Cutscenes are the movies within games that do what can’t be done while the player is in control. They’re often crucial to progressing the story and can take on a range of different forms. It’s hard to say what makes popular cutscenes so popular, but we can provide some guidelines, and tips and tricks for producing a cutscene that does the job well.
What are cutscenes?
Lights, camera, quick-time event! A cutscene is usually a portion of a video game that involves limited gameplay, advances the story through exposition, and separates different segments of the game. The name was coined from the producers of the classic Maniac Mansion game, when the game would cut away from the player to show scenes of characters acting off-screen. The ‘standard’ format for a cutscene is usually a pre-rendered scene with no gameplay, but this is not the only format cutscenes comes in.
Different types of cutscenes
Cutscenes can vary heavily between games, based on design choices:
- Text and/or animation – while many cutscenes nowadays involve a short movie scene, this isn’t always the case. In fact early video games did not have the capacity to display cutscenes in this way and many used on-screen text to provide context and progress the story. Some games still choose to do this, either because of resource limitations or a deliberate style choice.
- Pre-rendered vs in-engine – animating cutscenes can be expensive, particularly if you have a lot of them in your game. Often a game will build some or all cutscenes within the games engine, rather than taking a cinematic approach. As cutscenes can sometimes disrupt the flow of games, in-engine cutscenes can allow for smoother transitions and better immersion. Although, a good cinematic can be more impressive and memorable, so it’s a trade-off.
- Narrated, voice-acted, or silent – another variation in cutscene format that can be either by design or by necessity. Voice acting can be resource expensive, so having mute characters or text-only cutscenes become a cost-effective choice. Narration will also limit the need for a range of voice actors, but is probably more of a style consideration when used.
- Varying degrees of interactivity – since player interaction is a cornerstone of gaming as a medium, cutscenes that require passive watching can be problematic. Notorious as an unpopular solution to this problem is the quick time event, where a button or combination of buttons need to be pressed in order to ‘survive’ or progress in a cutscene. While they sound reasonable enough in that they keep the player on their toes, and therefore participating in cutscenes, the format of press X not to die can make them more frustrating than engaging. Other options include allowing the player to retain movement/visual control during a cutscene (only possible in-engine).
- To skip or not t– skippability of cutscenes is another contested point. While cutscenes usually contain important information for a new player, for someone who’s seen them before, or is just eager to get the action, not being able to skip a cutscene can be agony. Some games only allow skipping on a second playthrough which works in theory, except when game data gets erased or a game is purchased again on a new platform. Cutscenes can sometimes be unintentionally skipped, which is why a minimum of 2 button presses are used to skip them in modern games.
What is a cutscene movie?
The gameplay was slowing me down. Almost the exact reverse of a skippable cutscene is the cutscene movie. This is when all the cutscenes (or at least the most relevant, canonical, or cinematic cutscenes) are compiled into a video and posted online to view.
This might sound odd to someone who considers interactivity the most important part of gaming, or else doesn’t see gaming as a vehicle for story. But, for many, story is the most important aspect and it can be experienced completely independent of gameplay. This makes sense when you think about how many video games have been adapted into movies, even if the genre is considered mostly disappointing.
So why would someone choose to watch a cutscene movie? Some reasons might include:
- You’ve played the game before and you just want to re-experience the story
- You’re interested in the source material (book or film) related to the game but aren’t interested in playing the game itself
- The game has multiple story routes and you want to see how the story plays out without having to replay it yourself
- You want to experience it for the first time but don’t want to watch gameplay because it’s less fun to watch than play, and playing it isn’t an option. This could be because:
- It’s on a platform you don’t or can’t own
- You can’t afford the game
- It’s not available where you are
How to do cutscenes
Which scene do I cut first?? ✂️ Below is a list of 6 steps you can take when designing a cutscene:
- Define the purpose – a cutscene can accomplish a wide range of things. You need to figure out what yours will be doing and then make sure your finished scene does what you intended. You cutscene’s purpose might include:
- Setting the scene and the mood
- Moving the plot forward
- Defining the start or end of levels or sections within levels
- Introducing new elements to the game
- Rewarding the player when they reach a certain point
- Write a script – even if there’s no dialogue, you still need to get in writing what is happening in your scene so it can be agreed on and then visualised. It can also help you plan dialogue and sounds too if they’re involved.
