God of War Ragnarök has a perspective problem. I realized this early on, just as I guided Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir through a craggy waterway that led them out into Svartalfheim, the game's first large, open area.
The stakes were supposedly clear: we were to meet a former rebel leader named Durlin. But just as the canoe glided out of the tight waterway and into the open expanse ahead of us, Mimir said that he’d like to check out some promising mining rigs off to the right—a side quest waiting to happen. Before I could turn my ship around, Atreus drew the camera's attention away from the rigs’ black plumes and over to the opposite end of the screen. “If you don’t wanna explore now," he offered, "it looks like Durlin’s place is through that open gate to the left.”
This moment—only an hour or two into the game—connotes a key friction point within Ragnarök's narrative design. It clearly wants so much to just be a videogame—you know, the kind where Kratos simply goes out into a gorgeous world adventuring with his son and companions, killing monsters, and uncovering sweet, sweet loot—but it also yearns to deliver an intimate character study (told through a reasonably linear narrative) about the fraught familial dynamics of a distant father and a son becoming his own person.
These two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. There are plenty of games that find a great balance between delivering a fun gameplay loop and a story captivating enough to keep us motivated through long run times. In fact, I found Ragnarök most compelling in the smaller moments where narrative and gameplay intersected: controlling Kratos as he takes directions from Atreus to get a train car back on track; Atreus mimicking the signature punch Kratos performs to open chests only to hurt his hand in the process; a spiraling bar fight that places you in the midst of unfolding chaos; daring escapes that bring back some of the quick-time-events that were paramount to the original trilogy.
But during my playthrough, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. In a way, I felt as if I was playing a videogame about Kratos playing a videogame. From how characters communicate with one another outside of the main storyline’s scenes to the sheer lack of urgency reflected in the narrative design, given the apocalyptic implications of the story, it all just comes off a bit strange. The culprit of this dissonance seems to be the very aspect that was foundational to the experience laid out in Ragnarök’s 2018 predecessor, God of War: the one-shot camera.
God of War was a successful reinvention of the franchise largely due to the ways in which it refocused its gaze on Kratos’ actions. It cared less about what he was doing and instead about how his actions affected the way he navigated the world and his relationships. This was, in part, accomplished by changing the camera perspective from a hovering third-person viewpoint to a close, over-the-shoulder perspective that emulated the film technique of a “oner” or continuous shot.
Previous God of War entries positioned the camera further away from the action, in an almost aerial view outside of the cutscenes. It emphasized the prodigious, mythological destruction that Kratos and his foes enacted upon each other. It also placed us outside of Kratos’ body. In them, the player was a spectator to the violence Kratos committed. This isn’t the case with God of War's more intimate perspective.
Oners have become a bit like cinematic gold in the age of social media. They've thrived in a time when anyone can clip a moment from a film or TV show and crow about it online. They’re easy social capital for showcasing why something is good. Netflix’s Daredevil, for instance, found viral success thanks to the hallway fight scenes it used for major set pieces (thanks Oldboy!). These sequences plant us in the heart of the action, allowing us to embody Matt Murdock's perspective as he dispatches his foes.
In True Detective's first season, my favorite sequence is the continuous shot used to show detective Rust Cole—undercover in a white supremacist group—participating in a failed raid of a Black neighborhood. The camera closely tracks Rust’s movements as he skulks through homes dodging the frantic violence unfolding around him. It’s claustrophobic, brutal, and tense. On top of being an overall awesome sequence, it also uses the intimacy of the camera to bring us nearer to Rust at this moment—to feel a bit more deeply just how close to death he is in this experience.
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas contains another classic example of a great oner. The sequence that follows Henry and Karen Hill entering the back of a restaurant only to end up with the best seats in the house is great on a primal level, the camera slinking in and around the chaos of the kitchen to keep up with the power couple's movements. But it’s also doing something else. The sequence nods at a central motif of the film, showing that Henry Hill can have whatever he likes, but only when approaching situations from the back—outside of convention. What I’m getting at are affordances. How different narratives require different techniques in order to refocus our gaze on what matters.
There are examples of successful films that stitch together their cinematography to emulate that of a continuous shot for the entire runtime (Birdman and 1917 being good recent examples) but oners are usually deployed sparingly. Why? Because they are used to evoke certain emotions in the viewer, just as a wide shot might be used to show the sheer magnitude of a landscape. These choices are tools that allow creators to visually establish key ideas to the viewer, to heighten the interactions happening on screen.
It is within this tradition that God of War and Ragnarök attempt to place themselves. The allure of using the oner in games makes sense: it is a foundational cinematic tool that grounds the viewer more concretely in the time and reality of the story. Oners also showcase technical prowess. In film, witnessing sequences like the ones above feels a bit like watching a magic trick. They are a marvel of human logistics and creativity. But with videogames, I wonder if some of that mystique is lost. Ragnarök exists within a fungible reality that can bend and break to Sony Santa Monica’s needs. The constraints of locality, human error, and other logistical nightmares that accompany these sequences in film are less present in videogames. This isn’t a knock against Ragnarök. The oner allows the narrative to go places that more traditionally shot films cannot—but it also changes the focus of why a continuous shot holds weight.
God of War’s story centered on re-examining Kratos, a character who was, up until that point, portrayed as a hyper-masculine and brutal man. And the experiment worked! By bringing the camera closer to Kratos, the player was able to more fully embody him—to see more clearly the implications of his actions and inactions. It also helped that God of War was attempting to tell a much more intimate story. Its examination of grief, masculinity, and parenting benefitted from keeping Kratos and his son, Atreus, in close proximity.
