Game developers can indulge their more filmic tastes in cinematic cutscenes, ignoring gameplay for a little while to concentrate on a visual spectacle. These scenes can serve a number of purposes: introducing the world, establishing character or continuing plot, or setting the game’s tone. The best cutscenes combine this with impressive visuals, whether through graphical fidelity or strong art design. But what makes a cutscene good? Here are four examples of strong cinematics and the differing ways they excel.
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Much like the game it precedes, The Witcher 2’s opening cinematic is a marvel technically and in its construction. Without using any dialogue, the cinematic easily paints the setting while also establishing a number of characters: the puerile, immature king, his long-suffering mage advisor, and his skilled archer bodyguard. The fourth important character is the only one who survives the cutscene, and the way he effortlessly dispatches the king and his guard reveals how formidable the player’s foe will be, while also setting up a pre-prologue to the story and giving a taste of The Witcher 2’s world. This is a mature world with believable characters, any of whom can die at any moment. Furthermore, all this is accomplished with gorgeous visuals which give Blizzard a run for their money.
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Speaking of which… Blizzard has long been viewed as a master in the field of cinematics, and the introductory cinematic to Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is no exception. At a deliberate, almost painfully slow pace, the player sees the technology that goes into ‘creating’ a marine. It is clear that to combat the zerg, the Terrans have to become something more than human, but the most disturbing implication is the desperation that humanity has sunk to when they are forced to recruit violent criminals to their armed forces. The narration by Mengsk establishes his sanctimonious, taunting character while emphasising the perverse logic in outfitting a convicted murderer with state-of-the-art battle armor This armor is now Findlay’s cell, which raises a number of less poignant philosophical questions regarding how he is able to attend to certain extra-combat duties. This cinematic, aside from being darkly beautiful, introduces a number of interesting ideas, but drives home the expense and desperate lengths that the Terran Dominion is willing to go to in order to preserve itself. Perhaps the only misstep is the incredibly cheesy line at the end, which will pull the player out of their thoughts so that they can roll their eyes at the writing.
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On the opposite end of the spectrum lies a cinematic which is partially interactive and has lower graphical quality, but seeks to establish atmosphere and setting with its effective visuals and dialogue. As Far Cry 2 opens, the player is being driven to their hotel in a fictional troubled nation, and the cabbie’s dialogue combines with the imagery to create a tense and disturbing situation. The player can turn to see a light aircraft rocking quickly through the sky as citizens attempt to escape, and then catch someone running away out of the corner of their eye. Running away from what? The driver repeatedly says that no one comes to this country any more, and as the drive continues and the sights become more disturbing–a foreign mercenary manning a checkpoint, a group of youths gathering around a torched bus–it is hard to imagine that this journey can end well.
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In Lucas Arts’ TIE Fighter, cut scenes act as a special reward for completing optional objectives. As the pilot of the titular craft progresses through the story, graduating to more impressive star fighters and blowing away countless Rebels, they also have the option to complete challenging and mysterious special objectives which are given to them by a cloaked figure in mission control—an agent of the Emperor. These missions are almost always ambiguous, requiring the player to scan a specific craft or disable a certain fleeing shuttle without ever knowing exactly what they are accomplishing. However, as they achieve more and more of these objectives, they are rewarded with cinematics showing first their entry into the Emperor’s secret society, and then their progression to his inner circle. The result is a perfect combination of secrecy, servitude and maleficence, culminating with a shocking moment when the Emperor uses his famous lightning to scar the player’s hand with his mark. These, the main story cut-scenes (the Emperor’s Circle scenes are unavailable online), lay out the main story with TIE Fighter’s characteristic darkness, aided by John William’s famous score.
What do you think are some of the best video game cinematics and why? What makes a cinematic good? Leave a comment!