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Thoughts on Cutscenes

Posted on 12th May 2010 at 12:40 by Joe Martin with 48 comments

Joe Martin
I’m playing No One Lives Forever at the moment and, while it’s an undeniably great game and one that I’ve played many times, I’ve found myself getting increasingly infuriated with it for one simple reason. The cutscenes are far too long. They break up the flow of the game far too much and the mission briefings are often so padded out with needless dialog that it’s impossible not to get distracted.

What makes it all so much worse is the fact that much of the information you’re being bombarded with is repetitive, as well as flabby. You spend ten minutes listening to Cate Archer being berated for being an incompetent woman in the male dominated spy industry of the 1960s before the supposed mission briefing even tells you what you’ll be doing in the next mission. Then, when the cutscene is all over, it’s all summed up for you in a objectives and story screen anyway. It’s a massive flaw in an otherwise striking and superb title.

Length isn’t the only issue with NOLF’s cutscenes though – they are also rendered dull by how static they are with just three characters standing and talking, unmoving. Monolith obviously tried to liven things up by throwing in some interactive bits where you can choose how Cate responds to her superiors, but it’s too little and too late.

What really bothers me though is that No One Lives Forever isn’t by any means an exception. Almost every game imaginable has problems with cutscenes – it’s a well documented theory that Valve shot itself in the foot by deciding to always have Half-Life told from a silent first person perspective. In the short term it definitely increases the immersion, but with the story that Valve is telling it’s unbelievable that Gordon should be so stoic and static.


No One Lives Forever's opening cutscene is 9 minutes long

The problem that games have with cutscenes isn’t a surprising one. There’s an obvious disconnect that occurs when you try to meld a medium which is inherently interactive with a form of story-telling that requires you to do more than sit back and watch. Nor is it surprising that cutscenes breed wider problems within games too, with developers often showing in cutscenes actions that the players can’t actually do in the game. To me, that’s a cardinal rule – never show me the player character doing something that I can’t make him do in gameplay.

Cutscenes, like so much else, exist on a sliding scale though. There are some approaches which are definitely better than others. Half-Life’s silent and first-person approach is better than nearly any cutscene that uses pre-rendered video or which contains quicktimes, for example. On the other hand, if the writing is decent then a vocal, first-person style can be better than that – one of the things I liked about the original Condemned and Mirror’s Edge despite their other faults.

Too often though the primary problem with cutscenes isn’t that they break an otherwise consistent viewpoint – No One Lives Forever, for example, switches to a third-person view for cutscenes and it’s never a problem there. Instead, the usual issue is that cutscenes mark a departure from the established tone of the rest of the game. That was one of the problems I had with Max Payne – in gameplay Max was an unstoppable killing machine who glided through the air gracefully, but in the cutscenes he was embittered and whiny and annoying. What I took from the gameplay was that Max was Death incarnate, but what I took from the cutscenes was that he was a grumpy old man who’d probably spend most of his life shouting at his TV and reading the Daily Mail.


Thief: The Dark Age's intro is much shorter and focused

Is maintaining the focus and tone of a game really that important? Should developers really not show us things we can’t do in gameplay? Yes, definitely and the exceptions that prove the rule are the first two Thief games.

If you’d never played it before then you might at first glance that the Thief games have some of the worst cutscenes imaginable. They are pre-rendered video, for starters and they don’t even ever actually show anything of note – images and wisps of concept art drifting across the screen for the most part. When we do clearly see an actual character doing something then Thief isn’t even consistent with the presentation, so sometimes we see characters as highly detailed, hand-drawn animations and sometimes they are actual actors who’ve been veiled in darkness and merged with the painterly landscapes. So, Thief must have awful cutscenes, right?

Wrong. Thief salvages an otherwise abstract approach to cutscenes thanks to some absolutely faultless and pitch-perfect writing. Garret, the master thief you play as, is always kept as the centre of attention as he spews out disdain and reluctance in his mission summaries. The weird images and sigils are clearly a montage of his thoughts as he carefully appraises his target – but never once does the game waver. Garret is always a reluctant anti-hero with disdain and sarcasm dripping from his mouth like venom.

