On Videogame Cut Scenes and Filmmaking

Mass Effect 2

Over the years, the advancements in video game technology and the bigger budgets associated with AAA games have helped the games industry compete with movies in terms of their appeal and their business. The experiences are bigger, bolder and more akin to Hollywood blockbusters than ever. We expect more out of games these days – and a lot of that mindset is owed to the cut scenes that were introduced several generations ago. Cut scenes stretched our idea of what games could be. But do games still do cut scenes right?

That’s the question Wired asks in a new piece titled 5 Film-School Violations in Videogame Cut Scenes. In it, writer Jason Schreier takes a look at some of the things that modern cut scenes still get wrong, even after all these years. While I think the list is sort of ill aimed (it’s more about writing and editing than actual direction), Schreier raises some great issues. In terms of writing, many games just can’t seem to cut it compared to the movies they’re trying so desperately to be.

While I’d have to disagree with him on Mass Effect 2 (one of my friends was a cinematic designer on that game and knows his crap), I’ve long maintained that many game cut scenes don’t really know what they’re doing in terms of the actual craft of film – shots are set up all wrong, and are more about flash and spectacle than about the story itself. To me, one of the most grievous recent examples is Final Fantasy XIII. For all the flack that the game takes, I felt like very little of it was directed at its cut scenes, which were often a jumbled mess. During action sequences, I often found it hard to follow what exactly was going on in the scene, to the point where I had to re-watch them several times.

So how do you guys feel about this list? How do you feel about cut scenes in gaming? Which games do it right and which ones do it wrong?

Source – Wired

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I write about samurai girls and space marines. Writer for Smooth Few Films. Rooster Teeth Freelancer. Author of Red vs. Blue, The Ultimate Fan Guide, out NOW!

10 thoughts on “On Videogame Cut Scenes and Filmmaking”

  1. I agree, I really enjoyed the cut scenes of Mass Effect 2, especially with the addition of the Renegade/ Paragon actions. Would have been nice if some of those popped up at the same time, though, so we could actually make a choice. Anyway, I thought the shots for the cut scenes were excellent for the most part, and the mandatory ones I thought revealed plot points very well. As expected, the voice acting was great throughout (met FemShep at Comic Con), but that’s what you get with pro voice actors/ actors. Didn’t think the last scene was really that bad with the 180 degree rule…at least not to my untrained eye.

    Now, we do have some great examples of why cut scenes aren’t needed at all: Fallout New Vegas/ 3 and the Half Life games, where there was dialogue but no true cut scenes (save the beginning and ends).

    But I do believe that cut scenes overall need work. See: Call of Duty. While it has some relevant cut scenes (more Black Ops, which seemed more story-focused than the others), the cut scenes to me seemed mostly like action movie scenes. They were cool, but largely unnecessary. However they did help create a nice atmosphere to the game.

  2. I watched the ME2 clip…he’s right. He points out that many cut scenes in it are brilliant, but this one jumps around all over the place.

    And it does.

    1. Well he’s right in that it breaks those rules… but sometimes it’s OK to break them. I just don’t know if it’s fair to paint all of the cut scenes with that kind of brush for one cut scene.

  3. I didn’t mind the jumping around in that particular cutscene. To me it was trying to illustrate the… panicked isnt really the right word… nature of the escape. Granted I’m probably reading more into this than a high school English teacher, but there you have it

  4. Dinner! Dinner! Dinner!

    The ME2 cutscene wasn’t terrible, since it’s just a short part where Tali is on the left side and not the right (although maybe I’m missing the other parts), so I’m okay with that cutscene.

    I agree with Schreier that cutscenes need to be more brief and structured, especially them jRPGs, what with their awkward mannerisms and drawn-out dialogue.

    I like Bungie’s mantra: “What is stopping the player from skipping this cutscene?” I feel that cutscenes should really make a difference in the story, so that it’s not just a simple way to start a mission or whatever. Cutscenes need to show their own movie within the game, which is challenging, but can really flesh out the game’s narrative. I think people need to embrace cutscenes, instead of holding that stigma that cutscenes are unnecessary and intrusive.

  5. I didn’t see any real problems with Mass Effect’s cutscene. As supernovaforce rightly observes it aids with the (I’ll use this word) chaotic nature of the escape.
    Paper Mario was another one. The redundancy in the statements, I assumed, was merely played for laughs. Y’know, “Department of Redundancy Department”? And when the drawn out scenes are a laugh-a-minute, then they’re certainly worth sitting through. Luigi is brilliant in those games.

  6. No probs supernovaforce, A-Level English came in handy after all. 🙂
    Cossack, unless I’m misinterpreting your comment, I think cutscenes should go hand in hand with the gameplay. Rather than being a seperate movie they should flow seamlessly between gameplay and not feel so intrusive. The stigma is there because, at times, they are. JRPGs are (in my eyes) the worst offender. If they’re done more akin to Halo or Uncharted where they set the scene and further our understanding of the world or characters without taking up a significant portion of the game then that’s fine. MGS and FFX (I’m sure there are others, but they fail to come to mind at present) are the only games where I’m willing to sit through cutscenes. However, my nostalgia filter may be on max settings so once the HD remakes come out I may have to revise my opinion. I wonder if FFX is getting a remake? If so I’ll pay extra careful attention to cinematography this time. If only I knew the first thing about cinematography.

  7. @Skuba: Yeah, I mean that cutscenes need to be another facet of the game’s story. jRPG cut their game into one half gameplay and one half story, never really mixing narratives. As far as in-game sequences a la Half Life, those are usually more memorable, but they still take some control from the player anyway, so ultimately, the story will have to “interrupt” gameplay, or at least the action.
    Basically, I’m saying that cutscenes, even if they take control away from the player, can still add to the experience, and even the flow of gameplay; for example, by providing a lull in the action or to set-up a more dramatic gameplay sequence right after.

  8. It was kind of petty to gripe about cutscenes in Paper Mario, of all games. Those games aren’t exactly trying to be cinematic masterpieces.

    I agree with the violations being presented, however. I still don’t really understand the Mass Effect one; while I could find the flaws with the other cutscenes easily, I saw no problem with the ME one. I was also curious that 4 of the 5 examples of violations were taken from Japanese games. Surely some Western developers violate some of these rules, too…

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