Andreas Bretteville is my guest here on this Writer Wednesday. He is a game systems designer working on an upcoming MMO. When not doing stuff with databases or spreadsheets he likes to throw weights around and explore the limits of acceptable punning and inappropriate link-sharing.
The Problem With Cinematics
I was actually going to write a post about how telling a story in a game is fundamentally quite different from telling a story through in a movie or a book or a play or a song. But whenever I think of storytelling in modern games I always focus on one thing that irks me – the cinematic. So before I can write about actual narrative through gameplay, I have to get this cinematic gargoyle off my chest.
So what is a cinematic? A cinematic is basically ‘movie-mode’ – a predetermined sequence in a game where you as a player temporarily lose control, and some sort of stuff happens onscreen, usually involving multiple camera-cuts from the conventional point-of-view when you’re actually playing the game. This is also sometimes referred to as a cutscene. If done well this can be a great way to enhance your feeling of immersion, especially if it plays to conventions you’re already used to. If done poorly, however, it’s gonna really throw you off the actual game, because it comes off as jarring and inappropriate and disruptive. And sadly a lot of modern cinematics are done poorly – for reasons which we’ll get into.
So that’s what this post will be – my shot at figuring out why cinematics in games are usually pretty terrible, and what can be done to make things better.
I am old enough to remember a time when games didn’t really have cinematics. Only barely, though! Early cinematic-type inteludes in PC games were usually just a still picture with some text (scrolling optional). In 1991 Another World (or Out Of This World to you yanks) was released and provided, for its time, the most seamless integration of gameplay and cinematography. The blend of gameplay and cinematics holds up better than in many modern games.
We got ‘Interactive Movies’ when CD-ROMs rose to prominence in the early 90s and companies had no idea what to fill 650MB with. They are an interesting example of ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’. Phantasmagoria is perhaps the pinnacle or the nadir of this genre, depending on how you view it.
And then some games started using cinematics very successfully. And storage capacities increased, and budgets increased, and expectations increased, and the sizes of development teams increased, and here we are twenty years after Another World and it’s a big clusterfuck.
WHY THE HATE
This is where I start being subjective: I’m going to pick apart the current state of cinematics, and what people such as myself dislike about them, and what is being done wrong. I’m not saying everybody hates all cinematics! I love sitting back after accomplishing something and having AWESOME unfold onscreen, and it is entirely appropriate to convey some in-game events via cinematics. But a lot of gamers out there will instinctively reach for the escape key the minute they smell a cinematic coming on. So how is this opportunity being wasted?
* Cinematics are not gameplay
If I’m playing a game, it’s because I find the gameplay to be entertaining or compelling in some way. If the game fails at this then I won’t be playing that game for very long, if you catch my drift (my drift is that I will uninstall that piece of crap and then rant about how terrible it was). So! Playing game = good. Cinematic = not playing game. I want play good game. Cinematic therefore not good. Essentially, a game is about being presented with a situation, understanding that situation, and then making and executing choices about how to change that situation. Cinematics crucially lack the third element – that third element is what makes a game a game. Without the third element, you are just being fed something. If I wanted to be fed something I’d watch a movie or read a book or something.
* Cinematics break immersion
I think maybe the intent of cinematics is to draw you deeper into a game’s narrative, but going from an active controller to a passive viewer is itself a very disruptive experience. Games really like to show off when it’s time for a nice big cinematic. It cuts to third-person perspective, it does the whole letterbox-thing (because movies are letterboxed on the screen too, get it? so it’s like you’re watching a movie!) More importantly, if the cutscene involves your character (which they frequently do), your character may do stuff which is completely at odds with how you imagine your character to be. I was playing through a AAA FPS recently, avoiding and incapacitating people as I went. I was using the environments and weapons in clever ways to get past obstacles without being seen. I felt cunning. Then I approach a plot-point NPC, and I have to sit for over two minutes watching my character acting like a total moron and being completely bamboozled by this obviously deceptive lady. But because I’m now in the middle of this cinematic I just have to sit and watch as she makes her escape, seething at my inability to control my own dumbass-itude.
