Weekend Reading: Cutscenes and the effort to tell a story

Most every game that hits the shelves attempts to tell some sort of story. Whether it be a tale of a captured love, who lies in a faraway castle, or one of revenge, striking down those who cursed your family. Some games try to achieve more, by having the player experience the story, and feel as though they are an active part of what is going on.

Whatever the case may be, there is still the all-important cutscene. It’s a chance for the game’s director to present the player with important information, along with plot points, such as character death, new powers, or a change in the party. Yet, the question is, how best to present it?

It’s a matter of the director’s taste, but each way offers different effects when the message is delivered. As some of you in the blogs noted, I probed you last night about the whole thought. Let’s dive in.

Pre-rendered video, or FMVs, as we normally call them, is the most cinematic tool that a director can use to tell a part of the story. The graphics will be pushed as far as the budget can allow. In Final Fantasy titles, the cutscenes show the dramatic result of whatever has been going on in the game, or after the defeat of a boss, forming a resolution to the story. Otherwise, the cutscene acts as an impetus, showing us what is to come, like in the Silent Hill titles — enter into a room, and the cutscene happens, setting up the stage for what is to come.

Like I mentioned before, this is where the cinematic aspect makes itself known. This gives the ability for the director to scare us, pull at our heartstrings, or send us into a blind rage. The cutscenes act as a reward for the player’s hard work, showing off the full prowess of the developer’s talents. It’s a chance to take a break for the moment, and evaluate the situation for the player.

The downside to this style, though, is that it creates a rift between the gameplay graphics and the FMV graphics. “Why can’t the rest of the game look this good?” There are obvious answers, but it still creates a feeling of jealousy. In addition, it takes you out of the game, because you’ve become involved with the gameplay that’s going on, that the cutscene pulls you back, and forces you to just sit and watch.

In the same vein are the live-action cutscenes, which Rev just loves. It’s a style that works best only within the RPG genre. In games like Prince of Persia, a cutscene in the middle of the action takes you out of things too much. That’s why many of our readers have mentioned how much they love QTEs, or Quick Time Events — the game forcing the player to participate in the cutscene, usually by doing simple commands.

Since they became really popular with Resident Evil 4, they’ve been on the forefront of peoples’ minds. It finds a nice blend between showing off more polished graphics, but keeps the player’s attention by forcing them to take a part of the action, otherwise they’d suffer from a side-effect. With the game’s popularity, and the expectance of them in Resident Evil 5, this will likely be used in many more action games to come.

Now, is that a good thing? Well, there’s certainly the possibility of these QTEs becoming more and more complex in an effort to one-up other games. That’s just a prediction, though, and for the meantime, we should enjoy these as an alternative to full blown FMVs in action games.

A personal favorite of mine is that of animated cutscenes. I’m talking about the anime clips put into a game, like Persona 3 did with some of its cutscenes. The aim with this is to provide a more stylized feeling, in order to set the mood better. It’s an alternative to FMVs, because they can fit with the game’s odd-looking character models, or they can perform effects that just don’t translate well into 3-D. Of course, they’re usually just inserted into anime video games in order to further stretch out the production materials that are already at the developer’s disposal.

What use do these hold? Really, not too much. It’s a stylized look that fits as an alternative to FMVs and can look cool when done right. It would be nice to see this implemented more, but it’s solely a convention of Japanese games, and so it’s up to directors and developers over there to put out games that can use this effectively.

Finally, there are the cutscenes that use only the game’s graphics. In order to avoid the gap created by FMVs, the cutscenes will take place using the engine that’s running the gameplay. This is most common in 2-D games, simply so that there is no pause in the running game. If the game has great production values like Odin Sphere, then it’ll turn out just fine, and makes the game feel like it’s moving faster.

There’s a subset of this group that we’ve seen in some FPS games — namely, BioShock and Half-Life. By having the NPCs and the environment tell the story of what’s going on in the game, the player is getting closer to experiencing the game. It’s the mix of taking part in the action, as well as giving up no amount of control of your character during a “cutscene” that makes this such a nice option. The major downside to it, though, is that you can turn away and miss when things happen.

The mood is really key to what type of cutscene is best to use. What I found really interesting, though was to see what some of the readers’ preferences were. A large group were big fans of the QTEs, and many were sick of the FMVs. It was a great treat during the advent of 3-D gaming to see these marvelous videos, but as of recent, they’ve become a dime a dozen, and it requires the utmost care to create something that will be memorable. Otherwise, it’s just standard fare.

Should cutscenes just be gotten rid of? There’s certainly the push for that with some of the players. With the increased beauty of gameplay graphics, there’s a good possibility that we’ll be seeing more in-game graphics telling the story. The thing is, there’s still a special magic about getting to see these jaw-dropping videos that act as a reward for whatever the player has done.

There’s a chance to evolve cutscenes with this generation. The cutscene took its form during the PlayStation’s years, but at the end of the PS2’s life, we’ve seen 2-D games make a comeback from the bit eras. Right now, we’re experiencing QTEs, but it’s yet to be seen what will be the mainstay of games for the next five years.

For the larger group of readers, how do you prefer your cutscenes? Also, share some of your favorites, either here or in the community blogs. I’d love to see them.