Experienced Points: 5 Things To Do If You Use Cutscenes in Your Video Game

By Shamus
on Apr 14, 2015
Filed under:
Column

My column this week is a list of ways in which games are failing in their attempts to be movies. Last week sort of descended into an argument over whether games should be trying to tell a fixed narrative at all, so this time I thought I sidestep that by coming at it from a different angle: If you’re going to make a game-movie, then you at least need to get the movie parts right.

Some people have mistaken my story-nitpicking for a position that story is paramount. That’s not really the case. I just strongly believe that whatever story we do get should be serviceable. This is actually kind of challenging for a lot of reasons. You just can’t get away with things in a ten hour game the way you can in an hour and a half. Movies are usually consumed in a single sitting. But if a story-driven game can be consumed in a single session it’s considered a huge failure, or at least a bad valueAssuming we’re talking about full-price AAA games, here.. Games are consumed over the course of days, with long breaks between sessions. That gives the audience a lot of time to think about, replay, and discuss the plot. Details that might be glossed over in a movie will become major sticking points in a game.

Worse, we’re a little more picky about character actions when we’re the ones driving. If Commander Shepard works with Cerberus in a movie, I might argue that it’s out of character or dumb, but it’s not nearly as infuriating as being forced to push the buttons to work with Cerberus even though I can see it’s clearly a stupid idea. It’s the difference between seeing someone else fall for a prank, and being the unwilling victim of an obvious prank that I saw coming a mile away.

But game developers seem to be going out of their way to give us the worst of both worlds. They insist on ramming movie-like structures down our throats, but then they slap the story together all half-assed like it doesn’t matter.

Further note: I think it’s time for another mailbag column, so if you have a question for the column then askshamus@gmail.com.

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Footnotes:

[1] Assuming we’re talking about full-price AAA games, here.


A Hundred!2012There are 132 comments here. I really hope you like reading.

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  1. Thomas says:

    So much no. 5 it’s crazy that their are still games that don’t do that. It’s crazy in particular that so many Metal Gear games didn’t have skippable cutscenes.

    The next thing people need to work out is that the ‘cutscenes’ where you walk around in Human Revolution, Assassins Creed, Half Life also need to be skippable. I _hate_ it when I’m forced to listen to 5 minutes of exposition on every playthrough because the developers wanted to give me the immersion of moving my head in a fixed place.

    I agree in principle in no. 4 but I’m interested in how you think it works practically? The thing in Hitman: Absolution where everyone gets assassinated in cutscenes is ludicrous.

    On the other hand, if you just watch a rag doll fall to the ground after you beat the epic boss who was your antagonist for the whole game… that’s nearly always an anti-climax for a game that does have cutscenes. Even apart from the Devil May Cry/Metal Gear Rising situation, where ludicrous over the top cutscenes are your reward, you often want some narrative resolution for achieving goals right? For the bad guy to explain what was going on, or admit defeat w/e.

    But that almost always feels like its stealing an objective, so I wonder what you feel the compromise should be

    • Thomas says:

      I think maybe the rule should be that the gameplay has to be to achieve the objective (so no “walk to this place on the map which will trigger the cutscene will solve the problem”), and also the cutscene should never contradict what you’ve just done in gameplay. No bosses who are suddenly uninjured

    • Shamus says:

      I think some talky bits are fine after you beat the boss. As long as he’s clearly hurt or damaged and I’ve achieved victory, then the conversation can bring closure instead of just stealing victory away from me.

      • Exactly this. There’s a difference between “hah, got him down! Now in cutscene I pitch his corpse off a cliff!” and “he’s at 5%! Almost got . . . da fuq? Did my computer just freeze?! Oh, a cutscene. Great, yes, you’re incredibly badass. Very nice. Yes, yes, you’re invincible. Blah blah blah. Yes, I know I didn’t actually win. Zzzzzzzzzz. Just die already. Oh, he’s running away now. Even though I was standing here with my gun pointed at him for 5 minutes. And I’m chasing him. Aaaaand . . . now we’re in a new arena. And he’s at full health again.” *facepalm*

        • Tizzy says:

          Even comparatively good games like Arkham City pulled that kind of crap if my memory is correct. Sad.

          Especially if it’s a boss fight that you struggled to finally achieve.

      • Alexander The 1st says:

        I’m a particular fan of Assassin’s Creed 1’s way of doing this – you go in, kill the target, then they get a cutscene where they get to say their thing, and when the cutscene ends…you’re right where you killed him and you now have to escape. No “fade to black” jump to the next area until you’ve fully escaped safely, and aside from one specific case, your targets stay dead.

        • Zekiel says:

          Yes. But Assassin Creed 1 had horrible cutscenes in that they went on and on and on, and had one button you could hold down to get a different camera angle. Wow. You couldn’t even move the camera around, just optionally show one different camera angle. Yippie.

          One of the (many) reasons I preferred AC2 (in spite of Carnivale!) is that the assassination cutscenes were much, much shorter.

          • Smejki says:

            I wouldn’t mind unskippable lengthy cutscenes but in AC1 they were:
            1) cinematographically boring – generic shot at two guys placed in middle of nowhere and just talking
            2) full of crap dialogs. And they are getting progressively less attention-worthy the more templarsVSassassins bullshit you discover.

      • Stormkitten says:

        Star Wars: The Old Republic does this well, I think. You generally get a conversation after you beat the bad guy where he or she is kneeling on the ground in the ‘injured’ pose, and you get to gloat/kill them/let them go in the conversation options. And then the final killing is driven by the conversation choices and can have epic animations.

        There are a few cases where you don’t get a post-fight conversation after defeating the bad guy, they just die (end of Smuggler Act 1, for example). Compared to the others, it kind of feels flat.