* Cinematics are common (as in plentiful AND vulgar)
There used to be a limit to how many cinematics you’d be exposed to throughout a game. Both storage space and game development budgets were more restricted, so the developers would have to carefully pick times where they could play a cinematic. They weren’t cool because they were cinematics, they were cool because they represented something you had worked hard for. Command and Conquer (1995) did this very well. It was a strategy game where you could pick to play as either GDI (a futuristic NATO-esque organization), or NOD (terrorist military group lead by this charismatic guy called Kane). Each mission started with a briefing cinematic. These cinematics would describe your objective, introduce new gameplay units and elements, and also had a story arc. They served as both a way to advance the narrative and as a reward for having accomplished something. As an example: if you’re playing NOD, you’re receiving orders from this guy Seth. You’ve never actually seen or talked to Kane because you’re too low on the chain of command. So you’ve played the game for a couple of hours. You’ve probably had your ass kicked a couple of times at this point, but you’ve come back and kicked some ass of your own. You’re starting to feel like you’re getting pretty good. You’ve also started to feel Seth’s growing resentment of your success. Then you get this cinematic.
* Cinematics are used to accomplish what gameplay should
Cinematics are often used to tell you stuff that should be revealed through mechanically playing the game. This is the most damning criticism I have of cinematics, because it doesn’t just mean that companies are wasting resources making stuff I don’t care about, but that having cinematics actually makes the surrounding narrative experience worse. I can walk away from a cinematic, but I’ll be tripping over the gaping holes left in the narrative everywhere I go. There are all these awesome ways a player can interact with the game world – having them sit there and be fed information passively is the least sophisticated way of delivering narrative and exposition. It just comes off as lazy. For delivering exposition, cinematics should be used as a last resort, like Comic Sans, or that Requiem For A Dream song, or turning your underpants inside out.
* Cinematics characters do not play by the rules
This is really a symptom of how story is delivered: if the narrative of the game is mostly delivered through characters in cinematics (which is itself problematic), the game will usually have some way of preventing you from destroying those characters so that advancement in the game does not become impossible. Basically if you kill Basil Exposition, then Basil Exposition cannot reveal the CLEVER TWIST to you after mission X, and so the game prevents you from killing Basil Exposition. This also usually extends to there being no actual gameplay interplay with these characters – since they would then either be exploited in gameplay due to their immortality, or screw the plot over if they died. This just furthers the divide between story and gameplay in games, and makes the player feel like they’re being told a story rather than take part in one.
HOW TO MAKE CINEMATICS THAT DON’T SUCK
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what makes cinematics bad, but what makes for a *good* cinematic? For me, it boils down to these two axioms:
#1. A cinematic has to develop something the player cares about.
#2. The player can only be made to care about something by experiencing it through gameplay.
From these we can then infer that:
#2 implies #3: The player can not be made to care about something through a cinematic.
#3 implies #4: you cannot make a player care about story/narrative solely through a chain of cinematics
You cannot effectively make a player care about something based on nothing – there has to be some kind of gameplay underpinning what is happening in the cinematic. It needs to relate to something the player does in-game. Or, failing that, it has to be amusing – which can lead to severe tone problems. Anyway, to mitigate the fallout of actually having cinematics, I propose the following guidelines for making cinematics that are not terrible (in addition to the points mentioned above):
* Keep them short and to the point
Real short. For cinematics that actually interrupt gameplay, go past 15-20 seconds and you are really starting to push it. If it’s a good game the player will want to get back to playing the actual game, right? A quick and dirty example: as you enter a valley, you are shown a two-second cutscene of your character walking, as seen from a high vantage point. And that’s it. Due to the shared language of moviemaking, you now have a gameplay heads-up that something is observing you, and also narrative questions about who or what is observing you.
* Pretend to at least give the player some control
If you’re going to deliver a shitton of dialogue through cinematics, at least take the extra effort to make a conversation tree. It makes a world of difference to have a brief exchange of sentences, and then you get to pick a response. Hell, just having ONE possible response is better than just standing there. “Go on.”
* Make them skippable
Just out of politeness. Especially on behalf of those of us who like to replay games. Especially especially 4-minute long unskippable intro sequences.
* Don’t have them
If at all possible, develop story and narrative through gameplay rather than cinematics. You can have awesome narrative and story which the player can actually experience through gameplay. Think about it – how compelling and immersive is the narrative in the first Portal? Now, count how many cinematics there were. Oh, that’s right, you got one at the end of the game. Yeah, how immersed were you when playing through Portal?
[SPOILERS]Do you remember that visceral sense of creepyness you felt when you found the first broken access panel, which lead to the hideout with the warnings?[/SPOILERS]
TO SUM UP
Ultimately, games are entertainment. But what makes games unique is that they are about making choices or decisions based on a situation. Cinematics are the opposite of that. So if you’re going to take away a player’s control, you better have a damn good reason!