Pre-rendered cutscenes… Do they still belong?

by Meghan Watt

In the most recent GameInformer, EIC Andy McNamara writes: “I think grandiose, pre-rendered cutscenes have gone from enhancing games to interfering with the medium.” He then sites World of Warcraft where beating the Lich King rewards you with a cutscene, saying that it’s “impressive to look at” but “not nearly as engaging as the script that plays out in the game engine.”

I have to disagree with McNamara here. Pre-rendered cutscenes certainly don’t belong in all genres. Games that I play strictly for gameplay like Modern Warfare or Split Second definitely don’t need ’em. Hell, I’m too impatient to wait through the multiplayer lobby or the three second countdown before a race, much less an overly produced cutscene.

But I believe that these types of cutscenes can definitely be just as, if not more engaging than those rendered in-game when it comes to RPGs and MMOs. If I’m going to watch a romantic moment between my spiky-haired hero and his bouncy love interest (Final Fantasy, I’m looking at you), then I’m already NOT playing the game. So, given a choice between seeing the two talk it out in-game or putting down the controller and watching a beautifully animated, pre-rendered movie like Yuna and Tidus’ first kiss in FFX, then yeah – I’d rather have the second.

However, kudos to game developers that can create an RPG where I don’t feel the need for this, like Mass Effect 2. Until now, I never thought, “Gee. That game didn’t have any lengthy pre-rendered cinematics!” But that’s because everything (with the exclusion of your, er, physical encounter) from the combat to the dialogue was fully interactive, and I never felt like the game was lacking without drawn-out cutscenes. But in traditional J-RPGs, I definitely like being treated to some pre-rendered cutscenes after big battles or when I first enter a town or whatever. Final Fantasy, Chrono Cross, Kingdom Hearts and the rest wouldn’t be the same without ’em.

But I also contest that MMORPGs can benefit from pre-rendered cutscenes as well. After beating the Lich King, you need a moment to sigh with relief and a big, congratulatory “Hey, you did it!” instead of an anti-climatic “Yes, yes, you beat the Lich King. Now run along to the Auction House.” Of course, I would have preferred a, um, better pre-rendered cutscene, like that badass one of Arthas from Warcraft III. Either way, this is especially true given the alternative. Guild Wars has these god-awful cutscenes that are all in-game. Honestly, they’re just silly. Believe me, watching a brave heroine sacrifice her life via the traditional death animation is indeed sad, but in a funny, pathetic way, not an “ohmygod, she died” way.

Scratching cutscenes is just one of the many things game developers have been doing to give the player a more immersive experience. “Immersion” is a major focus now. There are a ton of games that have made menus more interactive, scratched mission briefings or said, “Look at me! No HUD!” Anything that pulls the player out of the game is being eliminated.

I’m sure this makes a lot of people happy. In fact, I’m positive it does. I’ve read a lot of forum posts and games journo articles on the subject. Still, maybe my disbelief just can’t be suspended, but I really don’t feel the need to be “in” every game. And yanking the HUD doesn’t make me feel anymore attached to a game.

Where's his health bar? OMG, immersive! Oh wait, there it is.

I mean, you’ve got games like Limbo that, besides the main menu, you’re not interrupted until the end… where the main menu reappears. That’s great. I loved it. But one of the game’s big draws is its haunting sound and visual design. You feel lost and scared and rapt in this beautiful, terrifying experience. So, keeping the player within the game is one of Limbo‘s highlights. But then you’ve got something like, well, WoW. Did I feel like I had become a warlock, traversing the plains of… I forget. It’s been a while. Either way, no, I didn’t. I felt like I was pressing 2 and then 3 a lot and worrying about not aggroing a nearby group. Honestly, cutscenes are the only thing that COULD draw me in – if I cared a damn about the storyline that is.

Aaand I’m done with this long-ass op-ed. Peace (and share. Always share. Otherwise, I feel lonely).