    • Kian says:

      You can also put all the talky bits before the fight. So the bad guy monologues as much as you feel he needs to, then you defeat him in gameplay. There’s no need for a cutscene that introduces a sudden reversal of fortune that gets re-reversed inside the same cutscene before you finally beat him inside the cutscene. Front load all that crap, then let the player get the glory.

      • psivamp says:

        As long as, during this monologue, the bad guy isn’t slowly preparing for the fight while you sit there wasting the obvious opportunity to put lead in him.

        I’m a fan of the combat taunts being replaced with all that exposition. Bonus points if you can cut the boss way short if you master game systems and wreck the boss with skill or degenerate strategies. It’s the next step up from the walk-around-during-exposition solution.

        • evileeyore says:

          This one happened several times to me in my first playthrough on Diablo 2. I played a Barbarian and was doing so much damage I was one shotting Bosses.

          I actually jump-attacked and killed Mephisto before he even started his long-winded diatribe… so there he is dead, candy exploding from him, and he’s going on and on about how he’s going to destroy me…

          Hilarious.

        • I actually did this in Pillars of Eternity.

          In the end fight with Thaos, he has 2 giant statues that also attack you. If you attack Thaos, at periodic points he’ll “possess” one of the statues and become invulnerable until you kill the statue. (Bonus Tip: The statues are hella tough). I eventually beat this fight after about 30 attempts by just saying “screw it, ya’ll kill Thaos”. My rogue backstabbed the crap out of him and I managed to drop him before he pulled his soul-transfer bit. It was over in like 5 seconds, I didn’t even realize it was happening.

          I tend to “win” really tough combats in games that way a lot. “oh crap oh crap oh crap oh . . . did you just DISINTEGRATE the DRAGON? Nice.”

          I’m also a BIG fan of beating the end boss through the amazing power of Picking The Conversation Options That Showed You Were Paying Attention To The Story (Assuming It Was Worth The Effort).

    • Tizzy says:

      Half Life 2 is one of those games that really bothered me with their story. Great environmental storytelling, why do you even need to add reams of tepid dialogue? Sure, I can walk around and space out while it’s happening, thanks for alloing me at least that, but it’s still mediocre, too long, and totally uncalled for. The sections with Kleiner and Vance stand out as the worst offenders.

      I get that pacing is important, that the game needs slower stretches, but find me something else to do.

    • Zukhramm says:

      If you skip the cut-scenes in Metal Gear, what’s the point? What’s even left?

      • Ringwraith says:

        Gameplay systems which interact in really comprehensive ways, and can become rabbit holes in of themselves.
        Keep eating something that’s not appealing (rat anyone?), it will eventually become significantly more tolerable.
        Roll around while hiding inside a barrel? Say goodbye to your lunch. (Which is even useful in the case of poisoning!)
        See that distant scene of a future boss interacting with things over there? Pull out a sniper rifle and shoot them. They stay dead.
        They’re full of weird little details like this. In IV, the techno-camouflage will change to fit whatever surface you’re up against, so there’s a camo texture for every kind of surface you encounter.

    • IFS says:

      Metal Gear Rising actually is an interesting case for this, many bosses have a (very easy) QTE finisher near the end of their fight, followed by you getting to chop them into as many tiny pieces as you want. The QTEs are all very brief and cool, and while normally I don’t care for them in games I think they work pretty well in Rising (it helps that its always the same two buttons to launch into it, and from there its usually button mashing if anything). Effectively they let the player control that badass finishing cutscene to some extent (more so when it gets to the chopping things into tiny bits part) so you still retain that feeling over having beaten the difficult boss yourself while getting the cool spectacle finisher.

      As for DMC I’ve only played 1 and 3 but I don’t recall them typically continuing the fight into the finisher cutscene, usually when you beat the boss it was in gameplay and the cutscene following was often your reward (for instance several bosses in 3 give you a new weapon after beating them, and you get a cutscene of Dante playing around with said weapon).

      Both series have done the ‘supposed to lose’ fight though, I’d argue Rising did it better than DMC. In Rising you can do well in the fight, but Raiden’s cyborg body is simply not capable of keeping up with his opponent, so you take damage even when blocking. When you run into the same guy later with a more upgraded body you’re much more evenly matched. DMC meanwhile just does the lose in a cutscene thing after the fight (2 times in 3 if I recall correctly) though it never bothered me too much in that game (might have helped that you got a new weapon or power immediately after each ‘loss’).

      • guy says:

        I kind of like how the Suikoden series does “supposed to lose” fights. If you win the fight you actually win the fight, and instead of negating your victory in the cutscene the villain says something like “you’re tougher than I expected” and teleports away. The plot doesn’t change much, but the dialogue makes it clear you’ve beaten them and they’re running, or at the very least held your own long enough that the situation has turned in your favor.

        There are some exceptions. For instance, early in 2 you get in a fight with your former commander, and if you win he steps back and orders like sixty guys to dogpile you. But at that point in the game beating that many mooks is clearly untenable.

    • Mortuorum says:

      But if you make your cutscene skipable, how can you shoehorn a completely unnecessary quicktime event into the middle of it? I’m surprised that Shamus didn’t bring this up in the original article, but this is a trend that has to end (along with QTEs in general). They are totally counterproductive. Assuming I want to watch the cutscene in the first place, I won’t get anything out of it if I’m concentrating on waiting for the next random button icon to appear on the screen.

    • Ciennas says:

      Metal Gear Solid 2 for Xbox had skippable cutscenes. They kept causing lockups and crashing, probably because it didn’t have the next bit of data in memory.

