The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet


On cinematics in video games

Note: This is a reprint of something I posted on the main site some time ago. I decided to publish it over here too because sometimes I want a more convenient way of linking to it.

People have developed this idea that I don’t like cinematics in video games. Sure, it might be because of something I said somewhere along the line, but still, it’s not technically the case. I like cinematics just fine, and I think they can really add a lot to a game when they’re done correctly. The trouble is simply that, most of the time, they’re not. My goal here in this little vignette is to explain how to make sure the cinematics in your game are good. That’s me, always willing to lend a hand in the service of mankind.

The first rule of cinematics is that there should be substantially less cinematic-time than there is play-time. You’re making a game, here; if your goal was to make movies, you may have found yourself in the wrong business and may wish to correct that. Your audience isn’t buying games in order to avoid playing them, after all, so don’t feel the need to hide the game under layers of prerendered cutscenes. The easiest and most common way of breaking this rule is by piling the movies thick and heavy at the very beginning of the game, as though you’ve made some hefty work of great literary merit that will take the players serious fucking research in order to understand. And yet, my (significantly) informal research appears to show that players tend to “zone out” when faced with a wall of cinematics, and will comprehend and retain the information better if it’s presented in context during the game than they will if it’s exposition-dumped on them in a big “Read This First!”-style lump at the very beginning. Do the extra work and integrate your story into the game instead of forcing the game in through the cracks.

Rule two of cinematics: this is not the time for pinching pennies. Get the translation right. Hire decent voice actors, give them proper direction, and for fuck’s sake do the take over again if somebody blows a line. And, whatever you do, get the audio in sync with the video. Honestly, if you’re not committed enough to adhere to basic principles of filmmaking, you really shouldn’t be putting movies in your game at all.

Rule three: cinematics are not where the cool stuff happens. This is probably the most important rule on this list. Games are interactive entertainment by definition, and the action and the “awesomeness” should always remain player-driven. Use cinematics to introduce new characters, new areas, and new plotlines. Use them to show what the bad guys are doing while the good guys are off hero-ing. Use them for comic relief. All these things are fine. But no major plotline should ever be resolved by a cinematic, no especially cool events should be entirely contained in cinematics, and by all means no major villain should ever be defeated in a cinematic. Cinematics are great for setting up the plot; resolving it should always be left to the player.

Rule four: all cinematics (barring the ending) should be skippable. Nothing kills the replay value on a game quite like the prospect of sitting through a ton of unskippable cinematics you’ve already seen and didn’t particularly enjoy. All games containing cinematics should allow them to be skipped, and should make the method of doing so obvious and well-documented, while preferably not as simple to perform accidentally as “press any button.” A good compromise that I’ve seen is to allow the game to be paused during cinematics (a good idea in its own right) and offer “skip cinematic” as a selection from the pause menu. Remember, you’re making a game, and a game is about entertaining the players – take pride in your cinematics, certainly, but if your players don’t enjoy them, they shouldn’t have to watch them.

Rule five: the ending is your time to shine. The game is over, the villains are hoist by whomever’s petard, and the princess is no longer in another castle. Cinematic-wise, this is the big one. It should also be the best one – after all, this is the big victory party for the player, right? So this is the time to show off your best stuff and leave the player with the impression that the game was really cool. That’s what video game cinematics are all about, after all: enhancing, not replacing, the game.

So there you are. Use your cinematic powers for niceness instead of evil, and you’ll live longer, have more money, and chicks will be all over you. That’s the logical result of doing what I say.

December 22nd, 2007 Posted by | Games | no comments