- Create a storyboard – like a visual script, a storyboard has sketches of each shot within a scene, usually with directions, dialogue, and other notes beside each sketch.
- Pre-visualise – an extra step that can help get a prototype of the cutscene in place to help planning and act as a guideline for the production of the final animation. There are a few ways to do this such as turning your storyboard into a slideshow (animatic), but SpaceDraft can help you create a more comprehensive prototype.
- Animate – once all your planning is done you can start to build the visuals for your finished cutscene. Whether you’re pre-rendering or creating it in-engine, you’ll start with a layout, where all the elements of your scene are put into place in a rougher format. Then, once everything’s reviewed and finalised you can optimise and add detail.
- Add sound – voice acting, sound effects, or even just background music. Unless you’re intending to use complete silence for dramatic effect, you’ll want some audio to compliment your scene.
Tips for cutscene creation
How to run with cutscene creation (once the scissors are down). Knowing how to make a cutscene is a good start, but there’s a lot of extra considerations that go into making it effective and memorable:
- Ask if it needs to be a cutscene – cutscenes can limit the immersivity of a game so they should be used sparingly, when necessary. If you’re looking to have an extended conversation between characters, or to dump a lot of information on the player, it might be better to do this outside a cutscene.
- Pay attention to continuity – it’s important that costumes, objects, background, and characters need to be consistent during a scene, and if they change, the changes need to be consistent too. To see what we mean, check out this MovieMistakes list of the best continuity errors of all time.
- Avoid excessive camera movement or cuts – this is often used to make up for weak choreography and a cheap way of adding a sense of tension and sense of chaotic movement. It’s usually received poorly and there are plenty of movies and TV shows that get panned for it, e.g. this Iron Fist scene.
- Get the pacing right – scenes that drag on too long or are too quick to follow will both spoil the flow of your game and ruin immersion. Try and match the pacing to the feel of the scene and the point in the story your cutscene is at.
- Make them emotive – since the players are taking on a passive role during a cutscene, it’s best to try and engage them emotionally to stay entertaining and meaningful.
- Iterate! – a staple in any good design process, no matter what you’re working on. Take the time to get it right at each stage by reviewing and improving your work, especially once you’ve gotten to the final version of your scene.
What are the best cutscenes in gaming?
Want to be the very best? When you’re looking to create a cutscene that does your game justice, it makes sense to use the best scene out there as inspiration. Ranker.com has a dynamic ranked list of game cutscenes that readers can continuously vote on. As of writing this, the top spots are occupied by popular, classic title and series, including:
- Resident Evil
- Final Fantasy
- God of War
But it’s hard to know whether this list is reliable, since it’s ranked by users who may be heavily influenced by nostalgia and who may be voting based on their opinion of the games rather than the cutscenes themselves.
- Metal Gear
- Mass Effect
- Red Dead Redemption
- Elder Scrolls
- Half Life
- The Witcher
🐔 and 🥚 This doesn’t really tell us whether people like to see cutscenes from their favourite games or if they are favourites because the cutscenes (along with the overall standard of the rest of the game) are of a high quality. Still, since these games are considered some of the best around, they will likely have cutscenes that are well thought out and produced, making them ideal for inspiration.
What are the longest cutscenes in a video game?
Get your popcorn ready! The world record for longest sequence of cutscenes is currently held by Metal Gear Solid 4 at 71 minutes runtime. But when it comes to lengths of individual cutscenes, Star Ocean: The Last Hope wins at 46 minutes (full list of top 10 available here).
The ratio is a little off… When it comes to the amount of cutscene relative to game, a forum post on ResetEra calculated Xenoblade Chronicles 2 had a massive 17 hours and 25 minutes of cutscene time, outstripping the overall playtime itself of many, many games. Although they don’t show their working, TheGamer has a list of top 10 of games they perceive as very heavy on the cinematics.
A beginning, a middle, and an end. When it comes to an individual game, the longest cutscene will often be the end. This is because it’s when most of the game’s story is resolved, any epilogues are shown, and the player’s input into the game is over. There can be multiple endings too if you want to count total runtime across them. Following this the intro is typically second longest for the same but inverse reason that it sets up the context of the game and the scene of the game as it starts.