      Sometimes it worked perfectly. I beat the entire game in three hours, just be skipping all cutscenes. It was kind of a let down how little gameplay there really was.

  2. Alan says:

    “3. Trim Your Dialog.” If I had to pick one thing for developers to do from your list, this would be it. Too many cut scenes are just tedious. I’m curious why such a seemingly obvious thing eludes many developers. Are they just unskilled at film and erroneously think longer conversations are necessary? Do they think the longer conversations are actually better? By and large video games are aping action movies where short, punchy dialog is the rule. A writer skilled enough to identify most of the dialog that can and should be cut isn’t a rare and expensive investment. Shorter cutscenes are likely cheaper as you eliminate a bunch of animation work. (You do do custom animation work for your long cutscenes, right? Because if I’m staring the the stock talking head animation for 5 minutes, I may through my monitor out the window.)

    Gaaaaah!

    • Muspel says:

      The problem is that video games usually don’t have editors.

      • Or if they do, more dialog = more CONTENT! Besides, we’re paying these voice actors for stuff, they might as well do SOMETHING for their fee other than yelling “enemies are everywhere” every few seconds. :)

        • I’ve been bitching at Bioware about this since before the first Dragon Age game came out, and I think it’s starting to bear (some) fruit.

          I think part of the problem is that the writing for a video game all takes place in Textland, and, since the medium is developing so fast, most of the AAA developers grew up in the day when you had to tell ALL of the story COMPLETELY THROUGH DIALOG. There were no facial expressions, no subtle body language, no proper emoting or acting available. So they got into a habit of writing infodumps and never got out of it again. And when people actually praise your Pile of Infodumps as “great writing”, why would you ever change?

          I mean, people still praise Dragon Age: Origins for “great writing”, and I remember that most of the “conversations” looked like this:

          PC: “Tell me about [thing].”
          NPC: blah blah blah blah blah
          PC: “Tell me about [other thing].”
          NPC: blah blah blah blah blah
          PC: “Why do they have [thing]?”
          NPC: BLAH blah blah blah blah

          And then they converted to a voice-acted protagonist in Mass Effect and I was like “OMG Shepard is an IDIOT”. The writing didn’t change, it’s just that when the PC actually talks like that, OMG you realize how AWFUL the writing really is.

          • Gruhunchously says:

            PC: Tell about the thing related to your back-story.
            NPC: Blah blah blah
            PC: I have a positive opinion about the thing related to your back-story.
            NPC: Good!
            [pause]
            NPC: I…I think I’m falling for you.
            PC: I approve of this turn of events.
            NPC: Perhaps we should cuddle a bit before the final confrontation and our inevitable demise.
            PC: Good idea!

            • Bioware has actually improved on this somewhat with Inquisition, but it’s hard to spot unless you do a lot of save-scumming and try different options, but (at least in the main cut-scene conversations) you do actually have an INTELLIGIBLE conversation with people. Even some of the more investigative conversations (“So, tell me all about templars!”) are more than just question/response.

          • guy says:

            Yeah, those exposition conversations do have that weird choppy pattern. Partially because they can be in variable order, can be repeated if you want, and can be selectively skipped, and must not be nonsensical in any of those conditions. I’m happy to accept having it feel a bit like browsing a wiki in exchange for being able to skip or review exposition. I mean, it’d make more sense to ask them to repeat something and get a slightly different response, but that would be a tremendous amount of effort to do it for everything.

            Then again, I seem to have a wildly above average tolerance for infodumps. I remember this one game where a character giving exposition said something like “I should probably stop boring you now” and I wanted a dialogue option for “no, keep going, this is fascinating”.

            I suppose one thing they could do to cut down on the weirdness is assign the primary infodump responsibilities to an AI or something so it seems in character for them to repeat responses without variation or impatience and just roll with odd jumps.

  3. Kian says:

    What surprises me the most is how terrible the “shot-reverse shot” cutscenes are (looking at you, Bioware). You have a camera that is not bound to the laws of physics, environments that are limited only by polygon count, the possibility of redoing a shot from different angles for free, etc. Lots of advantages that regular film didn’t have until computer animation appeared. And you are using that power to show ugly faces?

    • DrMcCoy says:

      Ugly faces surrounded by a depth-of-field blur mask. There’s no word for the amount of hate I have for those.

      • Jordan says:

        I don’t mind DOF. I mind that it always fucks up around hair though due to it being a one-pass effect. Either the hair bleeds into the blur, or the hair has an anti-blur halo surrounding it. Always looks godawful. Seems to seep into every unreal engine game.

    • The first time you get to talk one-on-one with Cassandra in DA:I, she’s fighting a practice dummy, and there is a screwed-up camera angle where the camera is like 2 inches behind the dummy and all you can see is wood for about 30 full seconds of dialog. OMG makes me FURIOUS EVERY SINGLE TIME.

      • Could you imagine seeing that in a real movie? That would be a shot that would get the DP and director thrown out of the movie business. How is it acceptable in video games?

        • It’d seem like that would be a particularly easy fix. I’m no programmer, but:

          IF GRAPHICS DISPLAY = 20% OR MORE OF THE CUTSCENE IS 100% BLACK OR A SINGLE COLOR +/- A NEARBY PART OF THE COLOR PALETTE, THEN REPOSITION THE EFFING CAMERA.

          • Stuart Hacking says:

            It depends. In some games the camera might be tracked to an object (e.g. shepardLeftEarObj), and you could bump the camera away from blocking geometry and still be framing the subject. I think Bioware’s cutscenes are shot by animators and the camera movements are saved into preset paths to be more… *ahem* cinematic, so it’s harder to try and guess at programmatic changes that will still work.