There are a few other exceptions and a few specific game moments I can point to as being awesome, but when it comes to having consistently brilliant cutscenes Thief is definitely one of the best purely because the writers adhered to one of the most basic rules of creative writing; omit needless words.

48 Comments

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Gunsmith 12th May 2010, 13:49 Quote
I find its down to the game type as well as the audience its aimed at.

if youve just played an RPG lasting 80 hours a 2 min ending seems a piss take, but suprisingly a 42 min ending (Xenosaga 3) seems perfectly fine, well it did to me.

imagine if they did that in MW2? youd have more cutscene then game.
[USRF]Obiwan 12th May 2010, 13:51 Quote
We all love escapable/skip able intro/cut scenes.
We all hate games where you can not skip scenes or introductions.

That's basically it!

And do not touch Halflife, that game will rule forever.
Mitcian 12th May 2010, 13:58 Quote
If you want utterly superfluous HD cut scenes and terrible cheesy acting then C&C is the franchise for you. Having said that (with a very big exception to C&C4,) the cut scenes are something I came to expect from this game. IMO They didn't make much difference to what story there was but lets face it, EA butchered the C&C saga long ago.
smc8788 12th May 2010, 14:07 Quote
I prefer the way HL does it from a first-person perspective. Whenever a game skips to a cutscene it immediately loses my attention and my mind drifts off or I go to make a cup of tea or whatever. If it stays in that first-person perspective like it tells the rest of the story whilst you're playing it then it makes for a more seamless experience.

I still haven't decided whether I like the cutscenes in MGS4 though. They were often largely irrelevant to the overall story, but I always watched them all the way through because I knew they would be 10 or 20 minutes long and were always well made. I hate games which over-use cutscenes unnecessarily, where they would be a few minutes long or just a few seconds, so you don't know if you should be paying attention or not. Having played Just Cause 2 recently, that game could be used as a prime example of how not to do cutscenes.
wuyanxu 12th May 2010, 14:07 Quote
No one lifes forever! also one of my fav FPS!

*searches for it on Steam*

not on steam :(

NOLF cutsenes are kay, as it's got planty of funny moments. it really depends on whether you are playing for the first time or replaying it.
will. 12th May 2010, 14:14 Quote
Biggest culprit of the overly long drawn out essay of a cut-scene: Metal Gear Solid...

Wasn't one of them 40 minutes long? I can't play that game again because I refuse to skip story, but I also refuse to watch a short film in the middle of my game. Especially one where people just talk on a damn plane...
Wing Zero 12th May 2010, 14:18 Quote
There are far worse examples of bad cutscenes. most of which can be watched with a MST3k backing track, courtesy of the 'LoadingReadyRun' crew on Unskippable which i thoroughly recommend watching
thEcat 12th May 2010, 14:20 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Mitcian
If you want utterly superfluous HD cut scenes and terrible cheesy acting then C&C is the franchise for you.

Funny things opinions, my feeling for the early C&C/Tiberian games is the exact opposite to yours. I always felt the actors, writers, designers involved in these games were having a laugh, a gigantic laugh while messing around having fun. 'Come in' said the game, 'join us, this will be a blast' :)

Finally, I agree. The end of the series, the final few games were pitiful.
nukeman8 12th May 2010, 15:12 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by thEcat
Funny things opinions, my feeling for the early C&C/Tiberian games is the exact opposite to yours. I always felt the actors, writers, designers involved in these games were having a laugh, a gigantic laugh while messing around having fun. 'Come in' said the game, 'join us, this will be a blast' :)

Finally, I agree. The end of the series, the final few games were pitiful.

He playable only experienced C&C zero hour after, where in my opinion when it went wrong.
The original C&C and red alert cut scenes were ace in my book.

