The Benefits of Cinematics

Cutscenes aren’t all bad. There are many benefits to both developers and the player that cutscenes offer, and simply removing them entirely as some games have done can be something akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As such, a better approach is to separate the benefits from the problems so that hopefully we can retain the positives and leave the rest.

Cutscenes benefit players because:

  • Cutscenes can be used to reward the player for acheiving something. This is, however, dependant on the context, quality and duration of the cutscene, as well as the player’s willingness to watch.
  • Simply omitting cutscenes can feel cheap. Especially in a story-orientated experience, the absence of cutscenes requires that the story be delivered in some other form, and we often resort to simple text or voice-over which appears as low-budget compared to the high production values that come with the best cinematic games out there now.
  • We must direct the players attention. At some point we have to ensure the player has the relevant information required to complete the objectives required by the game, for which we often use cutscenes. Not doing so can lead to the player often having to resort to provided logs or objective recaps hidden away in pause menus – an altogether less inuitive approach.
  • Subtlety is otherwise lost. The videogame industry is one that thrives on exaggeration, with over-the-top characters and action in order to one-up previous experiences. Characters are larger than life and explosions get bigger with every new release, and real subtlety is something that we’ve only recently been able to begin exploring as a medium with the fidelity of characters afforded by the latest hardware. Losing cutscenes and our ability to go close on actors would certainly be a step backwards that we’d do well to avoid.

Cutscenes benefit developers because:

  • Cutscenes can be used to solve multiple issues such as transitions, as was the case with the Resident Evil example, dual narratives (which are virtually impossible viewed from a single player perspective), and recently even level loads.
  • We don’t consider what’s off-screen. As in film CGI, as soon as a character goes off screen we don’t have to animate them, so close-ups remove the need to animate the entire body and with fixed cameras animations can be optimised for memory conservation as we no longer consider actors out of shot.
  • Cutscenes are a known quantity. Production-wise we don’t have many aspects of game development where we can clearly gauge their scope. We don’t know how long a new feature will be to implement, how long a major bug will take to fix, and most of all just how much fun a particular gameplay element will be. As such, any known quantity during development is incredibly valuable and cutscenes are that rare established factor that can be quantified so as such are a relatively production-friendly method for imparting story.

On Cutscenes

I’m not the only one who is interested in leaving cutscenes behind to find our own voice in terms of storytelling in our medium.

“[If] you’re in the middle of play, in the middle of the game, then all of a sudden you’re in a cut-scene [and] you’re not supposed to operate at all, that’s not the kind of game I want to do.”
Fumito Ueda (Shadow of The Colossus)

“…cutscenes should be used to advance the story and display the relationships between characters… Cutscenes shouldn’t really be used for the action. That’s what the game is there for.”
Sefton Hill (Batman: Arkham Asylum)

“You know the thing that doesn’t work for me in these games are the little movies where they attempt to tell a story in between the playable levels.”
Steven Spielberg (Boom Blox)

Unfortunately we can’t all be making games like Boom Blox as we have stories to tell, so with that in mind I’d like to clarify what this post is about so as to set the right expectations.

What This Proposal Is

An exploration of established techniques for cinematic visuals outside of cutscenes. I’m not going to be showing anything new here, just drawing attention to various steps forward we’ve had over the years that have been successful in performing the tasks of cutscenes while keeping the player in the game, with a hope to combine them in the future to bring us closer to removing our reliance on cutscenes, if not eradicating them entirely. Hopefully this will establish some new philosophies about narrative devices in videogames that can guide future systems.

What This Proposal Is Not

A catch-all solution for storytelling in games. Visuals are only part of the solution, and I’m sure we’d agree that the main issue we’re facing as an industry right now is not one of our visual delivery but rather that of writing. I’m mostly hoping that in moving away from cutscenes we’ll stop writing games as if they are films with gameplay injected in between the story moments, and instead write specifically to the strengths of our medium. Every time we rely on a cutscene, we miss an opportunity to explore our strengths.

The primary reason I believe this is a worthwhile goal is in my experience with the cutscenes on Mass Effect 2. While we were developing the original, the dialogue system was going through its many iterations, with uncertainty as to its true potential for delivering different levels of story. The sequel however had been written with a clear understanding of it’s strengths and as such I experienced a greatly reduced requirement for exposition in our cutscenes due to the knowledge that the dialogue system can handle this. As such, our cutscenes focused primarily on character reinforcement and story progression, and I’m convinced that developing a further system that can handle both of these additional aspects along with exposition can only further reduce our reliance on cutscenes and really free us up to explore storytelling uniquely within our medium.

So What Are Cinematics Sans Cutscenes?

Cinematics Sans Cutscenes

So what do I mean when I say Cinematics Sans Cutscenes (Cinematics Without Cutscenes)? Well, I’ll start how I mean to continue by using a visual example, beginning with one of my favourite games of all time, Half-Life 2. To be clear, I’m not for a second suggesting that this game needs improvement in any way, and am only using this example as I consider the Half-Life series to still be our best example of cutscene-less storytelling we have.

This first video below shows you how I tend to play games. It’s something of an exaggeration as I’ve obviously played through it before, anticipating where actors will appear from and I have a little more cinematic experience than the average player via clear ideas on staging and composition. This is essentially an example of a best-case scenario of how this scene can be experienced by the player.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10