            My guess about the dummy in DA:I is that the cutscene was animated with just the actors using typical camera distances, and then the rogue dummy was later added to the scene without ensuring it didn’t obstruct the view. (Just a guess though.)

            • Syal says:

              Don’t muck around moving the camera, just make the dumb dummy transparent. Same with walls, furniture, etc. If the camera can’t fit between the player and the wall, put it through the stupid wall and make the thing see-through. Take advantage of the fact that the world is just an elaborate drawing.

              • There are also some great scenes that are totally ruined by the camera being aimed over the shoulder of a character. This would be a beautiful dramatic camera angle IF IT WEREN’T FOR THE FACT THAT YOU EQUIPPED THEM WITH A HUGE-ASS WEAPON OR SHIELD THAT IS NOW BLOCKING 85% OF THE SHOT.

      • Thomas says:

        Poor Cassandra had enough problems in DA:I.

        I really cannot understand what they were doing with that horse-riding conversation posture in DA:I. The default standing animation would have looked 10x better and I absolutely can’t even think what they were trying to achieve with that effect

        • You mean the one where she stands with her legs apart and her hands gripped tightly together at about waist-level? That’s *extremely* common body language for uncertainty or nervousness. I really LIKED that, it looked authentic.

          Cullen does it, too, when he’s not being all arms-crossed-leaning-back “I am tense but I will participate from behind my wall of arms”.

  4. Bloodsquirrel says:

    My suggestions:

    1) Learn to time your dialog. Cutscenes are always full of these little pauses that ruin the rhythm of the dialog and make it sound weird. It doesn’t blend together correctly and it always takes me out of the experience.

    2) Stop putting them in between difficult fights and the previous checkpoint. Just… why? Why are you doing this?

    3) L2Pacing. A cutscene should be a welcome rest after a difficult battle. There should not be 30 minutes of cutscenes crammed into the first 35 minutes of the game. Stop just putting them in places because that’s what the most mechanical needs of the plot are.

    4) Learn to do things with cutscenes other than dumping exposition on us or showing lots of explosions.

    • Tizzy says:

      2) Why indeed? Either the devs hate us, or they love their cutscenes way too much.

    • guy says:

      1) This apparently actually is partially for technical reasons, because the VAs aren’t recording their dialogue in the same room for both scheduling reasons and because one person slipping up can ruin everyone’s take. It’s also particularly problematic in games with dialogue trees, because there are so many variations.

      • Tizzy says:

        But… animated movies do it all the time, and they manage to do it well. Again, an example of games failing at being movies, I guess…

        • ehlijen says:

          Animated movies don’t have to combine multiple different audio files into one stream on the fly in response to player input.

          That said, this problem crops up often enough even when no player input is involved to call foul and ask for improvements. Especially comedy interludes are so often ruined by this.

          Interestingly, this was a lot less noticeable during the non-voiced player character days (DA:O, KOTOR), with one side being silent by design.

          • Tizzy says:

            We’re talking about cutscene dialogue here. No on the fly combination required.

            • guy says:

              The games I usually see failing at it are ones with some degree of player control over the dialogue, or at least player control over who is in the scene

            • ehlijen says:

              As I said, it does happen in those cases, but most instances are when the player somehow determines the content needed, but it a dialog tree where responses are picked or whether it is the game reacting to past player actions.

              Even uninterrupted cutscenes might still need their content adjusted based on whether the player completed sidequest trigger A or B or neither earlier.

          • Ysen says:

            Don’t video games already combine separate audio based on player input during gameplay? I mean, you can simultaneously play background music, three different kinds of gunshot, an explosion, helicopter noises, the LEVEL UP fanfare, and and a dude yelling about tangos. It doesn’t seem like there should be a huge technical barrier to playing two people talking at once.

            Obviously if you have to actually WAIT for the player to chose a dialogue option that’s different, but there are a lot of times when you pick something well before the NPC finishes talking and there’s still an awkward delay.

            Having to wait for player input can also be the result of dialogue wheels which don’t show you the next set of options until the NPC has completely finished, which is itself a design flaw. If you show them a bit earlier, it allows the player to choose an option in time for the conversation to proceed more smoothly.

            Also, if you have a cutscene which changes depending on whether the player has completed sidequest A or B, you should adjust the timings in each version of the cutscene to account for that.

            • ehlijen says:

              You should be able to, yes. But if you start playing one voice file before the first is finished to avoid the loading into memory delay, you invite possible bugs where they play over each other.

              A game that was really hurt by this, though in video matters, not audio, was KOTOR 2. There were several points where multiple bink video files were supposed to play in rapid succession to indicate fast paced events…and ended up with a half second delay between them on many systems, complete with muting and rising music to emphasise the gaps. It really killed the mood for me.

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                Im not sure where the problem is,but in a few games Ive heard a problem when I turned the graphics up too much.The background sounds would go on their merry way,while the graphics would freeze or chop,creating this gap between the two.However,some sounds,usually voices,would wait for the graphics to unfreeze,or would start chopping themselves,leaving the rest of the sounds to go on their merry way.It feels like the graphics card gets part of the sounds to run them together with the video,which I dont think should be the case.

                • guy says:

                  The sense I get from those sorts of errors and some problems with Flash is that sound goes into a buffer somewhere, so if the main program hitches the sound will keep playing until the buffer runs out. Presumably if you’re having partial desynchronization it’s because they write the background stuff into the buffer in a huge chunk and dynamically load in the dialogue.

      • Ringwraith says:

        Although, it can be done, I like to consider a sign of good voice editing is when someone gets interrupted, and they actually get interrupted, rather than oddly stop mid-sentence/word and then the interruption cuts in, often which a pause, which makes it worse.

