Kane sneering out from the briefing video of Command and Conquer. Lantern light over a wrecked inn in Diablo II. Bahamut blasting your foes to ashes in Final Fantasy VII. There is no doubt that the humble cutscene has left its mark on the memories of most gamers. But how did these beautiful scenes affect the gameplay of the titles they graced?
Command and Conquer's Kane
Cutscenes are useful for more than marketing screenshots and a chance to see your creation realised in film-like form. They can also provide a valuable, sometimes essential, tool for game design - not only to explain backstory, but as reward, encouragement, as a pacing tool, to help sustain immersion and more. Hence, this article will look at some of the ways in which the humble cutscene can influence the gameplay and gameflow of its associated title.
Firstly, however, we should probably decide exactly what we're talking about when we use the "c" word...
What is a cutscene?
The most obvious definition of a cutscene would probably be "a film in a game".
Of course, this is how most cutscenes - and certainly most dramatic and well-remembered cutscenes - appear. However, there have been a number of cutscene techniques which do not fit this definition - some games, such as Max Payne, have used comics to tell their story, while games like the Baldur's Gate series have used pure audio and text to great effect. Hence, a better definition might be "a storytelling device in a game".
It is immediately obvious that we're casting our net a bit wide here - after all, we're now defining all storytelling within a game as a cutscene, even when (as in games like Half-Life) much of the storytelling is most definitely part of the gameplay.
Perhaps the best definition of a cutscene is "any non-interactive storytelling or scene-setting element of a game".
While this orgy of redefinition may seem a little anal, with this definition we can look at all of the available media for the job, including some which may not immediately appear to be cutscene material at all. Obviously, the medium most people would associate with the cutscene is the moving picture, whether in the form of film/video (as seen in Command and Conquer, most notably) or animation (whether 3D or 2D). Animated cutscenes in particular come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from fully-prerendered epic CGI pieces as seen in the Final Fantasy series to the Machinima real-time 3D cutscene, seen most spectacularly recently in Metal Gear Solid II, where the real-time cinematics are rapidly approaching and in places surpassing the quality of much pre-rendered CGI.
In general, given an unlimited budget most game designers would probably prefer to have all of their cinematics pre-rendered or filmed, but given the cost of either approach for any remotely ambitious scene this is unlikely to be realistic. A pre-rendered movie of two hours length could cost $5,000,000, and probably a lot more and film or video can vary from considerably less to considerably more - however, "low-budget" filming techniques are very difficult to use effectively within most computer games. Machinima provides a cheaper full-motion alternative, but, as console developers in particular are starting to realise, producing top-quality Machinima is still far from free -- $500,000 or more for two hours of footage.
Given these figures, it is worth looking at other cutscene techniques. One innovative approach used by Bioware in Baldur's Gate II was to produce a lot of cutscenes within their 2D Infinity Engine -- in-game paradigm cutscenes -- using the visual conventions of the main game (top-down 2D isometric view) in pre-scripted scenes, complete with full voice-over. This turned out to be a startlingly effective way to convey the main story at minimal cost and without breaking immersion in the game, although it is certainly very heavily reliant on good writing and voice acting within the cutscenes. A very similar semi-interactive technique was also used to tell a great deal of the story in both Final Fantasy VII and VIII.
Max Payne, the recent hit shooter from Remedy Entertainment, used a combination of Machinima and an in-game comic strip to tell its story. Comics are an effective and well-proven technique for telling a story, and although not as cheap as one might think (approximately $150,000 for a professionally-produced 200 page book) they're certainly more cost-effective than film techniques.
The Baldur's Gate series also made heavy use of media which most people would not associate with the term "cutscene" - audio recordings and simple text. As one of the oldest of all storytelling media, the written word is still massively effective and very cost-efficient. Provided that the writer can tell a gripping story, text (used in Baldur's Gate to tell a great deal of the backstory to the game via books, item descriptions and character descriptions) can be a great way to narrate a game. In the case of longer or more vital cutscenes, the combination of text with a audio voice-over (again, used in Baldur's Gate at the end of the game's "chapters", as well as the Diablo series) can hold the viewer's attention well, and audio alone can also be used in some circumstances. It is often a good idea to accompany any spoken audio with written subtitles, to allow the player to skip ahead at his own pace.
Elite Force made excellent use of a mixture of Machinima for its "ship interior" scenes and pre-rendered CGI for exterior scenes
Lastly, it is possible to mix and match cutscene techniques even within a single cutscene. The Star Trek game Elite Force made excellent use of a mixture of Machinima for its "ship interior" scenes and pre-rendered CGI for exterior scenes, while Command and Conquer mixed pre-rendered CGI with real film in its briefing cutscenes. Creative mixing of cutscene techniques can be a great way of producing really effective scenes at minimal cost - however, the key here is consistency in the "rules" defining what is produced with each technique.