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Video Game Cutscenes: Dos and Don’ts

A lot of video game purists have a real problem with cutscenes, despite the fact that they have been a fundamental part of the medium’s storytelling in one guise or another pretty much as long as it has existed. The most popular reason for this seems to be that leaving the interactive world and entering the cinematic one is sacrificing the integrity of the video game. Gameplay must remain king, or at least so it would seem.

I don’t personally subscribe to this belief. I think cutscenes are a valuable component of interactive fiction. One reason is that a pre-rendered sequence is a great way to dump exposition or otherwise flesh out a story without running the risk of players interrupting or wandering off to do their own thing. Another reason is that they provide a concentrated space within which designers and animators can emphasise character gestures and movement which isn’t always possible during gameplay. There are plenty of other reasons too. What it basically boils down to is that cutscenes are useful in a number of ways which are going to remain useful until the video game develops its language enough to take over.

I do, however, have certain issues with cutscenes, namely that the vast majority of them are terrible. That’s what this post is about, essentially. I don’t imagine any video game designers have enough spare time that they’re going to be wasting it reading anything that I have to say, but I also figure if we can whine and complain about it loudly enough then someone, somewhere is going to have to take some notice. To that end, let’s take a brief moment to establish some of the things we’re going to be shouting out.

Do Give The Cutscene A Purpose.

One of the worst sins a cutscene can commit is not having a reason to exist. The solution to this is breathtakingly simple: before you start to create the scene, ask yourself the question, “What is the purpose of this scene?”

The answer should come to you quickly, and should ideally be something a non-interactive scene does inherently better than an interactive one. An acceptable answer would be furthering the narrative and/or development of the characters. Another would be world-building; setting the mood, defining the mythology, that kind of thing. You can even get away with technical purposes, such as bookending the start and end of a level so that players are made aware of the mission’s objectives at the beginning and then of their completion at the end. Whatever the purpose, it needs to exist, be easily definable, and not be “Because I think it would be a good idea.”

Don’t Change The Rules.

By this I don’t mean the rules which govern the actual composition, staging, cutting or pacing of the scene itself. Obviously filmic language follows a different set of rules to that of video games, and that’s fine. What I mean is, stop letting my hardened Special Forces operative get captured at gunpoint.

I think this might have happened recently in James Bond 007: Blood Stone (we all know I have a little trouble remembering much of that game) so we’ll use that as a quick example. It is extremely unlikely that James Bond will surrender himself immediately when presented with the unpleasant end of a gun. This has been happening for the whole game. There are hundreds of enemies behind me who tried this trick, and they all ended up with new holes to whistle through. The cutscene should be true to the character and the world, and the rules which apply in gameplay need to apply everywhere else. If Bond needs to get captured to further the story, then have him be betrayed, or taken by surprise, or even fall off a building and knock himself unconscious. Do not, under any circumstances, just have someone walk into the room and tell him to drop his gun. It doesn’t make any sense.

Do Let Me Play The Cool Stuff.

I don’t want to watch my avatar perform all the biggest stunts, have a fist-fight with the bad guy or drive their car off a ramp and through an explosion. I want to do that. Sure, I might get beaten to death or spin my car into a river, but at least give me the opportunity. Cutscenes shouldn’t ever just be shinier versions of gameplay.

While we’re on the subject, can we also have our character working within the same limitations in the cutscene as they have in the game proper? If I can only make them jump two feet in the air I don’t want to see them doing backflips and running up walls whenever I’m not in control.

Don’t Keep Interrupting Me.

Cutscenes should always have a logical place. The aforementioned bookending is fine, as is a quick scene to introduce a new gameplay element, character, boss fight or location. Do not, however, show me a cutscene, have me walk a few feet down a path and then show me another. Tell me everything you want to tell me in the first scene and then let me get on with it. The more you interrupt me, the more I’m forcibly catapulted out of your game.

Do Remember, This Is Still A Video Game.

The cutscene to gameplay ratio should always, always be in favour of gameplay. The most obvious example of this is, of course, the Metal Gear Solid series, which has single cutscenes equal in length to entire blockbuster movies. Hire an editor, and have him be judicious with his editing. If you need an hour of exposition after every half hour of gameplay, I’m willing to bet good money that whatever you’re trying to say makes precisely zero sense.

Do Quick Time Events. Or Don’t.

Naturally I’d rather you didn’t, but if you feel you absolutely have to then make them a fundamental component of the game all the way from the beginning. QTEs are the most popular (and easiest) way for a developer to sneak some kind of gameplay into an otherwise non-interactive sequence, and as such they’re not going anywhere any time soon. I can live with that, but let’s just commit to them or ignore them. There shouldn’t be any middle ground. Examples of how not to do it, such as Bayonetta, Clive Barker’s Jericho and Tomb Raider: Legend, are populous enough that there’s really no excuse for this anymore. If I’m the victim of a hideous splatter-death because five hours into your game you decided to throw in a random button prompt while I’m trying to drink my coffee, I’m holding you personally responsible.

There are probably many more things to add to this list, but these are the ones which immediately leapt to my mind as being the most frequent and damning mistakes cutscenes tend to make. What I would like to do is offer an open invitation to my misguided readership for them to try and expand this post into the ultimate compilation of cutscene dos and don’ts. Dump your suggestions in the comments and, if they’re valid, I’ll add them to the list. Isn’t community spirit a wonderful thing?

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