        • Syal says:

          The odd thing is that more people don’t err on the opposite side of things. If you’re going to have a character get interrupted, have them keep talking for a few seconds after they get interrupted so you don’t have that horribly awkward pause; it’s not like everyone stops talking on a dime in reality.

          • Ivan says:

            I get what you mean but a few seconds is about the length of an entire sentence. If you have two people talking over each other for that long then no one is going to be able to understand anything. The time-frame is much closer to half a second to a second which is still not that easy to time. I’m not trying to excuse it though, it’s embarrassing every single time you have someone waiting to be interrupted.

            • Syal says:

              Well, however long it would take to guarantee there’s not a point where they’re obviously just waiting to be interrupted. As for the multiple people talking, make the interrupting person significantly louder. The last bit the other guy says will just be filler anyway, drowning him out shouldn’t be a concern.

              If you’re really good at dialogue, you can make the extra bit work as either a stand-alone sentence or as a defense of the previous sentence, so if he keeps going through the interruption it sounds like he’s just trying to hold his ground on the subject.

    • 3.

      I thought the Ghostbusters game got this right. The cutscenes came after a long stretch of gameplay. The game loaded while the cutscene played. The cutscenes were not too long and often had a few jokes in it. It was a short two minute break between long stretches of actual ghostbusting.

      • Primogenitor says:

        Yes, use the cutscene to mask a loadscreen.

        Do not make the player sit through a cut-scene – and then a SEPARATE LOAD SCREEN AFTERWARDS!

        • Chargone says:

          Laggy loading triggering whatever the game uses as a “working” indicator, or sometimes a full on loading screen, then cutscene, then Another loading screen, then gameplay is not as uncommon as it should be, either. (I’m seeing a fair bit of that on the PS4, actually.)

    • Mephane says:

      5) If in your game foes drop loot, let me loot the boss first and trigger whatever cutscene you want to show me by something else. Preferrably manually. Like, I have to kill this boss and then shut down their doom machine of doom, then only play the cutscene after I pull the doom lever of shutting down the doom machine of doom*. I am very anxious about watching 5 minutes of cutscene where all that loot lies around unlooted. Too many games with automatically despawning loot (or corpses that I have to search for said loot) have conditioned me to never trust loot staying where it is; things must be looted immediately.

      *Especially don’t immediately play a cutscene showing how my character pulls the doom lever of shutting down the doom machine of doom. It may be a simple press of a button, but it is still much more satisfying doing it myself.

  5. Bropocalypse says:

    I followed the link to the infamous cutscene, and I was amused to see that one of the related videos was a “Full Movie” walkthrough of Hitman: Absolution.

  6. thegrinner says:

    I also want to see the “opposite” of number 5: let me watch all the cutscenes I’ve seen! If you make a cool cutscene, why can’t I watch it again without playing the whole game over again?

    • evileeyore says:

      Diablo 2 did this to great effect.

      That was over how many years ago?

      • Ringwraith says:

        A fair few Japanese games are actually better about this, usually RPGs, unlocking either part-way through (like Bravely Default, which even lets you replay every conversation you’ve seen at any time) or just in a big archive unlocked after beating the game.

    • Alex says:

      Saints Row 2 let you rewatch cutscenes and replay missions whenever you liked. Then they removed this feature for Saints Row 3, because they are jackasses.

      • krellen says:

        That and socks. Socks are now just part of your shoes in SR3.

        It’s criminal that I cannot just launch the penthouse skydiving mission where “Power” is first featured in SR3 whenever I want.

        • DougO says:

          So I’m not the only one that will restart the game just so I can replay that mission? (Until I got smart and savegamed before it…then overwrote it…twice)

  7. Zukhramm says:

    I’m not sure about 1 and 4. The interactivity over everything else is not my thing. The player should be interrupted by cut-scenes as often as possible, and cut-scenes are much more exciting than regular gameplay animation. Every single enemy defeated should be a little cut-scene.

    5 is fine on the condition that gameplay too can be skipped. Even if a game has the “Citizen Kan” of gameplay I will still probably want to skip it on my second or third playthrough, or when doing a speedrun.

    Number 2 has my unconditional agreement, though.

  8. McNutcase says:

    You left out #6: let me PAUSE the freakin’ cutscene. If you want to be movie-like, movies have a pause function. Let me paint you a picture: I’ve been sat in my seat for a solid hour beating up your boss, my ass is getting numb and I could really use a bathroom break. Then my reward for finally beating the boss is several minutes of cutscene I can’t pause and you won’t let me re-watch. I wanted to beat the boss so I could get some quiet time to pause the game and go use the bathroom. Now I’m bursting for a pee AND I hate you for making me wait.

    • dp says:

      Yes, you should always be able to walk away from any non-multiplayer game.

      and lets not forget:

      7. Don’t have my character stop sneaking around an enemy base and just walk out in to the open with his weapons holstered for no reason and then have an absurdly enormous guy sneak up on him.

    • Additionally, if a cutscene changes locations (i.e. one part has me taking off in a helicopter while talking to the prisoner I have in the back, then starts off at my destination talking to my boss), let me skip each scene if I want, not the whole blinkin’ thing.

    • Dev Chand says:

      I agree. There are times I’ve been called while a cutscene is playing, and it’s awkward when the game won’t let me pause it. I wonder why most games with cutscenes don’t let you pause them. I mean, even MGS 4, which was mocked for having many cutscenes, allowed you to pause them.