Thats the same for most games now really, in days gone past they had to rely on a good storyline to make a great game. Now they skip the story and focus making the actual gameplay graphics as cutting edge as can be.
thehippoz 12th May 2010, 15:33 Quote
final fantasy had some good ones imo.. yeah it depends on the game- like I thought velvet assassin was done very well until the ending.. what the hell was that

I didn't know how to feel about it as you worked through the whole story to basically lose.. I hate games like that, but at the same time the game itself was great.. they just decided (or ran out of money maybe) to say ok games over no great ending for you..

witcher had one of the best end cutscenes I've seen in a game.. thief was good- even older games like freelancer (even though that game was all about the multiplayer) had scenes that were memorable from the single player story
Bauul 12th May 2010, 15:33 Quote
Increasingly what is a "cutscene" and what isn't is becoming increasingly blurred. Take Mass Effect 2: arguably the game is 2/3 interactive cutscene, but I don't recall anyone complaining it was light on gameplay.

This change is mostly down to the game engines: games of old simply couldn't do cutscenes in the same engine as the gameplay, they had to be seperate. Sometimes this worked (C&C, Jedi Knight), often it didn't.

Today though, with one engine for all, developers can flip between "cutscene" and "gameplay" at the drop of a hat, often so smoothly that they don't even seem like cutscenes if done well. Look at something like COD: MW2.

On that subject though, I'm going to add something to your "never have cutscenes show the player doing something they can't in game": "never have cutscenes show the player succumbing to something they don't in game".

In MW2, I can shrug off thousands of rifle rounds to the face by simply catching my breath, but I die in a cutscene thanks to a single pistol shot to the head? That really affected my enjoyment of the game.
Torrence 12th May 2010, 15:52 Quote
Quote:
...he was a grumpy old man who’d probably spend most of his life shouting at his TV and reading the Guardian.

Fix'd.
Hamish 12th May 2010, 16:07 Quote
i dont mind cutscenes as long as thye are skippable, unskippable cutscenes are just unforgivable
especially when you dont have a savepoint right afterwards
when you get a hard bit of a game after a cutscene and have to watch the same **** repeatedly its just awful

also Red Alert cutscenes are amazing and a big chunk of why i buy RA games
c&c always took itself more seriously than RA and while the cutscenes there are still fun they arent in the same league
batfink 12th May 2010, 16:15 Quote
Thief and Thief 2 are my favourite games of all-time. The graphics might have aged, but the gameplay and atmosphere is still pitch-perfect.

Is Thief 4 in the works?
SMIFFYDUDE 12th May 2010, 16:30 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by batfink
Thief and Thief 2 are my favourite games of all-time. The graphics might have aged, but the gameplay and atmosphere is still pitch-perfect.

Is Thief 4 in the works?

Yes, but I really hope they drop the Thi4f logo before release.
el_diablo_72 12th May 2010, 16:45 Quote
Thief 2 on hard was one of the best games ever! So difficult it would make your head bleed.

I thought the cut scenes worked well on it personally though, I like the perspective it gave and the cynical voice over worked well.

I think cut scened add something to games but you should be able to skip them at the press of a button in all cases!
Blademrk 12th May 2010, 17:02 Quote
I remember playing through one game on the 360 and the cut scene was so long the joypad switched off (think it was in Eternal Sonata)
Phil Rhodes 12th May 2010, 17:06 Quote
Quote:
Metal gear solid

Aaaaaargh. Aaaaargh. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh
Tsung 12th May 2010, 17:28 Quote
I hate/loath unskippable cut scenes, games are ment to be interactive if I wanted to watch a film I would of rented/bought one. I feel when developers put long cut scenes into their games they are hiding the fact there is little actual game content.

COD6:MW2 "No Russian" is even worse than a cut-scene I cannot skip, it was a cut-scene that I have to play thro'. Nothing more boring that moving at 1mph thro' an airport mopping up civilians. Sure there was a skip option but that was more due to the content than offering us a way out of the forced playable-cut-scene.

Where cut-scenes are important the developers should allow people to skip them but offer a simple summary screen to keep you up to date.
pimlicosound 12th May 2010, 17:37 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bauul
Increasingly what is a "cutscene" and what isn't is becoming increasingly blurred. Take Mass Effect 2: arguably the game is 2/3 interactive cutscene, but I don't recall anyone complaining it was light on gameplay.

