Cutscenes are non-interactive sequences inserted into the action of a video game. Sometimes also called "cinematics", they are included in almost every modern game that has any kind of story or plot. Sometimes, they can be overused, causing the game to feel more like watching than playing.
Cutscenes can take two forms. They can be produced in-engine, by moving the characters and viewpoint within the game itself. They can also be pre-rendered animations or even live-action videos triggered during certain events.
Pre-rendered cutscenes can contain any content desired, and can be as detailed as your animation studio (or casting budget, as in the Command and Conquer games) will allow. Their drawbacks are the amount of data required to store video files on the game disc, and a noticeable visual difference between the video and the game content. Also, if a character's appearance is subject to change, the cinematic cannot reflect this.
The word "cutscene" itself was possibly first coined by Ron Gilbert while making Maniac Mansion, wherein he defined cutscenes as short "scenes" that "cut" away from the action itself, to show what else was happening in the game world when the player wasn't around.
An in-engine cutscene is by definition a form of Machinima. It will most often have custom movements for the character models that don't occur in normal gameplay. In-engine cutscenes have several innate advantages:
- The scenes will look exactly like the rest of the game.
- The animation data required to render the scene will take less storage space than the equivalent in video, allowing playback to cover up Loads and Loads of Loading.
- If a character's appearance can change, the changes can (but still usually won't) be reflected in the cutscenes.
- They can include interactive elements, like the ability to move the camera or zoom in during the scene.
The main disadvantage to an in-engine cutscene is that you are limited to the capabilities of the game engine itself. Of course, as technology continues to improve, game engines become capable of doing in real time what years prior would require pre-rendering. Detailed and realistic hand and facial animation, camera and lighting tricks, and special effects are all possible within even a relatively old console architecture like the Sony PS2. The difference used to be a much bigger deal in older games; just look at the difference between the models used in the introduction and gameplay sequences of Resident Evil 2 to get an idea.
During the era of "Interactive Movies", a number of games featured cutscenes which were not simply prerendered, but live action, with (usually not very accomplished) actors playing the roles of the game characters. While this could make the cutscenes look far more like traditional film and television, it also inflated the size of the game: FMV-intense games would run to as many as ten discs for a comparatively short game. It looked as if the advent of DVD-ROM would solve this issue, but just as the DVD-ROM format emerged, FMV was almost totally abandoned in favor of in-engine and pre-rendered cutscenes.
The now-deceased format of "Interactive Movies" used FMV even for in-engine play, and as a result often felt like a near-continuous stream of cutscenes. In a powerful example of what happens when the technology gets ahead of itself, few players have much affection for the format now, making it unlikely that it will make a return in the near future, even though the technology could probably support it far better now.
Presumably, in the future of games, in-engine cutscenes will continue to be the norm. However, many recent games have claimed to do away with cutscenes altogether. Half-Life 2 has many sequences where characters talk to each other and advance the plot, but control of the character is almost never taken away; it's arguable whether the result, frequent impossible to skip sections where you're locked in a room with nothing to do with said control, is actually much of an improvement. Cutscene abuse king Metal Gear Solid added several interactive elements to its story scenes for its third installment.
Some definitions say "cutscene" refers specifically to in-engine segments, and "cinematic" refers to pre-rendered. However, in use they seem to be interchangeable.
See also Exposition Break, Going Through the Motions, Gameplay and Story Segregation, Cutscene Power to the Max and Cutscene Incompetence. Contrast Press X to Not Die, which makes you think it's a normal cutscene at first.
Some games notable for their cutscenes:
- 1980 arcade game Pac-Man had brief comic interludes between some map levels that presaged the modern cutscene.
- Data Age's Journey Escape for the Atari 2600 had an animated interpretation of the cover of Journey's 1981 album Escape as one, complete with the intro of "Don't Stop Believin'".
- Metal Gear Solid - Pioneered the use of the in-engine cutscene to create cinematic effects. The first game of the series has over three hours of them. The second has closer to seven, including one notorious cutscene which was literally an hour long. The fourth game infamously has nine and a half, including the ending that is, again, at least an hour long. Thankfully, the fourth game also finally added the possibility of pausing during the cutscenes.
- Jak and Daxter - The whole series has good ones. Check out Jak 3's commentary section for some really informative stuff about Machinima.
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has a main character with a highly variable appearance, yet the cutscenes work with whatever you put together.
- The Legend of Zelda:
- The Legend of Zelda CD-i Games contain several cutscenes, considered So Bad, It's Good.
- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was billed by Nintendo as having over 100 minutes of cinematic cutscenes. Because all cutscenes are rendered in real-time, disc space is not wasted on video files like with Super Smash Bros Brawl.
- While not to the same extent as its 2011 follow-up, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is very cinematic as well, and manages to feature them in real time to cope with the limited capacity of the Nintendo GameCube (otherwise, the game would have had to come in two discs).
- Karateka and Prince of Persia, both created by Jordan Mechner and originating on the Apple ][. These really invented the in-engine cutscene as we know it. Since the technology was so limited, Mechner used the techniques of the silent movie era to add drama to his ahead-of-the-curve action games.
- As documented over at the Digital Antiquarian, Maniac Mansion was the game that in all likelihood gave the cutscene its name. The SCUMM game engine included a purpose built "cut-scene" script to facilitate programming them, and the usage likely spread from there.
- Bug Eyes 2: Starman to the Rescue (1985, BBC Micro/ZX Spectrum): its infamous "C5 to the rescue" cutscene might be the earliest "annoying and unskippable" example. Just the one scene (Starman walks on, is picked up by a magnet on a string and dropped into a Sinclair C5 which he then drives off in), but repeated so many times over the course of the game.
- Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo games are renowned for having, at the time of their release, very well-done pre-rendered animation. (The most recent games have truly cutting-edge rendering. Warcraft III has both kinds of cutscene.
- And now, StarCraft II has amazing real-time in-engine cutscenes and even prettier pre-rendered cinematics.
- BloodRayne, the first one, for some really bad examples of cutscenes.
- The Final Fantasy series (from Final Fantasy VII onward) is known for its extremely high-quality pre-rendered cutscenes. Both the earlier and the later games also make ingenious use of scripted events that take place within the battle screen, a form of in-engine cutscene.
- Kingdom Hearts is famous for having as least as much cutscenes as the Final Fantasy series itself. Most of the story is told through them and in many cases they can't be rewatched, or, in the case of the first game, skipped. Most of the cutscenes worked on the game's engine and would include opened or unopened treasure chests, changes in the party's weapons (if Sora attached another keychain to his Keyblade, its appearance would also change in most of the cutscenes) and Sora's drive forms in Kingdom Hearts II (whenever he fought in a drive form, but didn't change back before the next cutscene, he would stay in his drive-form in this cutscene, leading to hackers misuse this fact to create cutscenes with Anti-Sora in them). Due to the large use of Disney humor in the games, using Kingdom Hearts cutscenes to create Internet parodies is extremely popular, especially on YouTube.
- The first game was also quite notorious for having unskippable cutscenes, which made the fight against Ansem possessed Riku even worse, since he was That One Boss, and the cutscene you'd be watching before fighting him was very long. This was rectified in the 1.5 version, which made cutscenes skippable.
- Kingdom Hearts III has cutscenes that add to a total of over ten hours.
- Xenosaga has extremely long cutscenes. Some of its cutscene sequences are more than half an hour long. In terms of "LONGEST CUTSCENE EVER", this series is right next to Metal Gear.
- Super Robot Wars is probably the biggest example of cutscenes ever. It's a strategy game where every single attack resulted in a minute to five minute cutscene showing the resulting battles. And they always worked, mostly because something was actually happening game-wise in the battles.
- Homeworld used in-engine cutscenes that would take control away from the player, but not pause the game, leaving the enemy AI a few minutes with complete control of the battlefield. Ships are invincible during cutscenes, but can still be reduced to one unit of health and destroyed the instant the scene ends. For those reasons, it was helpful for a player to memorize cutscene triggers, and put their fleet into a defensive posture before triggering the cutscene. note
- One of the biggest complaints about Eternal Sonata was its large amount of cutscenes, several of which were also very long. It gets worse if you count the Chopin history lessons.
- The phrase "Interactive Movie" is more associated with Wing Commander III, mentioned below, but the original game from 1990 was so labeled, with its animated cutscenes.
- Ninja Gaiden was one of the earliest games to use cinematics to tell an elaborate story, as part of a way to motivate players to finish the level. In the era of Save the Princess, the relatively complex tale of Ryu's quest for vengeance, his inheritance of the Demon Statues, and his Unresolved Sexual Tension with Irene Lew was something altogether new and different.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers alternated between FMV and in-engine cutscenes, and the very long intro was unskippable for some reason.
