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How 1917 Achieves Video Game Immersion

If you’ve heard about the buzz surrounding the Oscars and a little war movie called 1917, you know that it’s among the finest – and most unique – of its kind. The technical mastery on display here stems from the film’s choice to seamlessly take place all within one single shot. Of course, a keen eye and understanding about clever editing tricks will see the transition points to the next shot, but it all surprisingly feels like one long, cohesive take. After watching 1917 for the second time, one thing became apparent about its stylistic choices to me – the unexpected parallels it draws to video game design.

Third-Person Perspective

Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) created a stunning piece of art from a technical standpoint. Any filmmaker will tell you, it’s not easy to pull off one continuous take in a film – there are so many factors at work, so many cogs turning at once, and so many timing cues to get right, that it ends up being an extremely daunting task for even the most capable of directors. Mendes, however, perfects this in every single frame of 1917. With the camera mostly following the backs of our two lead characters, who undertake a dangerous journey into enemy territory to warn an army faction of an impending ambush, it strangely reminded me of a video game.

By design, the camera’s over-the-shoulder perspective as the lead characters walk through one deadly situation after the next reflects many similar third-person war-based games. It’s a clever bit of filmmaking that keeps 1917 constantly on a personal, heightened level of suspense – as if we’re also going on a journey with these two soldiers. The video game design similarities don’t end there, though, as we take it a step further into the general flow and pacing of the film, as well as how, by structure, it feels like going through the motions of video game levels.

Immersive Like No Other

The basic structure of 1917 is simple: our two leads must trek through one dangerous battlefield after the next, consisting of tight corridors with only their light source (as they’re constantly weary of being jumped by enemies), while avoiding trip wires and mines, to large open fields in which a sniper can dispose of them easily if they don’t find cover soon. Some massive action set pieces are sprinkled throughout the experience. One could argue that war-based games lift a lot of these elements from films already, like Full Metal Jacket or Saving Private Ryan, but with 1917, the uncanny resemblance to core video game design principals seems a bit too coincidental.

Yes, in a way, 1917 does end up feeling like a video game – a consensus that many I’ve spoken to have agreed with – but that’s not to the film’s detriment. In fact, it bolsters the experience so much more because Mendes and crew, whether intentionally or unintentionally, keep the experience on a far more immersive “game” level than your average film. The one continuous take makes audiences feel like the third person going on this journey, almost as if we’re the outsider with a controller in hand, with all the immersion that often comes with the interactive nature of video games.

Levels

1917‘s individual set pieces and outlying plot are separated into vastly different landscapes, from the aforementioned tight corridors of enemy bunkers to vast open fields, crumbling enemy-occupied cities with snipers perched on rooftops, and gunfights evolving into stand-offs in an instant. This isn’t to take away from the realism of what World War I had in terms of the accuracy of these encounters, but the structure of the protagonists going from one dangerous situation to the next, coupled with the floating camera behind their backs for 90% of the film, brings out the best video game elements that are hard to miss.

Watch Your Back

The primary reason for 1917 feeling like a video game on several occasions is largely due to the excellent single take, and wise choices to keep the perspective glued to the two main leads’ backs. There have been other cases where filmmakers have used the “single take” gimmick to lesser effect (see Silent House), but because Mendes and Deakins were so successful in pulling it off in very elaborate and baffling ways, we suddenly find that wall – the big fourth-wall barrier that separates the viewers from the film – broken down for the sake of an immersion that could only be compared to some compelling video game design. If Mendes did lift some inspiration from the medium, I wouldn’t be surprised, but 1917‘s greatest strengths solely relies on its immersion factor. To that extent, it succeeds in mirroring the feeling of being sucked into a game, and rather superbly.

This is just a little observation on my side, and not meant to be taken as set in stone in any way. 1917, as it stands, is still one of the most technically impressive films I’ve ever seen – if not the most impressive. Most importantly, it was able to immerse me on a level few, if any, films could ever do, and I think that level of deeper, almost fourth-wall breaking immersion is at least worth comparing to that of what a video game is capable of achieving.

Have you seen 1917 yet? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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