ME2 had the best cutscenes I've ever seen in a game. The script was good, they always served a purpose, the interaction was never far from the forefront and they were directed with a good sense of pace and drama. I also loved that the parts that were pre-rendered looked similar to the in-game engine, but just more glossy.

One of the only mis-steps in ME2 was where - once or twice - it broke the rule about not showing characters do things they can't do in the rest of the game. When Jack escapes from her shackles, she destroys two heavy assault bots with one giant biotic blast - why couldn't she do that later on, when it would have been useful?

I don't much care for the HL2 approach. It's debatable whether it even uses "cutscenes" at all, since the story moments in HL2 don't cut away from the gameplay. However, they do have a tendency to just lock you in a room while a guy talks at you, even when you're running around and climbing on his furniture. It just looks stupid, and I don't feel like it's keeping me immersed.
kenco_uk 12th May 2010, 18:00 Quote
Dragon Age: Origins - what a ballache.
TSR2 12th May 2010, 18:03 Quote
I don't mind cutscenes where they help to elaborate bits of the story that would otherwise be hard to tell. And just after a difficult level, or part of a level, a short cutscene is usually good. But some cutscenes are just badly implemented, and along with everyone else I agree that unskippable cutscenes are AWFUL.
thehippoz 12th May 2010, 18:25 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by kenco_uk
Dragon Age: Origins - what a ballache.

soo true.. think half the game was just voice acting- after awhile I was like.. one ear and out the other
lankyn 12th May 2010, 22:59 Quote
Moan, moan, moan! Seriously, the cuts scenes were too long? I loved the humour, loved the voice acting, and you only need to look at nolf2 to see one of the reasons it wasn't as good - the cut scenes were crap. Most games have such bad voice acting that it's a rare treat to hear proper, funny dialogue, so stop moaning about it!
Fizzban 13th May 2010, 00:20 Quote
If the cut scene is helping to tell part of the story and it is well done, then I love cut scenes. True some are badly done...especially the further back through time you go. But personally I hardly ever have issue with them. Maybe that's because I care more for actual story telling, rather than unbroken gaming action.
Star*Dagger 13th May 2010, 03:14 Quote
Are we really talking about a game that is 10 years old?!
m0ng0lh0rde 13th May 2010, 05:04 Quote
I think one game that did well with the cutscenes, in that they advanced the story, but didn't show the character doing something you couldn't in the game, would be Homeworld.

Yes, the scenes were either done in the style of a graphic novel (mostly black line drawings,) or else they were shots of your ship, with a voice over.

Still worked quite well though, I feel.
Faulk_Wulf 13th May 2010, 09:02 Quote
I liked Metal Gear Solid 2. That should tell you my thoughts.
Smilodon 13th May 2010, 10:59 Quote
I can't believe nobody have mentioned Dreamfall: The longest journey.

The entire game were more or less an semi-interactive cutscene. The story and locations were pretty good, but it would have been better if they just made a 4hour movie. (I think all the cutscenes from the game are out on Youtube.)

edit: Here it is.
Skill3d 13th May 2010, 13:01 Quote
I like Final Fantasy games cutscenes... The overlong intro in modernwarfare 2 is pretty damn annoying
Cupboard 13th May 2010, 14:52 Quote
On balance, I like cutscenes, but in the long ones a pause would be handy. It is annoying to have to skip the scene to go to the loo/answer the phone/... and then have to pick up again from the beginning.

There is one game that came out ~2004-5, published by Atari and that had lots of cutscenes that I really enjoyed. It was a game loosely about oil and terrorism, and I have completely forgotten what it is called!

The opening is in a news studio, with people discussing the environment, rising oil prices... and sets off the whole game really well imo.

edit: it was Act of War
DarrenH 13th May 2010, 15:37 Quote
When done well they can bring to life a game. All out action for no reason soon gets boring. I loved both Uncharted 1 & 2 - the story telling was immense and they used proper actors who improvised for realism.

I did think Metal Gear Solid 4 had some way too long scenes but is still an awesome game.

