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Better Game Design Through Cutscenes
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Better Game Design Through Cutscenes

April 2, 2002 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Uses of cutscenes

Of course, from a game design viewpoint, we're approaching this article back-to-front. Before we choose which medium to use for our cutscene, we should decide what role this cutscene has within our game, and whether it should be a cutscene at all.

Here we briefly digress into personal opinion. If there is any practical way to achieve a goal within a game design using gameplay rather than a cutscene, my feeling is that is the better path to take. Very few players would prefer a non-interactive scene to an interactive one. Even if they thoroughly enjoy the cutscene presented, they would likely have prefered it had it been presented at a similar quality within an interactive setting. while there are some exceptions to this rule, most notably where either the player's to act is part of the dramatic tension or where the cutscene is being used for pacing purposes, I feel it holds true in the vast majority of cases.

So, what are cutscenes good for? Primarily, the cutscene is there to make a game's world more real- not just by telling a story, but also by reacting to the player, by showing him the effects of his actions upon that world and thus making both the world more real and his actions more important. The cutscene fills the role of both prequel and epilogue: showing the player what the world is like before he enters it, what needs he has to fill, what he has to work with and what he has to face, and afterwards showing what the effects of his actions upon the world were, whether good, bad or both.

Given this, we can now look at the more specific roles cutscenes can play within a game design.

Conversation scenes
It is possible to use a cutscene, most often Machinima cutscenes, to portray conversations between the player character and non-player characters, without the possibility for player interaction except at occasional key points. while several games in the recent past have used this technique to advance their plot or provide information dump, this usage illustrates most of the ways in which cutscenes can serve to annoy the player rather than intrigue them.

As the cutscene actively involves the player character, disallowing interaction temporarily removes the player's control of his character, lessening his immersion and emotional attachment to his avatar within the game. In addition, by changing perspective while still involving the player character in something that should logically be presented as part of an interactive section, this technique dislocates the conversation from the game and the gameworld - even if the conversation is fully interactive.

Half-Life and the Baldur's Gate series both present excellent ways to have NPC characters talk to the player character without resorting to a cutscene.

Information Dump
Probably the most common use for the cutscene, and recently Machinima cutscenes in particular. While it is certainly one of the main functions of the cutscene to give information to the player, I'm referring here to lengthy expositions, either "mission briefings" or backplot explanations - the latter referred to in novels and films, of course, as the "info dump".

The key problem here is boring the player with a lengthy exposition. Firstly, could this information be presented in another way? If it isn't vital, it might be as well to put the information in the game's manual, which can be dipped into at will at the player's convenience - in a way, it is interactive. An alternative here is to present it as a purely optional cutscene within the game- Baldur's Gate's massive libraries of backstory-filled books present one definite possibility here. If the information could be spoon-fed to the player throughout a section of gameplay, this, too, might be a better way to present it.

Secondly, the information must be presented in the most dynamic and visual way possible - to quote an old maxim, show, don't tell. Probably the worst way to present an info dump is as a lengthy conversation scene between two minimally-animated CGI characters - presenting a scene with little visual interest or action and bereft of even the human connection of a real person on screen, the game virtually guarantees the player wearing out the "skip" button or going off to make a cup of tea.

The original Command and Conquer presents a great example of how to present a lot of information through a cutscene - taking its model as a video briefing to the player as commander of either NOD or GDI forces, it sticks rigidly to its premise, immediately immersing the player into his role as his briefing officers address him directly. From here, it presents as much information as possible in a visual way - which are you more likely to remember, a verbal description of a "Flame Tank" or a video of it burning its way through a small town? And, lastly, the scene has been tightly edited to keep it as short and interesting as possible - it might be well in any game design to specify an absolute maximum length of any cutscene of, say, two minutes, to keep the player interested and immersed in the action.

An info dump is definitely one place where a cutscene can be the best or the only way to convey information that the player needs, but this is also the place where most cutscenes fall down dramatically.

Scene and mood setting
Rather similarly to an info-dump, the cutscene can often be used to set the scene for a chapter or for a game as a whole. This is probably the best-known and most spectacular use of the cutscene, with Blizzard Entertainment's recent games (most notably Starcraft and Diablo II) making spectacular use of incredibly well-realised pre-rendered cutscenes to set a feel for the entire game.

