Videogame storytelling has made some astounding leaps over the past few years. Powerful narratives like Red Dead Redemption and Uncharted 2 have helped show the world that games can be just as meaningful as any other form of art.
But there's one element of interactive storytelling that designers just can't seem to get right: the cut-scene. Some exceptions exist, but these control-free cinematic sequences often prove uncomfortable if not downright embarrassing to watch. While they are almost always packed with gorgeous eye caramel, games' cut-scenes usually drop the ball when it comes to effective storytelling.
This is because many cut-scenes don't follow the time-tested rules of cinema that have made Hollywood so successful. Gamemakers abide by their own rules, packing their cinematics with wanton expositions and explosions. But cut-scene designers would do well to learn from the past century of film and its storytelling practices. Mantras like “less is more” could do wonders for the way cut-scenes work today.
Here are five cinematic rules that every cut-scene designer should staple to the back of his or her brain.
Like its predecessors, Japanese role-playing game Final Fantasy XIII is notoriously gratuitous with cut-scenes, throwing its gorgeous, prerendered cinematics at your eyeballs every few minutes no matter how much you might object.
If you think these scenes drag on and on, you're not alone. They tend to violate an important Hollywood rule: Start a scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible, leaving the rest to viewers' imaginations.
Look at the FFXIII scene embedded above, where protagonist Snow proposes to his girlfriend, Serah. It opens with a whopping 40 seconds of nothing but scenery and random characters, the type of establishing shot that a competent director would handle in five seconds at most. Snow doesn't even reach Serah until about the 1:30 mark. The scene could have been exponentially more engaging without all that needless dead time.
The end of the scene is just as brutal. After the important parts — Serah saying "yes" and revealing her plans to tell her sister that she has been cursed — we suffer through another two minutes of Snow and Serah riding around in some hover vehicle thing for no reason. When I start wondering if anything else is on TV, you should have exited a long time ago.