The oner also functioned as a means to heighten the feelings of prestige that God of War was after. As AAA games continue to ape the film industry, cribbing the very techniques that have become foundational to that medium, the use of complex tools like oners helps showcase videogames like God of War as being high art, and on equal footing to the cinematic tradition they are inspired by.
Ragnarök, however, is trying to accomplish a lot more than the intimate story its predecessor told. On a surface level, the plot revolves around Kratos and Atreus attempting to stop Ragnarök—the end of the world—from happening. But it also explores the growing tension Atreus feels toward his father as he begins to form his own perspective on the world separate from the mold Kratos wants him to fit into. On top of this, it’s also about grappling with the grief of losing a child. Oh, and it’s how alcoholism affects families. And, let’s not forget that it's also trying to comment on how the ruling class (in this case, the gods) uphold systemic inequities and infrastructures built to exploit the world and marginalized communities.
We not only play as Kratos but also as Atreus and these shifts in perspective require the continuous shot camera to move between the characters as the plot switches between their viewpoints. The camera also follows other characters throughout the story, raising the question both of whose perspective the story favors and, more importantly, why Ragnarök is still using this technique at all. If it is fluid enough to jump between perspectives so often, why are we still deploying the continuous shot for the entirety of the game? Many of Ragnarök’s most emotional moments are neutered by a continuous camera perspective that's unable to decouple itself from a single character's point of view, often leaving key characters to face away from the camera or be absent altogether during dramatic action.
As a whole, Ragnarök feels as if it has grown beyond the confines of the continuous camera technique it hinges upon. What worked before has become a bit of a gimmick—a shorthand for placing its narrative at a level of prestige it doesn’t fully embody.
These choices are further complicated by the rest of the narrative. To start, Ragnarök is a much bigger game than its predecessor. It quadruples down on the variety of side quests featured in God of War, expanding the parameters of the narrative to explore a variety of other tales that build out the world and its cast of characters in major ways.
But the choice in perspective always makes these side stories feel a bit off. Going back to that initial moment in the canoe when entering Svartalfheim: the game clearly wants the player to participate in the laundry list of side quest activities it offers. Many of these involve exploring huge open areas with hidden temples to find, prodigious monsters to fight, and even imprisoned animals to free. I enjoyed a lot of the side quests I played and would even argue that much of Ragnarök’s most interesting design is found in these optional quests. But the narrative choices deployed to compel the player to engage with this material often involves Atreus telling Kratos that he has options for what he can do next. These are strange moments of characterization that feel a bit at odds with their developing relationship.
In the canoe, the son becomes a mentor, leading Kratos on the adventure in ways that don’t really make sense. All urgency is lost given the stakes of the story when Atreus and company are constantly telling Kratos he can go off on side quests—or, even worse, when they comment about how much he loves getting “loot.” It’s in these moments that the intimate narrative Ragnarök is attempting to build breaks apart. I found myself asking: is it really Kratos who likes finding loot, or is it the player? Is it Kratos who enjoys adventuring on these side missions, or is it me?
You may be thinking this is a me problem and not the game's fault. Maybe that’s true. But what I think is actually happening is that the close camera perspective Ragnarök uses to tell its story is actually at odds with the gameplay objectives it wants the player to interact with. The camera placement suggests that I am Kratos in these games, as opposed to someone controlling (or metaphorically observing) Kratos on an adventure.
In turn, Ragnarök has the feeling of Kratos learning to play a videogame. His own son tutorializes him on how to start side quests. Side characters like Sindri, the dwarven blacksmith, create MacGuffins that justify the in-game map and compass you use to navigate open areas. Characters comment when Kratos goes down alternate pathways to open chests. Often just before another major story beat, Atreus will inform Kratos that he should wrap up side quests he wants to finish before continuing.
Even directly after the final moments of the story, the game seems unable to help itself. As the credits roll, you venture down a winding path ending up at a door that, when opened, shows you the sprawling world ahead. Your companions bark that there is still so much left to do. It all feels a bit contrived, like a videogame—which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the camera wasn’t trying its damndest to position it as something greater.
We’re living in a moment where many AAA games drive toward creating cinematic narrative experiences that rival that of films. The audiovisual artistry on display throughout Ragnarök is nothing short of spectacular. The nine realms are lush with detail, and the fidelity realized in its character rendering is a sight to behold.
For a game that cares so much about the closeness it cultivates with its titular character, I would have expected a story more akin to the first game's. The oner in Ragnarök feels less like an artistic technique and more like a conceit—a spectacle, a novelty that differentiates it from some of the contrived design tendencies it relishes in. I can’t help but imagine an otherwise to what we were given with Ragnarök. In attempting to tell such a grand story, what might have happened if oners were reserved for the intimate moments we’re given with Kratos, Atreus, and others? How might we better unpack these complex questions around familial love, loss, and life if they weren’t all presented in the same way? All of these questions are wrapped up in perspective and how what we choose to see and focus on shapes the world we breathe life into every day.
What we would have gotten is something that could have embraced the the beauty of Ragnarök’s narrative potential. That, despite its backdrop of world-ending catastrophe, it is ultimately about rebirth and restoration—how when we allow ourselves to truly see each other fully, a whole new life is possible.
Phillip Russell is a Black writer and podcast producer. His writing explores the intersections between pop culture, Blackness, and our connection to land and identity. He holds an MFA in Prose Writing from the University of Washington and an MA in Nonfiction Writing from Ohio University. His work has appeared in Electric Literature, Entropy Magazine, Unwinnable, Brevity, and more. His podcast Origin Story interviews creators in games, music, film, and literary publishing about their creative journey. Follow him on Twitter @3dsisqo. Find more of his work here