to the left in silhouette and obscuring everything in amber smoke. From out of the haze, we see another person emerge, clearly a soldier, but his alliance uncertain, as he is too far away to identify and his gun is held down.
This suddenly changes. He points his gun at Schofield . . .
. . . and fires, evident from the muzzle flash, causing Schofield to scramble away.
For players of videogame shooters, this situation is entirely familiar: a space full of unclear sightlines, a moving figure that may or may not be an enemy, a sudden realization of danger. The suspense of moments like these, whether in a videogame or a third-person movie like 1917, is generated by the appearance of a figure whose identity is unclear and potentially threatening, requiring our eyes to engage simultaneously in the kinds of analytic, aesthetic, and empathetic work I discussed earlier. The thrill of moments like these is generated by the close, but imperfect and shifting alignment of the viewer’s and the character’s gaze. The result is a moment of dramatic alignment of gaze, empathy, and storytelling.
Empathy in action?
But technical achievement does not necessarily equate with artistic accomplishment. I share the opinion that there is something lacking in 1917; particularly as it concerns how we feel about the protagonists. For me, this is best illustrated by the moment at the end of the film when Schofield opens the portfolio he’s been carrying inside his tunic next to his heart and we’re allowed to see what it contains. We’ve seen that portfolio a couple of times, but neither Schofield nor the viewer were allowed to seeee its contents. Frankly, what’s inside is no less unsurprising than most of the storyline of 1917. But that portfolio speaks to a challenge that videogame cinema will pose to those who attempt it in the future.
What is missing is precisely the thing that Mendes found missing from those inspirational videogames he watched his kids play: emotional stakes. And this is no easy task if you don’t play those emotional stakes–if you don’t involve yourself in the multi-faceted work of seeing character and seeing through character. In videogames, the emotional stakes are felt as much by our hands as they manipulate the controller as they are by the heart as we feel the characters struggle.
Yes, empathy in action can create a specific kind of identification between viewer and protagonist—the kind of identification that we associate with jump scares, vertiginous sightlines, and narrow escapes. Mendes and Deakins nailed that in the long-shot open of Spectre (2015), though their success in that endeavor was due in part to our familarity with Bond and Daniel Craig’s command of his physicality. And 1917 is a remarkable achievement on that level. But as Amy Hennig and other great videogame creators show us (Cory Barlog, Hideo Kojima, Matt Sophos, Robin Hunicke, Shigeru Miyamoto, Marcin Blancha, Paul Dini), one can achieve empathy in action not only by integrating action and plot. Consider what Steven Spielberg, Lawrence Kasdan, and Harrison Ford achieved in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Indiana Jones doesn’t speak for the first four minutes of the film and says very little for the next eight. But we get to know Indy intimately through what he does and how he acts: the sudden shift from satisfaction to terror as a vine slips through his fingers, the abnormal care he shows for his fedora, the dust he sheds as he runs across an open field.
It’s surprising to me that George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, having developed their characters from virtually the first day of pre-production, did not devise the kinds of subtle physical quirks that would enable the viewer to achieve a richer quality of kinaesthetic empathy with their characters. Perhaps their inexperience as action performers is to blame? Perhaps the fact that their first performances on the untouched fields and farms of Salisbury were reified into the clockwork design of the production, denying them the opportunity to further develop, forcing them to perform not as people responding viscerally, but as actors hitting their marks?
This isn’t just a matter of writing better scripts–though the thin characterization of Blake and Schofield is at least partly due to Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Perhaps videogame cinema demands a different kind of physicality from its performers. Perhaps a style we associate with silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, and Harold Lloyd. Or with action performers like Jackie Chan, Dwayne Johnson, or Daniel Craig. Or with videogame performers like Nolan North, Jennifer Hale, Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Emily Rose, and Claudia Black. Or with brilliant motion-capture actors like Andy Serkis.
As Michael Chemers and I argue in Systemic Dramaturgy: From Zeami to The Legend of Zelda (forthcoming, University of Southern Illinois Press), every technological advancement in the performing arts provides new ways to delight the eye, inspire the imagination, and move the heart. But every technological advancement inevitably, sometimes permanently, alters the calculus of eye, imagination, and heart. This is perhaps nowhere more true than videogames, which have generated remarkable new ways to engage us—and, as the events of Gamergate demonstrated, been instrumental in the development of new ways to feel and communicate hatred, new ways to imagin and wreak violence.
If 1917 signals the emergence of a true videogame cinema, then it also signals the emergence of a new set of challenges for those who wish to put the heart into action.
Barry Atkins, What Are We Really Looking At? The Future-Orientation of Video Game Play,” Games and Culture 1.2 (April 2006): 127-140.
Gabriel Patrick Wei-Hao Chin, “Observed bodies and tool selves: kinaesthetic empathy and the videogame avatar” Digital Creativity 28:3 (2017), 206-223.
1917: Extended Making of Featurette. YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vUBT6_CLF4
J. Muñoz, G. N. Yannakakis, F. Mulvey, D. W. Hansen, G. Gutierrez and A. Sanchis, “Towards gaze-controlled platform games,” 2011 IEEE Conference on Computational Intelligence and Games (CIG’11), Seoul, 2011, pp. 47-54.
Magy Seif El-Nasr and Su Yan, “Visual Attention in 3D Video Games,” ACE ’06: Proceedings of the 2006 ACM SIGCHI international conference on Advances in computer entertainment technology June 2006. https://doi.org/10.1145/1178823.1178849
Karl C. Ulrich, “A Short Look at the Long Take: The Art and Craft of Cinematic Camera Movement.” ASBBS Proceedings 23.1 (2016): 535-39.