      • Ivan says:

        It is bizarre, it’s like cutsceens are simultaneously treated as precious (I.E. “Why would you want to skip this in the first place) and worthless (can’t pause, can’t rewind, can’t view again without reloading your save). It would be clear to me that the higher-ups don’t actually care at all about cutsceens but then the game goes out of it’s way to add scenes that aren’t even necessary. Add in mocap and voice acting and pre-rendering and I have no idea what anyone is thinking. If I had to guess(though I can’t back this up), I’d say at least 20% of the budget is spent on cutsceens and then they go ahead and make so many rookie mistakes every single time.

    • Mephane says:

      So much this. Cutscenes that are longer than, say, 10 seconds, must include a pause function.

      Preferrably, don’t make ESC the button for skipping cutscenes (if I can’t skip them you have already utterly failed anyway), but pause the cutscene and bring up the regular main menu. Like, the one where you can also exit the game, or load a save, or change the graphics and audio settings. And have a dedicated key for skipping, SPACE sounds like an appropriate one.

      • Thomas says:

        Its so irritating when you wanted to pause a cutscene and ended up skipping it. It’s even worse when you want to pause it but are afraid of pressing anything in case of skip.

        I think the standard way to do this is that the first time you press the escape button it pauses the cutscene and then has a button prompt for ‘skip cutscene’ and then pressing that button skips you to the next chunk of cutscene (if there is one), and pressing it again skips to the next chunk without having to pause the game again.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Yes.Thats what I wanted to add to #1.Give the option to both skip and pause the cutscenes.And looking at them separately from the game itself is also a good option.

    • Macfeast says:

      This, so very much this. I get it, game developers, you want to make your game cinematic, but I think that the feeling of helplessness you get from sitting in an actual theater and not being able to go to the bathroom out of fear that you’ll miss something, is entirely the wrong feature of cinema to adapt. Much like the loud chewing of popcorn, and that tall guy in the seat in front of me who is blocking my view, the inability to pause is a feature of the cinematic experience that I could do without when I’m playing a game.

  9. The Defenestrator says:

    “If Commander Shepard works with Cerberus in a movie…”

    I’m a bit out of it and for a moment I thought you were talking about a hypothetical team-up between Shepard and Cerberus the Aardvark.

    • Joe Informatico says:

      Silly, the aadvark’s name is Cerebus.

      • Tizzy says:

        … and that would make for an awesome, action-packed movie.

        Then followed by a mysoginistic, weirdly mystical sequel with a nonsensical ending that resolves nothing and uncermoniously dumps beloved characters from the narrative.

        • …and then half the game moves into the codex pages, the romance scene takes an odd turn, and the only place the game lets you go is the bar on the Citadel.

          • Neil D says:

            As long as Lord Julius shows up, I’m in.

            • He didn’t have too big a role after that, I don’t think.

              I’ll say this: Sim had an amazing talent for phonetic accents. If you read his Mick Jagger or Margaret Thatcher dialog exactly as written, you’ll be doing pretty much a spot-on imitation of the real person. I kind of wish I had a speech synthesizer that would use his techniques, or a translation module that would turn English into “Thatcherese” or some other phonetic accent.

  10. #2 has something I’d like to add: Don’t radically change the cinematography from what your game has made the player used to.

    If I’ve been playing your game as an FPS, suddenly having the cutscene show off a whole different graphics engine, animation style, and camera behavior, it’s going to irk some of the bits of my brain. If I don’t ever experience shakey-cam when I’m playing, it doesn’t work well in the cutscenes.

    Deus Ex Human Revolution was a big offender in this regard. Not only is it painfully clear when the cutscenes happen (unnecessarily, as they could’ve all been rendered in-engine), but the people in them behaved normally and had decent facial animation, as opposed to the “I have a stick up me bum with an electrode on the end that shocks me at random intervals” you see when having conversations.

    One odd duck for cutscene shenanigans I encountered was “The Force Unleashed.” There’s a level where you’re on a swampy planet, and you can force-throw these fruits that go off like bombs when they hit something. You can just make out the boss-level enemies in the fog when they’re out of aggro range, so tossing these fruit (which replenished themselves in a few minutes, go team explode-fruit-plant) made it simple to cheese the big bads… except for the last one. This game stupidly requires final bosses to be finished with Mortal Kombat-style combos, not just by pummeling, shooting, or slicing them to death. So unlike the other targets, this final boss became immortal when down to his last few ticks of health. To finish him, I had to get in range, watch the screen, hope I followed the button-dance properly, and then the game had me watch my dude make some Jedi-master kill move I didn’t give two rips about because this was likely the fifth time I had to try to not screw it up.

  11. Chris says:

    Hey Shamus, why does your article have the headline “If 5 Things To Do If You Use Cutscenes in Your Video Game” on the main page of the escapist?

  12. My biggest issue with number 5 is when it’s not consistent (I’m looking at you, Bioware). I just finished a single character run of Mass Effect, and it really irritated me that the skip cutscene/skip dialogue button didn’t have a consistent effect.
    Sometimes it skipped the line of dialogue currently displayed in the subtitle.
    Sometimes it skipped straight to the next character’s line, often skipping a couple of lines and confusing the hell out of me (the worst method in my opinion).
    Sometimes it did nothing.
    They should at least pick one and stick with it!

    • ehlijen says:

      Very much agreed. Back in KOTOR 1 it was similar until I noticed the pattern:
      Any line of dialogue could be skipped, provided the characters ended it in the same spot as they began (ie only allowing for the generic ‘I am not static’ shrugs and stuff). Any line that occurred during a character moving or dying or anything more complex than shrug, could not and had to be let to play out.

      But I never figured out what the pattern in ME3 was. Anyone?

      • Thomas says:

        I suspect it’s a loading thing. All the Bioware games struggle skipping dialogue when the character is meant to move to a different location during the cutscene or when the character had some scripted interaction coming up.