Figure 4: 15-bit Palletized Image

Such a spectacular introduction can reap its rewards throughout the game, not only in terms of giving the player an enjoyable viewing experience but also in setting up imagery and narrative in the player's mind, which he will then imprint upon the graphics and events of the game. Starcraft's numerous cinematics were aimed at giving a face to the anonymous sprites within the gameplay, leading the player to think of his units at least a little as characters in a fictional war rather than game pieces. Likewise, Diablo's moody introductions helped give a feeling of Gothic menace to the settings and major villains, making rather small sprites on the screen seem truly terrifying because of what we had previously seen in the cutscenes, as well as give the dungeon hacking gameplay a feeling of greater depth and importance.

It is worth noting that there is the potential for such an introduction to backfire, particularly if the game is truely 3D rather than partially or wholly 2D (as it is in the case of Blizzard's games). In this case, expectations can be set up with spectacularly visualised cutscenes which are then dashed when the game itself is displayed from much the same perspective but looking (as a real-time engine) substantially worse. Here, it is possible to set the scene by using well-realised Machinima cutscenes to portray the mood and feel of the game as well and spectacularly as possible, while still maintaining the look of the in-game sequences, as in Metal Gear Solid II or Devil May Cry on the Playstation 2, for a similar or even greater payoff.

New cutscenes can often be one of the most tangible rewards for a player's completing any goal within a game. The Final Fantasy series' gameplay is often driven by this imperative, whether trying to advance through the game to see the next cutscene in the story, or trying to find the magical "summon" spells within the game, which a lot of people have noted are primarily worth finding in order to enjoy the spectacular animations which accompany them.

It is even possible to use a replay of a player's own actions within a game as a reward- for example, many "sports" genre games, such as Grand Turismo and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, offer a "replay" feature for completed sections, complete with dramatic camerawork and cinematic presentation. In this case, the player can be rewarded still further by allowing him or her to save such replays, allowing them to re-watch their greatest moments (a feature which has proven very popular on games such as X-Wing and Myth), and possibly by even allowing them to edit the camerawork on a replay to produce their very own movie (a much-lauded feature in Driver, and one which has spawned an entire sub-genre of animated film production in Machinima games).

Interestingly, a cutscene will almost always function as a reward for a player if it is well-realised, no matter what its other intentions are. Hence, by including key cutscenes for other reasons in a game design, you are automatically building in a reward mechanism too.

Introduction of plot or gameplay elements
A very broad category, this could include the introduction of a plot twist or new character in the plot, an obvious narrative device where the player can see a change in his fate happen or see a new character impressively introduced before he has to interact with it, heightening its impact by giving him time to think. This technique can be very effectively used to introduce major enemies, giving them a brief "brag movie" to demonstrate just why the player should be very scared of them before they attack!

Most notably used in cutscenes in Final Fantasy VII, where Sephiroth, the main enemy, is built up for tens of hours of gameplay through flashback and third-person cutscenes, cutscenes allow a game to use numerous conventional narrative techniques including that of foreshadowing - giving hints of a particularly dramatic conflict or event to come. Numerous films, most notably the eerie and horrible The Vanishing use subtle foreshadowing of plot to great effect, and such techniques can add a great deal of depth and anticipation to a game's narrative, encouraging the player to play on.

Final Fantasy's Sephiroth is foreshadowed with cutscenes.

Show effects of actions
As we have discussed earlier, the cutscene gives the game designer the power to show the player how his actions affect not just him, but the fictional world, and thus make that world more real. This function can be used in a number of ways.

Most commonly, we can show the player's character succeeding at his task, and thus reward him by showing how his actions make a positive difference - whether we are showing him being given the gold medal at a skating competition and being applauded by his peers, or flying over the planet he has saved, where crowds of thousands of civilians are cheering now that the threat to their lives in gone. Obviously, this crosses over with "reward"! However, do note that for a cutscene to be a reward it doesn't have to show success - it merely has to be something the player wants to see. (Huge dragons battering the Earth to pieces with energy bolts might not necessarily be good, in Final Fantasy VII, but I sure did want to see it!)

More rarely used, and sometimes even more useful, is the potential to show the effects of a player's failure at some task on the world. This can be as simple as a slightly more elongated death sequence showing the player's foes ravaging the world, but it is likely to be more powerful when the player can continue on with the game despite his failure. Seeing or otherwise being immersed in the carnage wrought by his enemies or his failure will often give the player more emotional connection to the world - now he has something to make up for, and something to really hate his enemies for!

Again, I'm going to go back to Final Fantasy VII here, where (spoiler alert!) probably the most singly memorable event in the game was Sephiroth's murder of Ariel. Seeing this event, partially caused by the path you had taken in the game, gave you as the player a lot more reason to carry on - not just to gain power and stop evil, but now to get revenge on one of the most memorable villains in computer game history.

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