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Building a Better Cutscene

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I once witnessed an otherwise calm friend of mine plead with his own television. He was playing Metal Gear Solid 4, a game which he was mostly enjoying, but with which he had reached his breaking point somewhere around the 45 minute mark of a cutscene. I don’t recall exactly what was happening, but someone was frowning and Raiden was doing a cartwheel.

Moments like this can make you think that cutscenes don’t belong in games. It’s easy to suggest that they don’t. Why should a static, unchangeable movie exist in a medium that is everything but? Granted, we need to see the characters share stories and establish themselves as kings or mission commanders or peppy female sidekicks. Every porn needs a plumber without a shirt on, as the saying I just invented goes.

That’s the dilemma with cutscenes: you want to know the story, but you don’t want to step aside to let it be told. As players, we want to be in charge of our own actions and not just witnesses. Beyond those big narrative quandries, there are also smaller problems, like overly long or extremely cheesy dialog, that tend to plague these mini-movies. So, let’s find out how to built a better cutscene.


There’s no greater contrast than witnessing the epic, sweeping cutscene of a modern RPG’s intro followed by the wooden-armed, blank-faced tedium of dialog scenes. It’s like watching an action movie devolve into a silent film. The reasoning is obvious; there simply isn’t enough time to give everything polish. Developers can’t give elegant animation to every scene from a 600 page script. Concessions have to be made, but it seems we’re making too many.

When a character issues an emotional thank you for saving their life with the same face they use to curse the name of the villain who put it into peril in the first place, something is wrong. Bad cutscene dialog can be like watching a script reading rather than a film. I can be really frustrating, too, when you know the actors can do better and the script is really damn good.

The solution isn’t all that dramatic. There doesn’t need to be a Metal Gear Solid level of pre-rendered movie or the powerful facial reactions of L.A. Noire. We can handle subtly and in most cases, we prefer it. We need is limbs that move, characters that touch their face, or pace the room solemnly while they speak. Watch a real human receive news, bad or good, and you’ll see a whole acting class worth of emotions in a second.

We see most of our gameplay down the barrel of a gun, and we see most of our cutscenes staring over someone’s shoulder. We get it. The over-the-shoulder shot is a great way to do back and forth dialog. It keeps us focused on who is saying something and to whom they are saying it.

Let’s pick on Bioware for a second. Take a look at this scene from Dragon Age 2, in which a few characters engage in an extremely crucial discussion about the future of the universe’s most important religion and the fates of its followers. Now, watch this scene from Mass Effect 2, during which Commander Shepard greets a crime lord at a nightclub. The two have very different levels of contextual intensity regarding what is at stake, but you’ll find the latter is undeniably more intense.

During the Omega sequence, the camera locks on Aria’s lips for a moment to ensure the viewer does not miss her warning not to f*#k with her. A few moments later, she stands, and the camera angle is widened to show her outstretching her arms over her entire accomplishment to denote her control over Omega and its people.

As Hawke debates with his powerful allies about justice and birthrights and the balance of good and evil, we get a fine view of his spiked mace when he shrugs intermittently.

Do you see what I mean? If you’re taking power away from the player to tell them something of incredible importance, how can we see its relevance when our characters move like mannequins? Admittedly, the level of that Mass Effect 2 cutscene sets doesn’t last for every subsequent sequence, but it’s a scene I could watch over and over. The DA2 sequence, however, I recall leaving going while I got up to make some tea.

One of the biggest mistakes a designer can make when creating a cutscene is forgetting the player exists. It sounds like a bizarre mistake for a video game creator to make, but it happens more often than you think. You can be sure it’s happened when you witness your character doing something we couldn’t dream of pulling off. When that happens, it becomes immediately apparent that the creators have a story to tell and that we’re just in the way.

Take a look at this scene from Final Fantasy XIII. Frankly, it’s an action scene that would make Michael Bay blush, as it’s filled with high-tension hover-car chases, sword fighting and robots that turn into cars. It’s precisely the kind of intensely insane action that fans come to expect from the Final Fantasy series. But, as a reminder, this is what gameplay in FFXIII actually looks like.

I’m not looking to insult the franchise, but why even show us the pinnacle of cinematic action if we can’t even come close to it when we’re in the driver’s seat? Shouldn’t designers be working to make the game itself high octane, rather than a movie within the game? Why is all the excitement being saved for the moments of least player interaction? How come what I do during gameplay and what creators imagine my character to be capable of are so far removed?

Obviously, the developers are providing these characters for us, so it’s up to them in to initially define who they are. They’ve written the stories and provided us the playground to experience that narrative. But, we can change equipment, succeed and fail, choose our teammates and even make calls about how the story ends. We get to steer the boat. This player-centric reality has to be addressed in these vignettes, or it makes our investment meaningless. Both sides have to make concessions, but I think it’s about time the developers do a little more of the conceding.

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