The Evolution of Cutscenes in Gaming
From the early days of Dragon's Lair to the stunning sequences of Final Fantasy XIII or filmicc aspirations of Metal Gear Solid 4, cutscenes have come a long way. From animated loops, to sprite based interaction and prerendered polygons, the implementation has evolved into something phenomenal...
Another World of Game Cutscenes
Cutscenes in games are almost gratis when discussing AAA titles. There is an expectation for cinematic and engrossing story elements to be conveyed via filmic presentation. From the early full motion video of Dragon’s Lair, to the farsighted experiments of Maniac Mansion and Karateka, cutscenes in video games begin in earnest around the mid-1980‘s.
With the ever increasing need to utilise storytelling and a higher importance on narrative, the French studio Delphine created something on the cusp of revolutionary, Another World (Out of This World in North America). This 1991 release not only realised a fully rendered, animated and rotoscoped graphical base, but contained a prelude to latter day cinematic cutscenes in gaming.
Taking away the need for sprites (something which a game like Snatcher does remarkably) and only using polygons for its presentation, the first game to do so entirely, helped to create an immersing and believable alien world.
To further this, the use of gestures and expressions to represent the dialogue and interaction of characters and environment paved the way for a trip to uncanny valley, back and then beyond in future game cutscenes.
Cutscenes in Games
The graphical capabilities for such a cutscene dependant gaming experience were not appreciable or apparent until the fifth console generation (Saturn, PS1, N64). The onset of this generation forged a new development ideal, not only were games procrastinating on the intricacies of three dimensions, but how to implement a sequence of cutscenes or non-interactive elements to their narrative in a way most games had shunned previously.
This was helped by the extra storage afforded by compact discs instead of the typical cartridge format of prior generations. It should be noted however that Nintendo still maintained their own proprietary cartridge system until the next generation, which developers critiqued at the time.
Final Fantasy and Other JRPG Game Cutscenes
With these new advancements, game players were privy to a deeper artistic licence in their games and this spawned three great examples of cutscenes and their inherent power to convey integral plot-points through non-interaction in a filmic nature.
Final Fantasy VII was a juggernaut of a game, eating up 3 separate discs and often the souls of impressionable youngsters who still to this day, hold dear the lost experience of their youth playing it. Within the actual hours spent playing, the succession of FMV’s to advance the storyline and portray key elements of the plot were breathtaking, furthering the advancement of cutscenes in games and the need to portray narrative in such a manner.
It’s almost an after-thought with Japanese styled role playing games to have cutscenes as the focal linchpin of the narrative, because it has become a readily accepted fact after luminaries like Final Fantasy. Games like Lost Odyssey, Final Fantasy VIII-XIII, Valkyria Chronicles and to lesser extents the Persona series or other Shin Megami Tensei games.
Filmic Aspiration; Metal Gear Cutscenes
Metal Gear Solid took it one step further, the cutscenes were not just used to advance the story or display integral plot points (Aeris’ death scene for instance), but they became the crux of the story elements.
The compliment of action sequences, heartfelt moments and all the codec conversations furthered the immersion while not letting the player actually affect the scenes themselves, until later Metal Gear Solid games whereby you could change camera angle and witness The Sorrow (“boss" from MGS3) or other easter egg type moments.
This disconnect between allowing the player to interact with the environment and then showing them necessary narrative scenes without any interaction is prevalent in most games as of this generation because of games like MGS and FFVII.
Although it could be argued that the player should control the action of their character at all times (Half Life), the use of cutscenes gives authors a direct way to influence the experience without giving the player an option to sabotage or misconstrue it.
Cutscenes are definitely an applicable way to tell a story, especially given Kojima’s own almost atavistic tendencies to tell his story, whether you enjoy vampires and fat men on roller skates or not.
Quick Time Events in Game Cutscenes
The third and final example of cutscene evolution tries to bridge this game between gamer input and author control. Shenmue was the first game to test the inertial impact of quick time events (QTE’s) within it’s cutscenes.
Giving the option of interacting with the game via timed button presses was used to allow some kind of win/lose condition within the cutscenes themselves. Also, dependant on the successful enactment of these button presses, the cutscene would change or narrative would vary.
A whole host of games now require the player to interact with narrative elements in the form of QTE’s and timed actions with the controller. Resident Evil 4 referenced Shenmue while limiting the QTE’s to mostly action sequences, something which Shenmue transcends by using them in more situations.
God of War tried to use them as part of the gameplay, being able to do an in-game button event when defeating a levelled foe, alongside some cutscenes. Fahrenheit based it’s entire operation around QTE’s and motion themed interaction with the environment, something which Heavy Rain is building upon as of this article, showing the potency of the quick time event in modern games.
Emergent Cutscenes in Games
The effects of these games become apparent when looking at the huge gamut of titles that utilise cutscenes or full-motion video to tell their narrative.
Although some may choose live-action sequences with real actors, while some may change their style on the fly (Amped 3 being a rather spurious example) and others may integrate the dreaded QTE into the scene, all these options merit a freedom for the author and not the player, which is sometimes (not always, hence Half Life et al) needed in order to effectively tell a polished story.
From early in-engine sprite based scenes of dialogue, to sprawling action set-pieces and “epic" battles and fights, the cutscene has become a staple of modern gaming and doesn’t look likely to dissipate from big-budget titles anytime soon.
Other Recommended Cutscene Viewing:
Snatcher - for a Kojima based take on Blade Runner...
Mafia - some of the best narrative framing with cutscenes in a game ever...
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 - not a cutscene per se, but the ending is phenomenal, and you don’t have control...
Killer 7 - because I don’t fully grasp the nature of things in that game...
The Darkness - you can watch an entire movie in-game...