Cinematics Sans Cutscenes

Jump forward ten years again to nearer the present day, and we once again return to Shadow of The Colossus to witness the evolution of the same system. Below is a video highlighting the current state-of-the-art in terms of target-based cameras and dynamic framing of subjects in gameplay.

With the Z-Targetting-equivelant button held from the start, note how the camera position and field of view change based on the current state of battle, falling closer to the player character as he lands on the Colossus’ head to enhance the vertiginous impact, employing a slow zoom with the raised sword to increase the anticipation of the blow, and maintaining a non-centred composition throughout with consideration to both the head-room above the colossus when standing or the player’s when attempting to shake him off.

Even more impressive, after releasing the targeting button on being thrown from the giant’s head I simply hold it once again upon landing, displaying a masterfully composed shot of the two protagonists squaring off during the break in combat, obeying eye-lines and the rule of thirds perfectly – importantly proving that the same system used for full-body combat in Zelda, (and to a degree the action-orientated one in Gears of War), can also support the tighter compositions required for facial acting if necessary.

Lastly, the change of cameras between the various colossus attack patterns provides a new method of telegraphing incoming attacks, with the advantages of remaining in this cinematic mode best illustrated by the target shifting from the eyes to the striking weapon or feet later in the video, therefore providing a gameplay benefit too.

To summarise Composition:

  • Targets can be animated (developer controlled) or dynamic (in gameplay).
  • Targets present a consistent solution for both gameplay and story.

In Conclusion

Employing a method of optional cinematic tracks as those shown in both Metal Gear Solid and Gears of War, but using camera information based on targets (both pre-created and dynamic), with the addition of framing via field-of-view data (both pre-created and dynamic), we now have all the tools required to begin exploring the delivery of cinematic experiences without the traditional reliance on cutscenes and all their limitations.

While the exact system is still theoretical at this stage, a mandate can be drawn up as to what kind of experience this system must entail. So to that end I’ll finish with a summarising list, based on the examples and ideas presented in this session, of what a cutscene replacement needs to be:


Unlike the “imposed” cinematography of cutscenes from which there is only the option to opt-out, a cutscene alternative must be pulled to the player by the player if they so choose it. In order to cater for different play-styles and preferred experiences, we can no longer afford to force every player down the same path to consume equal amounts of narrative content.


Unlike the linear progression of cutscenes, a cutscene alternative must occur alongside gameplay to allow the player to dip in and out of a narrative sequence at will without missing the entire thing, lessening the chance that vital content will be missed without forcing the player to endure a linear experience if they do not wish it.


Unlike the harsh transitions into and out of cutscenes, merging of gameplay and story must be supported via consistency of character movement in and out of a cutscene alternative, as well as employing smooth transitions made all the more palatable by the important choice to participate. As such, unlike the complete loss of control during a cutscene, the player must still move and/or look (to a degree) in a manner consistent with regular gameplay, avoiding gimmicks provided by previous attempts at “interactive cutscenes”. Complete freedom of choice is afforded by the ability to enter/exit at any stage.


Retaining the aesthetic s of cutscenes, a cutscene alternative must support the cinematic composition of both pre-authored and dynamic events using camera targets and field-of-view information. As with the second Half Life 2 example, this is the one area over which we as developers must maintain control due to players simply lacking the artistry required to cinematically compose shots, offering the option of cinematic visuals to all who wish to participate.

In closing, we must abandon some traits and techniques of film photography in order to best utilize the unique strengths of the videogame medium, being freedom, interactivity and dynamic, emergent experiences.

4 thoughts on “Cinematics Sans Cutscenes”

  1. This was a great article. Thanks!

    »As with the second Half Life 2 example, this is the one area over which we as developers must maintain control due to players simply lacking the artistry required to cinematically compose shots, offering the option of cinematic visuals to all who wish to participate.«

    I spun off into a brief tangent (to Twitter) at that example, and came back to the article, but this summary paragraph brings me back to my earlier tangent (which I guess makes a secant really). I’m certain this isn’t a terribly far reach from your article, and you’ve probably considered some of this, but here’s my thinking today:

    If you want to give players full/complete control of the camera, and yet encourage them towards artistry in their game experience, then it makes sense to reward players for doing so. That is, you could make cinematic shot composition a system in the game that can be mastered. Of course, such a system has the usual negatives: you abdicate to players the “ability” to have a sub-optimal experience, and you deal with trying to quantify and program “artistic sensibilities”. On the other hand, in the best case you encourage players to see the most cinematic version of events, and convince them that it was their choice to play it that way (even when there wasn’t ever really a choice).

    Players may not have the artistry necessary at the beginning of the game, but as with nearly any other game system, if you give the players the right feedback and the system is well tuned, you can train the player towards mastery. In such a system, I think the dominating issue becomes not so much the player’s artistry as the player’s dexterity to perform expected movements and game choices (all for appropriate “editing”) in real time, depending upon the complexity of the system design (and composition powers awarded to players).

    Gears of War’s “Y” system is an example of such a system design. Better examples, I think, are the “camera modes” of Dead Rising and Beyond Good and Evil. Both games reward players for taking interesting “photos” with still-photo cameras (even/particularly during key cinematic moments). I’m wondering if there are lessons from these camera modes that can be pulled out and generalized to normal game play moments, rather than only used in sniper-like photo-journalism mini-games.

    It would be interesting if GTA4 awarded players bonuses for performing actions using more cinematic views such as the “handbrake cam”. (I could imagine Saints Row 3 providing a camera like that and giving Style XP bonus modifiers for using it.) It might make Half-Life 2’s sequences stronger if the player was rewarded (extra health or extra ammo, perhaps) for paying attention to the action and focusing in on important characters. (It would also be easy to see a use for a “decorum” system in that case as well, rewarding (rather than restricting) for respecting the social rule of not using weapons around friends.)

    Anyway, I really appreciated your article and really wanted to point out the Dead Rising/BG&E examples and the idea of trying to “make shot composition a game (system) that players can master”.

  2. While it does sound like a cool idea to fit photography into the fiction, I’ve played in in Beyond Good & Evil, Dead Rising, Bioshock and the Fatal Frame series and by pushing the accepted compositional limits have found each to be VERY forgiving in terms of subject positioning. This is almost certainly the result of user-friendliness to avoid alienating players who don’t understand even basic composition, and I fear that teaching it in tutorials and/or as part of the narrative will still prove inaccessible to most players.

    This is reinforced by an industry-wide shift in all areas of game design to place a high importance on accessibility – not just to appease the lowest common denomination of player, but to allow us to concentrate on higher-level problems without worrying if the player can understand even the basics.

    What I’m really looking for here is a universal solution (or if not that, at least a universal philosophy) that can allow us to get closer to the core of what games do best in terms of storytelling without always falling back on the crutch of film-based cinematography, and I’m afraid having to add even basic camera-handling on top of the other things a player must master to access our stories is rather undesirable.

    Thanks for the ideas though – personally I love to play as a photojournalist in games, but as with the Half Life 2 example, that’s just me…

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