        • guy says:

          I think the reason for the movement thing is that it’s not set up to transition directly to the post-movement state and has to actually perform the scripted actions to get there.

          In the more recent ones, it seems like some things are designated as dialogue and some are cutscenes, and skipping in dialogue moves to the next line, while skipping the cutscenes moves to the end of the cutscene.

          • Thomas says:

            Ah yeah, that’s what I meant but you described it much more accurately.

            In DA:I if it’s not shot-reverse-shot with terrible animation then its a cutscene and skipping will skip the whole scene instead of the dialogue line

  13. Neko says:

    Skippable cutscenes, yes, absolutely.

    But also: Rewatchable cutscenes! Maybe we just beat Kargath Spoonhand for the first time ever and okay, cool, there’s a cutscene following that – but everyone’s keen to sort out loot and things right now, and someone died so we need to rez them – so let me skip the cutscene for now, and catch up on the story later via a menu somewhere. Or maybe I watched the whole thing, but something wasn’t clear, or I want to revisit some foreshadowing that I missed earlier. I do this when I’m reading a book sometimes, flick back to that scene where holy crap, it was really obvious at the time and we all missed it!

    Also important: Subtitles! All your carefully planned hammy voice acting will go to waste if your sound director decided that SUPER LOUD EMOTIONALLY MOVING ORCHESTRAL MUSIC should be playing over the top of it, or REALISTICALLY LOUD GUNSHOOTS AND SPLOSIONS. I’m increasingly finding this problem in actual Hollywood movies, game cutscenes should not be trying to imitate it. Subtitles should be available and they should be on by default.

    • FrayedKnot says:

      I have the opposite problem—when subtitles are on, I can’t help reading them rather than paying attention to the voice acting/animation. So I’d say “subtitles should be removable and they should be off by default.” But at least we can agree that players should have an option either way!

    • Tizzy says:

      This may not be very generalizable, but I loved that Starcraft had cutscenes that were used purely for worldbuilding and did not try, for the most part, to build on the game action. In particular, it made them quite rewatchable since they could stand on their own outside of context.

  14. Dreadjaws says:

    I don’t know if this complaint should be here, since it’s not technically in the points discussed, but I hate this relatively new trend of making cinematic game trailers composed exclusively of scenes that don’t even show in the finished game.

    I mean, it’s yet another evidence of the fact that developers think they’re filmmakers, but the worst part is that they sacrifice information about the game just to be cinematic. Those trailers tell nothing about what the game is going to be, and I understand they can be used to fill a little backstory to get you pumped for the game, but I want to be pumped for a game, not for a movie, so show me some freaking gameplay!

    • Ivan says:

      Is this a new trend? So far as I can tell it has been going on for a long time. In any case I agree. It didn’t start to get under my skin until the most recent Star Wars MMO was announced and they showed an epic battle taking place inside the jedi temple that was reminiscent of SW Battle Front. Then I saw the first combat animations and I was crushed to realize that this was just another WoW clone through and through.

      I still don’t quite understand my friend who gets excited at cinematic trailers, they’re nothing but hype but don’t actually show you anything you can actually get hyped about. Hell I barely watch them any more, all they really tell me is that a game is being made and this is what it’s called.

  15. Daemian Lucifer says:

    You forgot one major boon that often comes together with the cutscenes:
    Pointless qtes that jump out in the middle of a cutscene for no reason.

    Yeah,interactivity is not the same as “press X to continue the cutscene,or else we will start it from the beginning”.Thats just laziness.

  16. RTBones says:

    One thing I have wondered as games have progressed – why do we really need cutscenes past a bare minimum opening montage and closing vignette? If you need the PC to hear some exposition on why after knocking of BossMan#1 they need to go to Hong Kong, why not have the PC ‘discover’ this exposition as they would anything else in the game? You could have SecretAgent PC return to base, get his new orders from M, and off he goes. He can listen to M’s rant about tactics used and consequences thereof – or not and just bugger off to the next assignment. There is no need to schedule a tirade that the PC is forced to watch and cant do anything in just to get told he’s going somewhere new when he wasnt paying attention to anything but the next mission anyway.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Pfft,who do you think makes the games? Competent developers?

    • Thomas says:

      That’s fine if thats what you’re interested in, but for some people the cutscenes aren’t just filler explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing.

      Think of Knights of the Old Republic as a colloborative storytelling machine, where you decide things about your character, the game then gives you context for your actions (and sometimes the actions themselves) and asks you to interpret those events in the light of your character.

      In that line of thought the ‘gameplay’ of clicking on enemies and waiting for the AI to kill them, sometimes selecting an ability, is just giving you context about what you’re are doing and the cutscenes are doing the same.

      If you removed the combat from KotoR you’d lose only as much of the experience as you’d lose from removing the cutscenes. It’s the dialogue system which is super important to the game.

      I still maintain that even calling videogames ‘games’ only happened because people were trying to imitate boardgames in a new medium with really poor memory capacity, so we had stuff like tic-tac-toe and pong. The experience of playing Deus Ex is really nothing like a round chess, or a game of football.

      • RTBones says:

        KoTOR is a rare gem. For me, why your are doing something in-game is just as important as doing it in the first place, and the dialog -if done right- can completely set and change the mood (think paragon/renegade, depending on method used and how you interact with NPCs). I have difficulty sometimes when you accomplish SOMETHING (win a fight, solve a hard puzzle, enter a new area, whatever) and you immediately get thrown into a cutscene that while expanding the story, breaks immersion. The example that comes to mind is the Tomb Raider reboot (which I liked very much). You would see Laura in a cutscene with completely different weapons than what you as the PC had equipped. Its a small thing, but breaks the immersion.

