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Better Game Design Through Cutscenes

Cutscenes are useful for more than marketing screenshots and a chance to see your creation realized in film-like form. They can also provide a valuable, sometimes essential, tool for game design.

Hugh Hancock, Blogger

April 2, 2002

24 Min Read

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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About the Author(s)

Hugh Hancock


Hugh Hancock is the Chairman of Strange Company, producers of the Lithtech Film Producer software, as well as editor-in-chief of Machinima.com, the premiere portal site on the Web for real-time 3D film-making (primarily in game engines). Whilst he has no direct computer game design experience, Hugh's background includes extensive design and development work with several game engines (for the Eschaton series of Machinima-based films, using Quake II and most recently as project lead on the Lithtech Film Producer project), journalism in the games industry for nearly five years (including Machinima.com, online gaming news site News From The Front and UK gaming magazine NetGamer), and experience in the pen-and-paper roleplaying industry. Hugh is also an amateur blues guitarist and knife-fighter, although he can't exactly say how any of that would be relevant.

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