Until the 2000s, there was a hard divide between what you saw at home and what you saw in movie theatres. The aspect ratio for film allowed for a widened field of view, drastically increasing what you saw and what you could glean from the surrounding scene. Home viewing on boxy 4:3 televisions unapologetically chopped all that real estate off.
It used to be a huge thing when something on TV was broadcasted in widescreen format. Or at least to those that cared; there was still a massive education going on that you weren’t losing anything visually but rather gaining so much more.
That won’t stop, however, wide ratios being intrinsically associated with film. Super widescreen, letterboxing, or what have you is all tied to the cinema. This is why games that employ some of these strategies are generally called “cinematic” or why cutscenes with letterboxing are called cinematics.
Games are very different from movies and television, though. There is, strictly speaking, no film, so there is no physical reason why a game would have to abide by any single aspect ratio other than to utilize whatever amount of screen it so desires. For games, it comes down to three things.
The first is some potentially technical limitation, where not having to render those extra pixels allows for higher fidelity or greater computational processes. It’s partially the same as when games lock in at 30 FPS instead of 60 FPS (or let it fly at whatever rate it can manage).
Second is something akin to the filmmaker decision of choosing one of a myriad of widescreen formats. They necessarily want to show more on the horizontal plane because that’s where the information is. Going wider and wider allows the director and cinematographer to stuff more details into the sides of any given shot, bumping up the efficiency and atmosphere of the visuals.
Lastly, you could make any widescreen you want be a purely stylistic choice. It’s more responsibility to manage the visual transference of data, but you can also just up the ratio until it looks like something you want. Graphic design and art direction can be built around the ratio to look like whatever is in the studio’s collective mind.
Consider, then, The Order: 1886. This semi-Arthurian/Victorian cover-based shooter is presented at a locked 30 FPS and a 2.40:1 aspect ratio and is, if anything else, an egregiously beautiful game. For all its positives (and its many negatives), the visuals are something you cannot take away from it.
From the beginning, Ready at Dawn has stated that they wanted The Order: 1886 to be “filmic.” They went from 60 FPS to 24 FPS, the traditional frame rate for films, but bumped up to 30 FPS to make it play better. However, they also chose a deliberate resolution of 1920×800 to enable 4x MSAA over 1920×1080 with no antialiasing.
The net result is a lot of give and take between technical requirements and stylistic choices, ending up at a gorgeous game with a lot of hazy London atmosphere. A positive performance analysis from Eurogamer justifies the technical decision, but how about a stylistic analysis?
The seemingly scrunched perspective of the game imbues it with nice sense of impending everything. It’s not necessarily claustrophobic but it certainly feels like the world is much more immediate, like monsters and death are always moments away from finding you.
This is also a very linear game, but areas can have a tendency to open up into arenas. The widened topography fills the stumpy aspect ratio much better, giving you a greater sense of awareness. Or rather, it makes you feel like you have a greater sense of awareness since just rendering in those missing top and bottom bars would literally give you more to work with, but the sensation of a battlefield opening up to fill your horizontal view is a powerful one, something worth working towards.
It can break down during moments of verticality, such as fighting between the balcony and the floor of a giant foyer, but it seems to further engender the feeling of situational awareness. The gameplay, as limited as it is, does great at forcing you to focus at the problem at hand. From bum-rushing shotgun-wielding foes to wall-clinging things, the cinematic scope seems to also have gameplay implications.
Taking cover and seeing shots come in from above or below gives you urgency, but the threats in your immediate field of view gives you pause. It’s a nice blend of pushing and pulling you in and out of safety. It more readily mimics what it would be like in real life—or at least something skewing closer to it.
The visual limitations force you to hole up against vertical inferiority (or somehow gain superiority) and address the problems in front of you. It gives most encounters a very particular kind of rhythm, if not physically then definitely mentally. Your eyes bounce around and your brain processes cover and actions in turn.
As odd as this ostensibly stylistic choice can be, it is one of the better ones made for The Order: 1886. It enables a good-looking game to be even more pleasing to your eyeballs, but it also informs the way the game is played. The game has a lot of other, more obvious faults, but its decision to be super cinematic isn’t one of them.