Cut-scenes used to be a way for developers to show off their skills. Square Enix have always produced top notch quality.
Unknownsock 13th May 2010, 16:41 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by will.
Biggest culprit of the overly long drawn out essay of a cut-scene: Metal Gear Solid...

Wasn't one of them 40 minutes long? I can't play that game again because I refuse to skip story, but I also refuse to watch a short film in the middle of my game. Especially one where people just talk on a damn plane...
Im pretty sure the ending to 4, is a good two hours?
Although im a massive mgs fanboy so i loved it :p
Silver51 13th May 2010, 17:26 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Star*Dagger
Are we really talking about a game that is 10 years old?!

Still got NOLF installed next to Deus Ex and Open TTD. They run great on a netbook too, which is fantastic for long train journeys.
Anfield 13th May 2010, 18:33 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Star*Dagger
Are we really talking about a game that is 10 years old?!

Yes Nolf is old, yes Thief is old as well, but both are classics and there ain't too much that can match them.
[- pio -] 13th May 2010, 19:43 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Silver51
Still got NOLF installed next to Deus Ex and Open TTD. They run great on a netbook too, which is fantastic for long train journeys.
OpenTTD <3
thehippoz 13th May 2010, 19:47 Quote
how come in the older games they always had one character with ass * face.. it was like a staple to have someone with a face only a mother could love and he had the all knowing look
Sloth 13th May 2010, 20:42 Quote
Surprised no one's mentioned the worst cutscenes ever...

Guild Wars! :D

The wonderful voices, the "my pet is still in combat and dying, let me move", the "hey that's not even me, why am I watching the party leader?" and my favorite: "I can't even use that ability that many times without running out of energy... thanks combat scene."
CowBlazed 13th May 2010, 22:03 Quote
PAUSING is key for long cutscenes, yet they never let you. It's either skip entirely or sit through it with the cat scratching at the door.
l3v1ck 13th May 2010, 22:04 Quote
I don't care how long cut scenes are as long as I can press the Escape key to skip them.
blackerthanblack 13th May 2010, 22:21 Quote
The first two Thief games were by far the best I've experienced with cut scenes (not to mention difficulty settings, already discussed by Joe). Just some of the reasons they are still my favourite games today. The scenes moved the story onto the next level but did so without taking you out of the world from the previous level, the feel and immersion continued almost seemlessly and made you want to explore more.
t1alek 14th May 2010, 00:17 Quote
Cutscenes as such don't bother me, but they're many terrible examples, especially in strategy games, as they use these to both drive the story forwards and set the tone of the game, when the game itself fails to do so. An often pointless endeavour.

I never played the first two thief games, but I loved the third. It felt like a victory in itself, whenever I triggered one of the peculiar cutscenes. I like when cutscenes seem as a reward, as in thief 3 mentioned above and the movies between the acts of Diablo 2.

Also Crysis.. a game that in general grows on me for every time I play it, has some cutscenes that never really feels out of place or too long that they're skippable doesn't hurt either.
musicrab 16th May 2010, 12:34 Quote
Just skip 'em if you don't like 'em. More annoying are animations, e.g. Far Cry 2 "buddy comes to help" animation. Hit the reload key straight away.
Anfield 16th May 2010, 17:07 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by blackerthanblack
The first two Thief games were by far the best I've experienced with cut scenes (not to mention difficulty settings, already discussed by Joe). Just some of the reasons they are still my favourite games today.

And don't forget they where excellent value for your money, hundreds of hours of fun unlike these days where you are done with a game in 5 to 10 hours... ahh the good old days.
Kipish Walter 16th May 2010, 17:35 Quote
Thief did cutscenes right.
Dr. Awesome 17th May 2010, 02:09 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by musicrab
Just skip 'em if you don't like 'em. More annoying are animations, e.g. Far Cry 2 "buddy comes to help" animation. Hit the reload key straight away.

Most heartily agreement
Blademrk 17th May 2010, 11:30 Quote
Just started playing Bayonetta, Cut scenes are a bit too long in that too. Other than that I'm really enjoying it.
Initialised 17th May 2010, 22:49 Quote
You should only be able to skip a cut-scene once you've been through it. But games should avoid repetition of stock animations.
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