Function comes before flourish. Such is true of every art form. There is the discovery of the medium itself, the verbs and boundaries are formed, and what follows is the artistry itself—the pushing, reshaping, and breaking of those boundaries. This is true of cinema. Louis Le Prince’s “Roundhay Garden Scene”—the first motion picture—is just the test of an inventor. There is an art to it, but the language of cinema was not yet known so the piece itself was not defined until decades later when both cinema and the academic study of film were more commonplace.
So, what about the video game camera? It never got the chance to be unknown. From the get-go, it was defined by and thought about with the same terms and toolkits as cinema. Yes, technology took time to be fleshed out and for the medium to arrive at the first cutscene. And the beauty of the early days of video game cutscenes was their economic scarcity. They were functional and that is all. Their purpose was not to impress but to define, and what did they define? Characters, story, player tasks, routes, and more. But games have grown since those early cutscenes of the 1990s. Now video game storytelling—especially in the AAA space—is inseparable from cinema and this is nothing but a detriment to games. Games are different than cinema and they can never be cinema, this is why the Prestige Dramas churned out by Sony First Party studios are nothing more than hollow, stuffy facsimiles of a far superior art form. Sure, you can have a game that is all seen through one unbroken camera movement, but what does a choice like that mean when it was done just for the sake of doing so? The cinematic oner is one of the most recognizable flourishes of the filmmaker’s toolkit, but there is a reason that they often draw ire. Camera placement, the art of the cut, shot composition, and length should all rise up from the story and not vice-versa. 2018’s God of War is a 40-hour oner just because it can be, there really is no reason for it all, and on top of aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics, it is an abysmal oner. Well, when do video game cameras, especially those in cutscenes, work? To me, they work best when they steer as far away from the language of cinema as possible (though that is possible) and try to define what a camera can be and do in virtual spaces. I guess that is why functional cutscenes speak to me.
The Assassin’s Creed series has changed a lot (for the worse) since its first outing in 2007, and so too have its cutscenes and how it delivers its story. Look at the opening cutscene of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. The camera moves with deliberate motions that speak to the oner fight scenes (or simulated oners) so common in the cinema of today. Multiple planes of action and perspectives are displayed through one unbroken movement. It is akin to cinema, but it is not cinema. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is a game, but it wants to be cinematic. And that is precisely why the term “cinematic” rings hollow when discussing games in the AAA space. There is nothing cinematic about them. They use the language of cinema to try and mine the depths of an ocean when in reality these games and experiences are more akin to a shallow puddle.
But Assassin’s Creed 1 is special because it never tries to evoke the flourished language of filmmaking. Instead of calling attention to the camera in cutscenes in ways that we are familiar with, the game either only uses the camera as a function or it lets the camera become an object itself in a way that is only possible in games. The story of Altair is arguably the best narrative in the series despite how well-tread the ground it treks is. The story of a young, brash hero to a wise fighter is by no means original but there is a compelling simplicity and earnestness to the first game in the now colossal and overwrought series. It is how the story is delivered that makes it all the more compelling. The tone and emotional resonance of the story are more in the margins and between the lines. Players actually have to do some work to know how to feel and why they should feel that way—which, in part, is why this game does not feel like it was made by committee. It is a mess, but it has ideas where the later games in the series have jumps in fidelity, world-size, gameplay, and more, but those leaps just feel like nothing.
Camera placement in the cutscenes of Assassin’s Creed 1 is functional—the camera often sits at a distance, from a base, unobtrusive angle. We watch conversations play it from yards away, with key characters’ backs often turned towards the camera. There is no shot-reverse-shot here, and it is all that much better for it. Players can even move the camera ever so slightly in key cutscenes. A small shift in perspective that implies the viewed ownership between the relation of seeing and interacting that is exclusive to video games, but the most compelling part of the cutscenes in Assassin’s Creed is the fact that almost every cutscene gives the player a choice—the choice to shift perspective. A flicker of the screen lets the player know that they can press a button to view the cutscene, as it continues, from another angle. This is a small choice but it compels nonetheless. The camera’s focus from an impartial distance shifts, upon this button press, to an often closer angle that is solely informed by emotion and movement. If a character is being stabbed, then the camera will shift into a low angle so our line of view is there with the victim as some Templar aggressor stands over him repeatedly plunging his sword into the victim’s body while waxing on about the might of the Templar order or whatever. This small shift feels slight, but its power comes through the player having agency in the camera and direction of the scene. Choose to engage with it or view the whole exchange from an impartial, distanced view where the action is partially obfuscated. It is solely up to you.
And then there is the economics of the camera in the modern-day segments with Desmond in the Abstergo laboratory—a bartender turned guinea pig/prisoner. The framing of cutscenes in the modern-day parts is quite different than that of the historical sections. The game takes on a grainier, dirtier, and more pixelated haze. Many scenes are viewed through overhead shots and high angles as if we are viewing this part of the story through CCTV cameras. It evokes a sense of cold distance that allows for the modern-day interludes to be as compelling as they are subtly disquieting. There are no cinematic flourishes here. The high angle camera just observes, it never interacts or calls attention to itself.
With the basis of the camera set at a distance in almost every cutscene, this leaves room for the player to take in the full breadth of the moment, unperturbed by some poor facsimile of cinema. Yet, Assassin’s Creed story is mainly talked at the player through exposition moments. The camera hangs back and we face Altair’s back or side as he talks to someone. Sometimes we still have minimal control over Altair and can make him walk to and fro while some big story moments are being delivered to him. For the most part, this simple bit of interactivity allows the player to imprint a small part of themselves on the story moment. They can choose where Altair stands and faces during a cutscene, or if he paces instead of remaining still. The player can project their emotional state onto Altair and use that to inform how he interacts during these moments. Does he remain in motion and on edge during a big story revelation, or does he stand still unable to move thanks to the weight of what he is hearing? Well, that remains up to you. The camera exists in a fluid state of passivity. It is there and it isn’t, but when it is, it is usually because the player has agency in what is going on within the frame as well as the camera itself, as an interactive object.
Games and cinema are different art forms but they will always inform one another, for better and usually for worse. As games have progressed, they have sought the storytelling and cinematic toolkits of filmmaking to the point where almost every AAA story-based game is a pitifully, fleeting attempt at what makes cinema special while forgetting what makes games special in the first place. 2007 was a far different time, but Assassin’s Creed 1 reshapes and molds the language of cinema to fit into a video game while also allowing for the camera to be more than a means to a cutscene—it is an object that is as much character as anything else, so it makes sense that players should be able to have some sort of agency over it. Plus, the editing language of cinema often becomes confused, muddy, and vapid in games (see almost every transition and frame split in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus). Assassin’s Creed eschews that by rarely having “cuts”. Cutscenes don’t so much as transition into being, instead, the camera shifts slightly, enough to where we understand that we are in a cutscene of sorts. It never calls attention to itself and through that, Assassin’s Creed asks players to explore the margins of the frame and the narrative itself in order to find meaning—it is better to hint at and imply something than to lay it bare time and time again. Stories unfold and are only told after they are finished. Interacting with the game is the act of forcing a story to unfold so it is better to feel that agency than to be a passive observer to a finished story that happens to be unfolding again.