BioWare is well known masters of the RPG genre having just released their latest opus Dragons Age: Origins. Jonathon Cooper is a pivotal member of the group as Lead Animator on a number of BioWare titles. Currently finalizing the cut scenes and in-game cinematics for Mass Effect 2, Cooper wants to discuss how we need to move away from traditional cutscenes. Hosting a seminar entitled 'Cinematics sans Cutscenes' at the Montreal International Games Summit he has a chance to bring his thoughts to an eager audience.
First we have to define a cutscene, most think it is simply when the camera cuts from the action – It is also when control and interactivity is removed from the player. Regardless of the methods used to create the cutscene, Jonathon is dissatisfied with the state of cutscenes as they completely pull the player out of the flow of the game.
Many developers try innovate ways to make a more interactive and immersive cutscene because narratives are required to achieve a game with emotion. An effective cinematic as Jonathon envisions it allows the player to opt out without missing the story, to retain control and to still have effective cinematography if they choose.
Half Life 2 had a great set of animations, facial expression and dialogue but because the player had full control the cinematics, ultimately failed. The player could at will move, shoot and not witness the emotion and message behind the scene.
Shadow of the Colossus was very effective in it's cinematic presentation with the player retaining control during cinematic moments. They were not perfect as ultimately the player had no real choice during the cinematic and the technology could not quite match the ambition of the designer.
Other games are overly ambitious, in Metal Gear Solid 4 the overabundance of exposition heavy cutscenes were overwhelming at times. The team tried to change the delivery by offering camera controls or changing the perspective to the Metal Gear Mk. II's viewpoint but ultimately they were jarring and halted the flow of the game.
Jonathon would love to solve and introduce a perfect delivery method for cinematics without cutscenes but he has no clear and definitive answer. Instead he encourages animators and developers to study the five C's of Cinematography to come up with their own methods of delivery a cinematic story experience.
- Cutting – Cuts when handled in an effective way can be incredibly useful to place your characters and camera where they need to be. Removing jarring cuts lessons the disconnect players feel when entering a cutscene abruptly. The God of War series used seamless cuts effectively to generate scale and angle placement when entering a new scenario.
- Continuity – If you use transitional cuts or better yet give the player control to pan the camera in a cinematic continuity is maintained. Gears of War has a button mapped to focus the camera and the player on key events, you can opt out but the experience is never jarring.
- Camera Angles – By providing effective angles or transitions between camera placements you maintain a smooth feel to the flow between a gameplay or cinematic moment. Again, Gears of War's focus button is a good example of directing camera angles organically.
- Composition – Keep the perspective your scene needs and establish scale by maintaining the eyeline of the characters. The targets of your field of view can be specified or dynamic, you just have to ensure they are scaled and viewed properly.
- Closeups – Games have a 70-90 degree field of view, the human eye can see 180 degrees but can only focus on 40 of those at a time. This makes closeups essential for mapping human performances and responses. The key is to move to the closeup in a smooth way and maintain proper field of view.
Using these cinematic rules should help developers and their animators think of the best, most effective way to deliver their story to the player without disrupting the flow of the game.
Jonathon was optimistic of the gaming world moving in this direction and he is striving for this change within BioWare (see Mass Effect 2 when it arrives for his impact on this change). He left the talk reiterating the need to give the player a chance to opt-out without losing story, to use parallel cinematics within the game, make them unrestricted allowing motion and control, make them consistent by merging gameplay and story and using tight composition with targeted angles and effective points of View.