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What's missing from cutscenes?

If you compare how dramatic content is edited in game cutscenes, or even interactive dramas such as “Heavy Rain” with TV and film, you’ll notice some obvious differences. In this blog I note the closer parallels of cutscenes to high turnover TV.

Pascal Langlois, Blogger

November 15, 2010

3 Min Read

If you compare how dramatic content is edited in game cutscenes, or even interactive dramas such as “Heavy Rain” with TV and film, you’ll notice some obvious differences. Of course there are differences - different media, right?

Well visual story-telling is visual story-telling, and most of the same rules apply equally to game and film alike, when it comes to dramatic content.


Whereas the mise-en-scene and the world architecture in games lends itself to comparisons with film, the dramatic content has more parallels with high turnover TV serials.  Think of Law & Order, 24, Star Trek for example.

Both high turnover TV and capture based Dramatic Content (DC) cannot afford to waste time, but for rather different reasons; TV because the schedule is so tight and budgets are limited, and game because each second of capture is expensive, both in terms of initial shoot and post animation days. You could argue this applies to film, too, but making things look good on the big screen normally demands a different pace.

Cutscenes serve a variety of purposes, but up there at the top is narrative exposition; telling the player what they need to know to achieve the next goal, with an attendant effort to make dramatic sense of this. Up there on the list, too, is the desire to  make the player feel an attachment to the character, by adding some character depth.

In TV around 30% of any scene is a reaction shot.  Not a shot on what’s being said, but the reaction to what’s being said.  That’s where a large part of the character’s emotional story lies. This is particularly true in high turnover TV, because there is little room for personal confessions, as the exposition takes precedence.  (Sometimes voice-overs are used instead to provide an outlet for the lead characters thoughts and feelings)

In games, such high quality close ups of facial behaviours might seem financially indulgent, and un-necessarily time consuming. Alternatively, in bigger budgets, treating the collection of all the material for the scene like a film, might seem more ‘faithful’.

This results in either hugely expensive production, for a ‘high quality’ cutscene, or corner cutting, and ‘alternative’ editing, for an adequate exposition scene that lacks character. (see below Halo:Reach closing scene 1:04 onwards...)

Next time you watch a cutscene, count how many times the ‘camera’ reveals the reactions of the listener.  Compare this to how many times you see an obscured face, or the back of someone’s head as they watch the person talking? How about the number of times a scene cuts to a ‘wide shot’ when you’d rather see the person’s face to see what they’re thinking? Or perhaps you’re given that ‘look’, but its you that ‘gives’ an emotion to the character’s stony inexpressive face. I’ve seen this in a whole range of games from small budget, to Red Dead Redemption and Mafia II.

Perhaps animators are afraid of showing the stitches, which is always a risk with attention focussed on an expressive facial behaviour. Its as if concentrating on the talking character is the more forgiving option.

What we're missing...

But by missing out on reactions, we’re missing out on the opportunity to suggest another dramatic world, that exists alongside and underneath the text, complementing and filling out the dramatic narrative.  Surely there’s got to be another way to achieve this without needing the budget of a small country, or the skills of a MENSA magician.

I believe the solution will be a convergent one, and solutions like that can be challenging to accept if you’re attached to a certain way of doing things.  On Heavy Rain, I was both slightly worried, and slightly amazed at the creation of “kits”. It was the first of a few discomforts of being in a new media; having to accept the idea that things you’ve already ‘shot’ can be re-used time and again in different contexts.  This was something that eventually caught my imagination and turned things upside down, and led me to write blogs and post them on Gamasutra...

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