header is screenshot from Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Always in the Eye
Grace Benfell

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II opens with an impossible shot: the upside down ocean and an increasing storm, seen through the underbelly of a ship in one unbroken take. It never cuts, even as it settles on its subject, the for-now isolated Senua. The technique continues through the game's runtime, never ceasing even in its dreamlike segments. Hellblade II's cinematic aspirations and influences are clear, yet it abandons the image, the montage, for an embodiment that nevertheless slips through its fingers.

Hellblade II is far from alone in its usage of the long shot. Its predecessor uses it, more or less. So does Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the God of War reboot and its sequel RagnarökDead Space and its remake, Halo: InfiniteDeath StrandingStar Wars Jedi: Survivor, and probably many more than I can remember now. In some sense, it seems like an obvious fit. The filmic single take of Birdman already requires plenty of digital intervention. Why not take it even further? When you don't have to wrangle and rehearse a set of human bodies, it is easier to create forever takes. 

The thing is, while removing physicality may take out the obstacles, it also stands in the way of making a long take compelling. The thrill of the opening shot of Touch of Evil is in the physical prowess of the shot; the fact that making it took dozens of people rehearsing and working in tandem. Even a much simpler and more intimate shot, like the middle boxing match in Creed, requires a physical expertise. There's a third person in the ring with the boxers, who has to tap around the actors, who in turn have to sell each punch for the camera. It's dance-like and gives the moment intimacy. The climactic fight in Creed doesn't lean on long takes, because it is going for an entirely different feeling. This one is grueling, a test of endurance. It cuts between corner pep talks and exchanging jabs before slowing for dramatic or physically demanding moments. It gives the space for individual blows to have impact. This brings us to the second pleasure of a long take in films that videogames mostly forgo: the cut to and the cut away. The regular language of a cinema is the cut, the contrast between two different images. Even a long take hinges on that contrast, breaths between the staccato beats of the cut. Long takes in live action films are, as a function of their physicality, relatively short. They provide a variable, physical rhythm that you feel in these spaces between cuts.

Long takes in videogames, in contrast, are fucking endless. Many end only upon player death or opening a menu. Others feel almost comical in their avoidance of a simple cut. Even films that are famous for using the technique, like Children of Men, rely on the tension of the long take that will at one point shatter. In the videogame mode, these images slide off of you. Because the camera cannot simply cut, it is always moving. We have to track away from a close up to a wide shot or whip-pan between two faces to approximate shot-reverse-shot. There is no promise that it will ever sit still, much less that it will ever hard cut. There is no rhythm to it and thus no art.

The critical approach to videogames' misappropriation of cinema has often been to decry the attempt at all. The refrain goes that videogames are more like theater or architecture. Perhaps we should consider what it means for multiple bodies to move in tandem or for a single, embodied perspective to move through a designed space. Furthermore, recreating something simple like a shot-reverse-shot with fidelity can be agonizing. Why are videogames so fixated on replicating a medium that is difficult to render?

In spite of this, many games are straightforwardly filmic. Many games, if not most, rely on images in sequence with each other. Although it's difficult to argue that the marginally shifting landscape of something like Tetris is "cinematic," even a Super Mario World has contrasts of scale, cuts from location to location, camera movements that clarify action and communicate meaning. Games like Resident Evil and the PlayStation Final Fantasies have cuts and sequencing as part of their basic vocabulary, within and outside of cutscenes. The deeper problem is that games often borrow from cinema in shallow terms or from boring movies or even just the same movies over and over again.

Cinema is actually more varied than what videogames have to say about it. It was not always detailed, many-pored faces on high definition screens. Silent film was broad, gestural, relying on backdrop and arm movements as much as, if not more than, close-up facial expressions. It's not hard to draw a parallel between early cinema and the SNES Final Fantasies with their pantomime sprites or Mario Bros. 3 with its stage "production" design. Early film was indebted to theater. Videogames freely borrow from both mediums. With videogames' increased potential for photorealism, the desire to replicate film on a representational level has increased. However, their interest in stealing from film's wide variety of techniques, from the diversity of things it can do and represent, has decreased.

Of course, there is no specific right way to borrow from film. I love Sephonie's fly-through panoramas, Silent Hill's steady, observational camera, and Fatal Frame's recreation of film grain. I appreciate that FromSoft rarely tries to merge its "cinematic" and "ludic" modes, instead viewing cutscenes as a simple means of creating context (and building spectacle). Hell, even Alan Wake 2's dreamy realism, and consistent prestige TV influence, ties into the game's live action segments, exploring the slippery differences between the selves we imagine and who we actually are. I understand the urge to write off videogames' devotion to film when so many do it badly, but many videogames are inventive with it, draw from a myriad set of inspirations, and come off capable.