        I do agree with you – dialog is hugely important.

  17. Cilvre says:

    i’ve always wondered why they don’t have your save file mark a flag after you’ve seen a cutscene the first time, so in future playthroughs you can skip it without hassle

    • guy says:

      Sometimes they do! The Zero Escape series, for instance.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      That would still mean you have to watch it if you buy a new computer and dont have an online save.Or if the save gets corrupted.Or if you switch a profile.Or if you watched it somewhere else before.

      No,just make them skippable from the get-go.

      • Thomas says:

        Yeah, skippable from the get go also means that people who aren’t interested in the cutscenes (either because they’re terrible or the person just isn’t invested) can skip them without having to have completed the game first.

  18. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Movies are usually consumed in a single sitting. But if a story-driven game can be consumed in a single session it’s considered a huge failure, or at least a bad value

    Actually,this is only true because of the remnant of the past that games have to cost 5 times as much and be that much longer than movies as well.Gone home,for example,can be consumed in a single sitting,and costs about as much as your average movie.And people mostly love it,because its good and cheap.

    • Shamus says:

      The footnote: “Assuming we’re talking about full-price AAA games, here.”

      Yeah, all tyhe assumptions change when you start talking about indies / cheap games / old games / etc.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        But we really dont have to have aaa games be that long and that expensive these days.Though,on the other hand,blockbuster movies these days usually run over 2 hours,and are part of a franchise,so I guess there some similar thinking going on there.

  19. Hmm, I have a couple points to make.

    First: I am a big fan of the Mass Effect paragon/renegade interrupt. Sure, it’s mildly annoying to miss one because you are listening to the guy emote, but if you’re paying attention and act quickly, you get to cut the monologue short and gain an advantage for paying attention. If the opponent is monologing, he deserves to get interrupted. This does not mean I approve of other things they have done in that series, such as…

    Second: … force you to cooperate with Cerberus while giving you lots of little choices that amount to no choice at all. This could have been handled so much better. Instead of using vaguely threatening dialog and EDI hacks to “keep an eye on you”, give every single dialog interaction with the Cerberus boss a “sod off” option, after which the Cerberus guy triggers the secret pain device he implanted in your brain or whatever. Let the character pick it as many times as he wants to. Each time it sends you into the next mission, unconscious and hurt, with your default equipment, no briefing, and the ship won’t let you back in until the mission is complete. Suddenly, the player’s choice has a consequence! it matters! And players will pick it, despite the disadvantages, because they want to tell the IM to sod off, but it makes their lives harder… and they have to struggle with a meaningful moral choice. And speaking of choice…

    Three: Provide meaningful choices in the plot, even if you have to railroad through some things like the above. You can only get away with that for so long. Provide an escape hatch so the player can choose where they want to go rather than being locked on rails. ME offered a lot of choices and then basically ignored them. That’s just putting your player in your own movie, where the story may well suck, and when the resulting story sucks, making the player think that he made the choices that resulted in a story that sucked. I hate the dialog options in so many games where you have three or four emotions to express about what you are being told but they all lead to the same next section of dialog and exposition. Sure, I get why — it’s less work — but at a minimum provide a specific response to the player’s reaction and THEN continue to the next cutscene line. And finally…

    Four: Environment chatter does NOT have to interrupt the player’s activity. If you have a party of people adventuring and outside of combat, they should be talking to each other. A lot. Sometimes based on things you see, sometimes based on random generation. Tricky to do well, but you don’t have to stop the game to have a dialog every time your characters have a conversation. If you stop at a shop, play the dialog/exposition/shopkeeper conversation in the background while the player buys and sells. If you’re clever, make this something that’s influenced by choices player makes in earlier dialogs or attributes or something, and if you’re not sure ask the player without interrupting their shopping.

    • guy says:

      Your fourth point reminds me of an issue I’ve had since Skyrim or so with games. It feels like since then every game has audio like you’re listening through a directional mike, and if you turn around you can barely hear someone talking behind you.

      Anyone else have that problem?

      • Guy, I’ve had that same issue. In many games where it shows up, I actually turn off the 3D audio and stick to 2.1 to minimize the problems.

        I think the root cause of the problem is poor design. Presumably the virtual microphone in the game world has a position and so do most of the sound sources. And then some engine designer says that the position and orientation of the virtual microphone should be the same as the position and orientation of the virtual camera.

        But in a typical roleplaying game where your viewpoint is third-person, that’s NOT the case. Your audio positioning should be based on where your character is, and (given that the character and the camera can be facing different directions) probably should be non-directional, or based on the character’s position. The default position of the camera in many of the RPG-type games (high in the sky, looking down) means, basically, you can’t hear anything. And even in a FPS-style first-person game, if you don’t have a proper 5.1 or better setup with decent speakers properly positioned behind you, when you turn your back on someone who is talking to you or try to listen to them telling you how to complete the quest they gave you while you march from point A to point B, you can’t hear anything they are saying.

        Of course, to make things even more confusing, audio by camera position is probably correct for battles with large explosions and such that you are managing tactically. It doesn’t matter if you turn your back (or leap 50 feet into the air and rotate around in a rough circle) on an explosion and can’t hear it perfectly. Dialog matters, though, and it should be a) unrealistically loud compared to everything else going on, because inaudible dialog isn’t fun b) heard as spoken to your character, not your camera.

  20. Phantos says:

    As much as I will defend cutscenes as an option for devs, I do think unskippable cutscenes should be a capital offense.

    “We spent a bajillion dollars making this crappy movie instead of the game people paid for, like hell we’re going to let them not see it!

    LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT IT!!

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