Cinematics In Videogames Part 1: You’re Doing It Wrong

In recent years, a lot has been said about videogames as art. While this is a much debated topic, it’s also a very complex one, and not one I think can be easily addressed. However, I think that the topics constituents are ripe for discussion and in the end, when we put them together, may shed some light on the topic overall.

That’s why I’d like to begin with one of the key parts of any potential work of art, the story or message the work intends to convey. Specifically, how it’s conveyed. In the gaming medium, this has historically taken the form of cinematics, be they CGI or cutscenes. In story driven games, such as RPG’s, they are the by far the key component. So why is it that so many games get them so wrong? If you’re wondering what I mean, give me a minute of your time and read on for part one of our analysis of Cinematics In Videogames.

It’s All About The Immersion
If there’s one thing that I had to label the most essential part of storytelling its immersion. An immersive story is what allows you to lose yourself in the game world and feel like you are living these experiences instead of just watching them. It sucks you in, compels you to move forward and see what’s next. It causes the hours to disappear and exacerbates your sleep deprivation, but in a good way. It’s when all the elements of a game come together so seamlessly, you forget you’re playing a game, and feels like you’re living through the eyes of the protagonist.

The difficulty in the games industry in this regard comes from its lack of maturity. All too often the gaming industry is compared to the film industry in regards to storytelling, and all too often the writers and directors of major game studios buy into the comparison. The problem is they lose sight of the key difference between the two media. The greatest distinction between film and gaming, and in fact between any media and gaming, is interactivity. The fact that you and I have, or should have, direct control over the course of our destinies.

So you can see where the most common issue lays, the players lack of control over his story once it switches from gameplay to Cutscene. It’s true that in traditional media, it has always been about an artist projecting his vision and complete story onto whatever canvas they choose, be it a literally canvas or otherwise. However, it is my belief, that what should define a game artist, if there ever will be any, are those who create the canvas and empower others to expand and create on their own… A melding of both the Artists and Players vision to create something infinitely unique and complex as each individual’s imagination. The problem is, the linear or even slightly branching pre-scripted cutscenes of today just aren’t going to cut it going forward, and that’s where things need to change.

The Devil Is In The Details
However on a more technical level, there is a lot to be concerned about as well. Again, due to the influence of film, games often feel the need to present story in manner that is often ill suited to the medium. The biggest one of these are in the form of pre-rendered CGI cutscenes that contrast drastically with the both the visual themes, but also the gameplay elements of the games we are playing. This can be quite a jarring experience that complete destroys any immersion they may have managed to build. Consider the following scenarios.

How many times have you begun a game, stuck in a pre-rendered cutscene that is amazingly beautiful, only to be moved to the actual game and find you are in a completely different looking world? Perhaps pure technically, as in the graphics are much worse, or sometimes even aesthetically where the actual art style/people/locations are nowhere near the same. It can be a quite disappointing note on which to begin a grand adventure, if the first feelings it invoked are ones of visual and cognitive dissonance. Yet it’s often the case.

Or how often do events happen in cutscenes that would be otherwise be impossible in game? Like a weak enemy knocking out your character despite your character being some kind of world devouring monster. Or your character using abilities you don’t seem to posses outside of CGI. Or even the presence of people or elements who were not present only moments ago.

Other times, it can be simple things, like improper editing of custscenes. For instance, how often have you been through a cutscene where the music audio was so high you couldn’t hear what the characters were saying? You’d better hope it wasn’t an important plot point and even if it wasn’t it can be frustrating to not know what was said. Especially since, despite being an interactive medium, you can’t do something as simple as rewind a scene.

So What’s It All Mean?
So I do a lot of complaining here don’t I? It’s easy enough to be a critic, but what about solutions? Well there’s a reason this is labeled Part 1. Stick around, there’s more to come. However, in the meantime, I’d like to hear from all of you in regards to Cinematic Storytelling in games – Your opinions, your ideas, your opinions about my opinions. Speak up in the comments below, and come on back next week for the second part of this article.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I agree with the writer but I think they should provide a list of games that got it right, games that got it wrong, and games that got it horribly wrong.

  2. I agree, of course, that cutscenes have worked to infantilize the gaming medium. But a few of your claims feel disingenuous. For one, you say that games are the only interactive art form (or medium). If this is true, then what of architecture?

    Second, every medium is interactive. When you watch Grave of the Fireflies, the emotions you feel, the connotations you ascribe to settings and scenes are specific to you as an individual, your thoughts interacting with the imagery and dialogue on-screen. It works similarly for novels. There is an interaction between your intellectual and emotional self and the work that lies before you.

    Third, you seem to denounce the use of cutscenes entirely. But cutscenes can be useful, and obviously we should be exploring every avenue for storytelling thoroughly. The problem is simply that we have *too many* people exploring this *one* avenue. We need more people to break boundaries and seek new frontiers, otherwise we’re left with a single form — and one which isn’t satisfying.

    Fourth, you appear to denounce linearity altogether. I simply ask that you play Braid or Portal 2 and you will see that there is strength in linearity. There is likewise strength in freedom — as with Far Cry 2 or Saints Row — but again, we should be exploring every avenue.

  3. I apologize for the lack of form in my last comment. For whatever reason this commenting system does not allow separate paragraphs. Again, sorry for the sloppiness.

  4. We’ll be changing the formatting system soon Codename V! Sorry for the inconvenience at the moment!