For decades now, the biggest-budget games have striven to capture the masterful blocking and choreography of action cinema at its best. From the gritty, artless fisticuffs of The Last of Us to the superpowered clashes between literal deities in 2018’s God of War, the people who make video games have become quite adept at casting acts of sudden violence as spectacles unto themselves, particularly in cutscenes and button-mashing quick-time events. Once you actually wrest control back from the game, however, your flailing attempts to vanquish your foes pale in comparison to the pinpoint timing and perfect accuracy your protagonist flaunts when they’re unmoored from your sweaty fingers. It’s hard enough to beat the Big Bad Monstrosity in the first place, let alone to get it done with grace and verve.
That’s what makes Sunjeev “SunhiLegend” Kumar’s work so impressive. If you’ve spent any time in online gaming spaces in the past few years, you’ve probably scrolled past one of his creations, perhaps without even knowing its author. Kumar specializes in crafting short snippets of visually appealing gameplay, usually from titles that feature ornate combat systems, like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Devil May Cry, or God of War, and crunching them into GIF files that can be easily shared on social media. And despite some of the obvious limitations of the form—a lack of audio, for one—his output has garnered quite a lot of attention on social media, including personalized responses from some of the developers who make the games that he loves to show off.
Of course, high-level players have loved to flaunt their stuff to an audience before the advent of online video—there are notable Devil May Cry 3 combo videos that are more than a decade old at this point—but Kumar brings a level of precision and production quality that makes his work stand out even in meme-choked gaming subreddits. From the position of the camera to the exact sequence of moves, his work exudes the same sense of authorship of a well-directed fight scene, of two or more actors practicing the same steps over and over until they get the perfect take. In Kumar’s case, however, that can mean wrestling with the troublesome AI of a dragon who won’t quite do the right attack pattern in Monster Hunter World, or reinputting a dropped combo in a Platinum game.
Kumar first learned how to make GIFs a decade ago, when he bought a PS3 to play Gran Turismo 5. At first, he would cut segments from YouTube videos and compress them in GIF form. Over time, however, he became frustrated with the quality of the footage on offer. Since he wanted to control both the player vehicle and the lighting himself, as well as remove the pesky HUD from the screen, he eventually decided to buy his own capture card and take the director’s chair for himself. From there, he discovered that creating footage that lived up to his standards could be quite difficult at times, but ultimately very fulfilling.
Over the years, Kumar’s process has grown more elaborate, but also much more consistent. Early on, he said, he would go days without posting anything, then record 10 GIFs of random gameplay and upload them all at once. Today, he tries to stick to a more regimented schedule, while still keeping up what he calls a certain standard of quality. When he first played Horizon: Zero Dawn, he began to experiment with its robust photo mode to create more dynamic camera angles. Though he was initially concerned that the process of entering photo mode would cause the footage to lose frames, over time, he began to use the photo modes of games like Spider-Man and God of War to create unexpected juxtapositions, or as a transition to cut from clip to clip.
“Every now and then I do try to come up with something new that I haven’t done before,” Kumar said. “A lot of the time it just doesn’t work for me, but when it’s something I like the look of, I keep it in mind, so I can go back to it when needed.”
Kumar said that the amount of time he has to invest to make a single GIF varies wildly from project to project. For example, in Devil May Cry 5, he told me he sometimes spends two to three hours practicing a combo, and then a few more hours trying to capture the mayhem with the right lighting and camera angles. But in a game like Monster Hunter: World, where enemy behavior varies heavily due to randomization, he’ll often have to fight the same monster six or seven times for the right capture—though he’s learned to spread the clashes out over a week or two so he doesn’t grow frustrated in the process. Every now and then, however, he’ll play a game normally and luck into some great raw footage. It all just depends on the day.
That said, Kumar noted that game developers could institute a few small tweaks that would make his life a lot easier. For example, since he often has to replay the same sections of games over and over for the perfect take—without a HUD, mind you—he wishes that hardware manufacturers would make it easier to make backup saves on consoles. And although this is less of a concern on PC, some devs on that platform still take great pains to hide the save files from crafty players. (Looking at you, FromSoftware.) Kumar also sometimes uses cheats to enhance his footage, such as infinite ammo or slow motion, and when developers don’t give him those options, he’ll rely on mods created by the fans instead. Most of Kumar’s clips are enhanced by filters and special effects that he achieves through editing software, but he said having more raw options in-game is always helpful.
Kumar’s work has triggered other GIF makers to come to the fore, such as fellow Sony fan “Much118x.” According to Much, Kumar not only served as his inspiration, but also personally instructed him in the process of making GIFs in the first place. Much has become well-known for crafting GIFs that feature several different scenes or games by utilizing match cuts to achieve smooth transitions. Much credited his steady improvement to Kumar’s guidance and his own simple perseverance, along with the inspiration he derives from cinematic forerunners like Quentin Tarantino. Much’s work tends towards Sony games, especially God of War and Horizon Zero Dawn, and he cited their detailed animation work as a definite advantage, along with the simple fact that they’re his favorite games to play. “These are the games that I typically love the most too, mainly for the narratives they tell, and so it essentially becomes inherently enjoyable just to make something creative for a game you love,” he said.
When you look at compilations of both Kumar and Much’s work, one thing in particular stands out: the sheer volume of slicing, stabbing, and shooting on display. Though Much noted that he’s dabbled in non-violent GIFs in the past, he personally thinks that video is a better medium to convey the distinct and expansive atmospheres of less-combat-driven games like Death Stranding, especially given the role that ambient music plays in stirring those moods. Still, Much said that he primarily makes GIFs to show off the superior fluidity of animation that some triple-A games exhibit, and that primarily comes in the form of their combat, with only a few notable exceptions. In that sense, he’s just capturing what excites him about these games.
Though there’s no doubt that these GIFs are a new form of art created by and for video game players, for Kumar, they’re also a way to highlight a game’s high points or bombastic moments, similar to the sizzle reel that might accompany a teaser trailer for an upcoming game. Much offered a slightly different rationale: For him, making GIFs is just a way to spend more time with a game that he loves, soaking up the scenery, and enjoying the particulars of its soundtrack.
“I believe that I enjoy making content for these games simply just because I love the amount of clear dedication that the teams behind these games put into their work, in addition to how much I loved the games myself,” Much says. “To be recognized by people in the industry for making GIFs is nothing short of motivating and heartwarming.”
Header image: Capcom
Steven T. Wright is a reporter and novelist living in the Twin Cities. He is the former independent games columnist for Variety, and he has written for Rolling Stone, Polygon, Vice, and many others. He almost named his novel after a city in Final Fantasy, but his friends talked him out of it.