Unfortunately, Hellblade II is not one of them. Its long take has many of the same problems as its peers, but it is also difficult to justify with anything but the most shallow interpretations. Its ultimate pursuit is "immersion," that old videogame hobby horse. A cut is artificial; our eyes cannot move from opposite sides of a room or cross barriers of time or place in an instant. Hellblade II seeks to put you in the boots of a singular person, to let their perspective drive the movement and narrative. Is it any wonder we are (mostly) orbiting around Senua's single body? Yet, Senua's self is multiplicitous. She hears multiple voices, has multiple contradictory senses of self. She can see the seams between the physical world and more spiritual realms and talk with their fae inhabitants. All of this is communicated in ideas, in narration, narrative, and voiceover. The image has nothing to do with it. Senua is caught between worlds and yet the game feels it is best to represent that with a steady, behind-the-shoulder camera.

To be fair, Hellblade II's world is more external than its predecessor. Its protagonist's internal struggles and hallucinations are given less focus than the previous game. The narrative is about Senua navigating a new social world, limited as she is in her body and perspectives. If the game is about that limitation, surely it makes sense to keep its viewpoint grounded with Senua? However, we are not made to align ourselves with Senua. We mostly watch her. We watch her back as she climbs a hill to get a new angle on a puzzle or as she blocks an enemy's attack. We watch her face as it grows angry or upset or worried. We watch her react to wind and weather, though the feeling of the game's controls don't change. Hellblade II's combat has a weight to it, and Senua moves at a steady walking speed, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The game's wandering eye is observational. In play, it may be locked to Senua's frame, but in cutscene it drifts away, flies in the air at frantic speed, looks down and above and around her. There is not so much as a POV shot, must less something more complicated and subjective. Hellblade II's floaty, impossible camera is not embodied in any real human perspective, certainly not in Senua's.

The game does have more influences. Parts of Hellblade II are theatrical. Senua's voices operate, in some ways, like a Greek Chorus. The battles are dance-like, a set of calls and responses leading to predetermined outcomes. It is also a videogame, with puzzles and iterating mechanical ideas, combat arenas, and big boss battles. It is structured more like a prestige television show. Each “chapter” has a distinct narrative arc and conclusion. Though, like a lot of TV these days, it stretches perhaps two or three hours of dedicated narrative over six.

However, the game's cinematic aspirations take up undue space. The lines between episodes are not delineated (except in the main menu's chapter selection screen). You could play the whole game in one, long sitting. It is even set in narrow letterboxing for a widescreen aspect ratio. Controversially, it has a max of 30 frames a second on console, much closer to cinema's set 24. These similarities to cinema are superficial. Hellblade II's visual splendor comes from its GPU, not its cinematography. Even its wide aspect ratio is more of a device to show off the game's lavishly recreated environments, rather than one that emphasizes a specific emotional tenor. The game dabbles in extreme close-up and intimate conversation, but is set in the movie theater mega screen you might find at a life-science museum.

None of this is to say that Senua's cinematography means or does nothing. It feels in line with the game's thoughtful posture: The content warning at its start, the gentle assurance that both mental health experts and the personally affected were consulted. The ever-circling camera turns Senua into an object lesson. We observe her and the game tells us what it is like to be her, encouraging us to nod along and cry at the appropriate moment. There is no image in Hellblade II that is not elaborated on, that communicates something on its own. Its cinematic ambition is obvious, but it cannot trust an image or, god forbid, two juxtaposing images, to mean something.

Hellblade II's final sequence is a dream, as Senua contemplates completing revenge against the game's shadowy villain. She imagines herself as a tyrant like him and then as a conduit, a healer. Dozens of hands reach out to her as another one of her voices explains the image. Inexplicably, this image fades into a stark black and white filter. Its clarity is clearly a run at a striking final image, moving away from the game’s ray-traced realism to an artful sting, something to hover in your mind as you watch the credits. But it lacks the granularities and texture of real black and white film. It forgets that an image can be complex in effect, that it can communicate more than words. In its bow, Hellblade II cannot help but turn Senua into an icon.


Grace is a freelance writer and co-edits the game criticism journal The Imaginary Engine Review. She is a member of Writers Against The War On Gaza and the National Writer’s Union. You can find her and her work on her website.