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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 3 of 3

Creating Emotional Connections

In general, as a game designer, it's safe to say that the more emotional connection a player has to a game, the better you're going. Emotional connection and emotional investment in any form of entertainment are the most likely reason for a user of such entertainment to return to them - because they like the characters, because they are enthralled in the plot, because they badly want the next spectacular gizmo, or, as we have just discussed, because they want to squash the main villain like an ant.

Cutscenes are one of the greatest tools available to a game designer for creating this emotional connection. Through them, you can portray the elements of your game as you wish the player to see them, using all the myriad tricks of the various narrative forms involved. You want the player to hate their enemy? Show their enemy doing something hateful, preferably to them or someone they care about. You want them to crave the next new gizmo? Show them why it's so cool (can anyone say "Flame Tank"?). You want them to impressed by the new character you're introducing? Show them doing something impressive (say, ripping through half-a-dozen of the enemies the player has spent the last level running from).

There are a couple of points to note here. Firstly, generating emotional attachment through cutscenes will only work well if the reasons for that emotion carry through into the gameplay too. If you want a player to really hate an enemy, the things that enemy does must have an effect on the game too (remember, in Final Fantasy, you'd probably spent a lot of time on Ariel, and she was indeed a very useful character). If a weapon has been set up to look really impressive in a cutscene, it had better kick ass in the game too.

This is all down to consistency, which is another bugbear of game design where cutscenes are concerned. Cutscenes are meant to portray activities happening in the game world, and lose all power if the player views them as dislocated from or irrelevant to that world. Hence, things that happen in a cutscene must have weight in the gameplay, and vice versa.

Secondly, emotional attachment can be generated to any part of the game world- not just other characters. In fact, often, pieces of equipment will carry more of an emotional charge as a tool the player uses often. Try depriving a Diablo player of his Monsterous Gooby Plate of the Implausible. Thus, you can then use that fact to generate emotional connections elsewhere - say, by having a villain break a piece of the player's equipment or an NPC give him a new toy!

One of the least commented-upon but most useful functions of a cutscene, the game designer can use cutscenes to control or alter the pacing of the game. As with any lengthy entertainment form, variation and control of pace is a very important part of a successful game, particularly in a more linear game (like the Final Fantasy series), and thus cutscenes can be vital for this function alone.

At the most basic level, any reasonably long cutscene will provide the player with a break from the action, and a chance to catch his or her breath. It will also give them time to think about what has just happened or is about to happen, which may be vital before a tricky part of the game (another good reason for "boss" cutscenes). Very short cutscenes can be used to heighten the pace, particuarly if they are occuring regularly, as swift cutaways to another location serve to disorient the player. Obviously, this can only be useful in specific circumstances (perhaps the player is attempting to escape from a location before an enemy frees itself from a cage, wakes up or otherwise rouses itself to action), but such filmic techniques can work very well when they are used.

The game designer can also use a cutscene, particularly a visual cutscene, where he has more control over the pace, to heighten or drop pacing still further, using conventional filmic techniques. At the end of a major fight, for example, the game can force a slowdown in pace by cutting to a cutscene as the enemy falls, then moving into an epilogue scene with slower camerawork, cutting and music. Conversely, a quiet investigation or briefing scene can move into action with a cut to a faster-paced scene or the introduction of elements which change the pace (as the door opens to reveal... Darth Vader!)

while this change in pace would occur within the game naturally, moving to a controlled cutscene will give the player signals that this is indeed what is meant to occur, allowing the player's perception of pace to change in accordance with the game designer's intentions for pace at this point. Obviously, as player-percieved changes of pace can be disasterous for a game when they don't co-incide with intended changes of pace (anti-climactic slowdowns in the middle of action sequences, for example), this control can be very useful to give the player the best experience possible.

Annoy The Player

Lastly, it's fairly rare that you will intend this effect from a cutscene - however, it is unfortunately one of the things that can happen when those "widescreen" bars go down. It's probably not possible to ensure that every player loves every cutscene in your game! However, the most common causes of cutscene tedium are reasonable simple: they're too long, there are too many of them, or they're simply not good enough.

Most of these problems can be avoided at one fell stroke by ensuring that vital cutscenes are as rare as possible in your game, and that they are as fully realised as possible. Rare cutscenes ensure that the player will appreciate them more when they do appear, purely as somethng different. In addition, making sure that cutscenes which the player simply can't skip through (in other words, ones which contain vital information, whether the "skip" function is available or not) are absolutely as rare as they can be is essential- no matter how good they are, some players just don't like cutscenes.

Obviously, any game including non-interactive narrative should also include a "skip" feature. It is worth noting that players are more likely to be annoyed if they start watching a cutscene only to have it become tedious, than if they simply skip it as soon as it appears - hence, it is worth breaking lengthy scenes into shorter cutscenes with short gameplay pieces in between, and trying to signal whether a cutscene is vital or simply "for the curious"as soon as possible. It is possible to achieve this by means of a convention in form - for example, Baldur's Gate's background information is all contained within books, which (to my recollection) also never contain vital information to the plot within their pages.

Of course, the other vital point is to make sure that every cutscene is as interesting and as fully realised as possible. Visual cinematics should obey the conventions and storytelling techniques of their genre, pacing and editing should be tight, and the action in the cutscene should be interesting in itself - I would be tempted to say that any good cutscene should be viewable or readable on its own as a dramatic piece, without the game. However, that is very much a subject for another article!

Cutscenes can definitely be one of the make or break parts of a game, and are certainly one of the elements of game design that are most appreciated by the gamers. With the interplay between interactive and non-interactive storytelling within games continuing to develop, it is more than likely that we'll see many more games breaking and redefining the rules of storytelling by merging these disparate forms in fascinating new ways in the future. It'll be worth looking forward to.

Further Reading

Turning a Linear Story into a Game by Pascal Luban, Gamasutra, June 2001

Cutting to the Chase: Cinematic Construction for Gamers by Hal Barwood, Gamasutra, May 2000

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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