- Resident Evil Code: Veronica, having true 3D backgrounds, used more in engine cutscenes, but still used pre-rendered videos when that was not feasible. Resident Evil 4 and up used entirely realtime cutscenes (outside of the PlayStation 2 port), with many of them being unskippable and incorporating Press X to Not Die events.
- The first two Silent Hill games mostly used realtime scenes, with a few CGI videos. All subsequent games were exclusively realtime.
- The Pokémon series has used 3D cutscenes since Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. This is in contrast to the earlier generations, which couldn't use cutscenes due to technical limitations, with the exceptions of a fourth-wall-breaking cutscene in Pokémon Colosseum, a brief scene with Rayquaza in Pokémon Emerald and an in engine cutscene with the Legendary Beasts at the basement of the Burned Tower in Pokémon GoldAndSilver.
- The Valis games relied heavily on cutscenes, though the earliest releases had no voice acting and barely any animation. Super Valis IV loses most of the cutscenes of its PC Engine counterpart, perhaps due to cartridge size limitations or a reduced art budget.
- Custom Robo for the Gamecube only saves the game at fixed points. This is especially notable in the cutscene where Sergei explains the Z Syndicate's true goals, which is so long that it has three save points.
- The Sonic the Hedgehog series used cutscenes sparingly in the Genesis era, but they became much more frequent and detailed after the series went 3D;
- Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was the most cutscene-heavy game in the Classic era, primarily when transitioning from one level to the next. A lot of the game's cutscenes were real-time sprite animations, meaning that you could still move Sonic around and interact.
- Since Sonic Adventure, the series escalated to fully-voiced and animated cutscenes, and became somewhat infamous for it. Most scenes are in-engine, but some are pre-rendered, and it's very easy to tell them apart.
- Sonic Unleashed has an interesting quirk regarding the cutscenes; in the 360/PS3 version, the cutscenes are done in-engine. In the Wii/PS2 version, those in-engine cutscenes were converted to pre-rendered graphics. As a result, the Wii/PS2 version's cutscenes run more smoothly than the HD version.
- The first five Tomb Raider games on PC and PS1 mixed full motion video cutscenes (see the intro for an example) and in-game cutscenes using the gameplay engine. Originally, the in-game cinemas had no mouth movements, so it was rather awkward to see characters bob their heads (while their lips remained static) to indicate that they were talking. This was rectified starting with the fourth game.
- Ys IV: Mask of the Sun has a really long unskippable dialogue prior to fighting Gruda, That One Boss.
Notable examples of games with full motion video cutscenes include:
- Wing Commander III and IV featured Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell in its cinematics. One of the few examples of substantial FMV outside the Adventure genre.
- Phantasmagoria, possibly the first Interactive Movie, mostly remembered for how well it exposed the limitations of the genre.
- The X-Files Game, which featured the series' actors, probably had the highest production values in its cutscenes, but the use of FMV in-engine proved fatal to playability.
- Gabriel Knight 2 is often considered the only Interactive Movie that wasn't a monumental failure.
- Time Traveler, a rare example of the FMV shooter, originally an arcade game which was not only FMV, but 3D, using holograms (actually just an optical illusion using parabolic mirrors).
- Dragon's Lair, Dragon's Lair II and Space Ace were three arcade titles featuring animation by Don Bluth. While not live action, they were pre-rendered interactive movies, made with traditional cel animation. Recently, these games were re-released as a box-set, playable on any movie DVD player.
- The Journeyman Project Part 3: Legacy of Time combined rendered environments with live actors, resulting in one of the most playable examples of the FMV-intensive format. The game was also released on DVD, demonstrating the advantages that medium held. Possibly the last major FMV game.
- Parts 1 and 2 had them as well....just in lower quality and less frequently.
- A Fork In The Road, in which save points were rare, so you had to wait through FMV scene after FMV scene until you could make any new decisions.
- The 7th Guest, one of the first CD-ROM games, was so popular that CD-ROM drive sales spiked to an intensely high number due to people wanting to play it.
- Command & Conquer had FMV mission briefings and prerendered cutscenes. The series swears by them to this day (as do other RTS that used to be made by Westwood).
- Starting with Red Alert 2, they used cutscenes that appeared mid-mission (to show a new unit, etc.) In Generals, these in-mission cutscenes became intrusive by taking control of the camera, and preventing you from moving units or ordering them to defend your base from the one or two hostiles that are trashing your defenses and buildings.
- Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II: The fighting is a little lame, but when you compared to the Original trilogy (which had gems like the Force Kick) it gets better.
