header is screenshot from The Order: 1886
Playing the Cameraman
Yussef Cole

The Order: 1866 follows the narrative perspective of a semi-immortal Arthurian knight named Sir Galahad, a hunter of magical monsters caught up in a grand conspiracy, which strikes at the heart of this alternative universe’s British Empire.

You do not really play as Sir Galahad, though. While it’s true that you control his actions, it would be fairer to describe your role as Sir Galahad’s cameraman. You’re the steadicam operator hovering just over his shoulder, following tightly behind, leaving just enough space to capture the events of the game in a wide-angled, cinematic view.

Just as in Kane & Lynch 2: Dog DaysThe Order’s principle character maintains a certain distance from the screen, and is captured in a third-person perspective. Unlike Dog Days, which astutely lampshades the presence of its cameraman by eventually leaving them dead and bleeding on airport tarmac as the titular pair make their escape off screen, The Order does not textually acknowledge the filmic artifice which frames its action. Still, it’s impossible to ignore the presence of a camera holding interlocutor in the moment to moment experience of playing the game.

Your operator deftly draws back and slightly to the right as Galahad strides through the oak and mahogany chambers of Victorian manses. They push in close, clearing Galahad’s back in order to frame his hands picking up a faded photograph or a shipping manifest. They shudder and duck down as he heaves himself against cover to escape incoming gunfire. They are always with him, always striving to frame his actions in the most stunning and dramatic light, if not always the most transparent and play-centric.

Games have always attempted to ape the language and aesthetic of films. Even in the old Commodore and Atari days, they’d fill the screen with complexly dithered pixel art of heroes pulling starkly lit, photogenic poses before inevitably returning to the flat two-dimensional planes where the actual action took place.

Now that games have achieved a far more convincing level of verisimilitude, the obsession with passing off as films has reached a feverish pitch. We now have years worth of examples of this trend, years of videogames with enough technical capacity to closely approximate live action footage, with baroquely textured human figures moving around in true three-dimensional space, animated by motion capture, and voiced by professional actors. These approximations are close enough that if one doesn’t spend too much time focused on the details, the charade is quite easy to accept.

After all these years, what, pray tell, is the verdict? That, by and large, it simply doesn’t work. Games are not movies, and when they clothe themselves in the glamor of films they lose sight of what it is that makes them unique and worthwhile as a medium. 

Compared to games, movies are necessarily efficient and economical enterprises which proceed at a breakneck pace next to most games’ interminable glaciality. No film would spend twenty minutes arbitrarily following a character as he stumbles down dead end pathways in search of more ammo for his gun. No self-respecting action film would let its heroes blunder awkwardly into a hail of bullets and soak up an inhuman level of damage before finally shuffling behind the correct waist-high cover to take potshots at stationary enemies. Nor would a film force its audience to wait as its hero searches every last nook and cranny of an arena trying to find that last hidden bad guy whose death will flip the invisible switch allowing him to move to the next area. Movies aren’t a sequence of arenas to begin with; and a sequence of arenas, do not a cinematic experience make, no matter how lovingly they might be textured and lit.

You may be playing a cameraman in The Order, but you aren’t making a movie. It’s as if the back of your camera is wide open and all that wasted celluloid is shooting out, coiling into massive piles you leave in your wake. Your role in the game is important, sure, but more in terms of how it makes things look than in what it actually achieves. The Order looks like a film, it has all the right elements of a film: the golden ratio composition of the various elements on screen, the lens-accurate depth of field, the soft bokeh blur shrouding distant objects. But when I get into a gunfight without feeling any of the danger or sense of immediacy of a gunfight, I know that something important is missing.

It takes more than a cameraman to make a movie, after all. You need cuts, reverse shots, meaningful applications of visual continuity and discontinuity. All techniques that do not work when you also have to control the movements of a character and have that character navigate a space in precise and predictable ways. Instead of the 180 degree rule common in films, games are restricted to something closer to a 0 degree rule. All perspectives must orient around the camera to make sense. When games break this and have the character move toward the camera or in any other direction than directly away from it, we get confused. Once the spatial point of view of a character differs from our own, we can no longer assume that where we point our joystick is where he will naturally follow. 

We are therefore stuck behind our characters, sitting in their shadow. It makes it difficult to see these characters as, well, real characters occupying space in the world, rather than hollow framing devices meant to stiffly receive and react to the important actions taking place at the center of the screen..

The Order intends to break the seal keeping games and films separate, but the nature of the medium resists that goal and poisons its intention with every step. It isn’t visually interesting to shoot at distant targets that exist as blurry smudges because the in-game camera hasn’t switched focus correctly. It doesn’t tell any kind of story to observe a twenty minute shootout from the same over the shoulder angle, repeated ad nauseum.

It’s damning that the parts of The Order that feel the most convincingly cinematic are its more cutscene-y moments; moments where you, as camera operator, do not need to aim your focus (and Galahad’s) at something precise. The game is at its best in the meetings and the interchanges between characters when they are not being controlled by the player. Or at the start of a level, when you first enter a scene, and smoothly follow Galahad as he thrusts open a door into a grand chamber or when you huddle close as he rifles through files on a dim bookshelf.

But that’s only a fraction of what you spend the game doing. The rest is a mealy mix of third-person combat and quicktime event button mashing. It makes for something of a half-formed experience, not unlike the half-breeds your knights spend the game hunting; the unseemly outcome of intentions and aspirations which ignore natural limits, and which elide the understanding that some paths are not worth brute forcing your way down, no matter how much wealth and resources you pour into them.


Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.