Experienced Points

Experienced Points
5 Things To Do If You Use Cutscenes in Your Video Game

Shamus Young | 14 Apr 2015 19:00
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Last week I singled out a few games that spent too much time trying to make cutscenes and not enough time polishing their gameplay or making sure the movie and game parts fit together. Some people take this argument a little too far, arguing that cutscenes in games are a total waste and we should go back to the days of Doom when the story was in README.TXT.

But I'm okay with cutscenes and story in my video games. Cutscenes are great for establishing tone and texture. They give the world some shape and introduce us to the characters. They give you a sense of closure when the game ends, even if you're not done playing. Just like movies sometimes stop the action to explain the stakes or rules of the conflict to the audience, I think it's fine to have a lull in gameplay to make sure the player has a firm grasp on what they're doing and why.

Having said that, there are awful mistakes that game designers keep making that kind of ruin both the movie and the game they're trying to produce.

1. Don't stop gameplay if you don't have to.

If the characters need to do a bit of talking, consider letting the player move around during the conversation. If you just can't let them move, then at least let them control the camera. If the player's only input is to either skip the cutscene or watch passively, then you're failing at the whole "video game" thing. I'm not going to say you should never block player input, but this happens way more often than it should.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the intro lets the player move their character's head around. In Assassin's Creed, you can often walk around while someone else blabbers stupid conspiracy nonsense at you. Half-Life 2 has several scenes where you can walk around and play with stuff in the environment while the talking is going on. Some people find these parts annoying, but I promise you it would be excruciating if these scenes were completely non-interactive info-dumps.

Bonus points if the game can gracefully allow the player to exit the scene and continue the game before the dialog ends. We're likely to care less about the plot during our second or third (or even tenth) playthrough.

2. Learn Cinematography.

If you just can't bear to let players walk around during the cutscene and you insist on stealing the camera away from them, then you had better make sure you know how to make a movie. And no, watching lots of Quentin Tarantino movies does not make you a filmmaker.

The language of cinema is really complicated and full of nuance. Most of us in the audience aren't even aware of all the subtle cues of music, lighting, sound effects, costume, and (most importantly) camera angles used to set the mood of a scene and our perception of it. Too many game designers simply point a camera at talking characters and have no understanding why their scenes don't work. They aren't filmmakers so they don't know how to make movies that connect with the viewer. They just use it to give you something to look at while characters talk.

This is a crime. Not only have we been forced to stop playing our video game to watch a movie, we're watching a movie that's lifeless and boring. Scenes play out in shot reverse shot with dull lighting, and flat camera angles.

Square Enix is a huge offender in this regard. In Thief 2013, scenes are shot so that there's almost no contrast between the characters and the background. It's just a big mush of brown. The audio levels are appalling. (Chatter from background extras often drowns out main characters.) The camera angles are lazy and dull. What should be a noir-style study in shadows and silhouettes ends up looking like a soap opera with goth-styled costumes. You can find similar problems in Hitman: Absolution. A fortune was spent making cutscenes that look cheap.

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