- Warhammer 40,000: Final Liberation, a turn-based strategy, used extensive live-action cutscenes to show the results of many of it's battles. The combination of terrible ork costumes and hilarious over-acting by humans is the stuff of legends.
- The Commissar was awesome though.
- Enter the Matrix relied on a combination of FMV and in-engine cutscenes. Notably, these were filmed as part of the production of The Matrix Reloaded, using the same actors and sets, so the FMVs were extremely high-quality.
- Starfleet Academy and Klingon Academy used FMV for mission briefings, ship-to-ship communications, and important outside-of-mission events. Particularly notable is the fact that the studios brought in the relevant actors from the Star Trek franchise to be in the scenes, including William Shatner, Christopher Plummer, and David Warner.
- The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is the first game in the Zelda series to use FMV cutscenes as part of its story. In fact, the game uses only one at the very end of the game. The FMV consists of the entire "after the final battle" sequence, the staff credits, and the epilogue. The cutscene may have been prerendered in order to properly implement the transition from the game to the credits, or because the developers didn't have time to implement it. This cutscene runs in realtime on the Wii U version. The Wind Waker's demo cutscene was removed in the HD remake, presumably because the developers didn't want to re-record it. Master Quest and Collector's Edition also feature prerendered cutscenes for Ocarina of Time's ending. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword have prerendered cutscenes for their demo videos, and Skyward Sword, Majora's Mask 3D, and Ocarina of Time 3D's Sheikah Stones hints are prerendered. Skyward Sword's ending credit sequence is prerendered, too, to save on loading (Zelda goes through various locations in the game). Like its predecessor, Twilight Princess HD removes the demo video for presumably the same reasons.
- Metroid: Other M; the game is loaded with cutscenes, some of which are FMV while others are rendered in-engine, and the difference is fairly noticeable. All of them are unskippable as well. Also, the developers created a The Movie special which features the entire game as a single sequence interspersed with gameplay.
- Super Smash Bros. Brawl comes up to nearly two hours of prerendered cutscenes, which doesn't seem like a lot, but it does when you're actually going through the Subspace Emissary (Adventure Mode). In fact, the cutscenes alone are the reason the game is on a dual-layer disc, which offers twice the capacity of a regular Wii game disc.
- The Matrix: Path of Neo, like the Enter the Matrix example, has a mixture of FMV and in-engine cutscenes.
Games which have in some way avoided or used an alternative to cutscenes include:
- The Half-Life series is played from the first person perspective of the protagonist of each game (normally the physicist-turned-saviour-of-mankind Gordon Freeman). Instead of traditional cutscenes, in order to preserve immersion, control is hardly ever taken away from the player, so you can usually still run around the room and mess with the environment while plot-important sequences are going on.
- The Metroid Prime Trilogy has a few cutscenes (mostly introducing a boss or new area), however the majority of the story is revealed by using a piece of equipment called the scan visor to read various pieces of lore and logs. In fact, Samus rarely even interacts with other characters in Metroid games (beyond killing enemies); Metroid Fusion was the first game in which Samus was seen talking to another character (somewhat ironically, a computer). Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was the first game to have other characters speaking (the Luminoth U-Mos explains much of the story to you), and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was the first to have voice acting beyond Samus' suit talking to her (though Samus herself never actually speaks). As mentioned in the previous example section, Other M does extensively uses cutscenes, with Samus having voiced soliloquies even.
- Dark Souls is very similar to the Metroid Prime example. The game is notable for how unintrusive the game's story is. There are very few Cutscenes except at the beginning and end of the game, and occasionally at the start of boss battles and when a new arc of the game starts. Most of the story is told through item text and NPC dialogue.
- BioShock also has most of its story told through various logs and audio diaries which have been left lying around by the (now dead or insane) inhabitants of the game world. It's particularly notable in that, apart from the intro and ending, it contains only one cutscene, and the fact that it's the one point where control is taken away from you is actually part of the plot itself, if you count out every mention of the phrase "Would you kindly"
- Gothic only has a few major cutscenes. All other exchanges use a clever camera that frequently switches being centered on speakers during their specific dialog and utilizes generic NPC body motion for emphasis.
- Played With in a ProZD video. The In-Universe King Dragon game has an unskippable cutscene just before the Final Boss. The cutscene is also played every single time the boss is fought, which makes Dennis (the player) very frustrated.
- In the El Goonish Shive NP storyline Parable (a pastiche of Fable), Susan is aware during the cutscenes but no longer in control of her actions. She also snarkily notes that the incredible ability shown by one of her companions will never be seen again.