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  • Writer's pictureNathan Savant

How Not To Need A Cutscene

In writing a novel, you’re often given advice that you must Show rather than Tell. This advice is given because if you show the objective actions taken by a character, the reader can then infer meaning from those actions, which makes the story more interactive. Readers want to engage with a story, but in order to do so they must be shown and then allowed to infer. If you simply tell someone the answer, they are not required to participate, and so they do not engage. The same advice holds true for film, where a camera can be silently pointed at an object, which can juxtapose against the dialogue being spoken to allow the audience to infer more than is said. In these examples, the less you tell the audience, the more engaged they can be because you’re giving them moments of interactivity.

By extension of that, games are themselves inherently interactive, which must mean that our stories are that much more engaging, right? Unfortunately, no. Most video game stories are told through cutscenes and text, using techniques borrowed from film. You punch the bad guys, you unlock the magical sword of prophecy from its prison, and then you watch a 3 minute video of a guy explaining at you about how important what you’ve just done is for the world. This is the way things are, for now. 

That said, I would never advocate for the complete removal of cutscenes from games anyway, but what if we only want to use the ones that we need? What if we don’t have a choice and our budget forces us to start making big cuts against our will? Either way, what do you do when you enter a world where you have to make choices about which scenes stay and which ones go? I mean your writers are great and they’ve already finished the script. You can’t possibly cut that scene that introduces the evil villain, right?! RIGHT?!

Part 1: What are cutscenes for?

The first step is to understand the function of each part of a story. What do cutscenes do for us, and why do we rely on them so much? The answer is simple: Cutscenes are an effective way to deliver information to the player. Specifically, a cutscene removes all the multiple choice stuff built into gameplay, and reduces a very complex set of possibilities down to a specific, predetermined set of actions. This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens, and all of that is very predictable because the player is not involved. When the player is in control, you can’t even predict where the character will be looking, much less what they’re doing, and you might have to repeat information over and over again before they will fully understand. Repetition is a useful way to ensure that your story lands with the player, but it can be a problem for your pacing. Similarly, you may also run into issues where your game has lots of “now walk over here and talk to this person” because your story can only happen while you’re standing next to those people, talking. Once again, this can cause pacing issues because of repetition, because your entire game can accidentally become “Walk over here, and talk to this guy” on an endless loop.

What I’ve just described are two different issues with pacing. If you have to repeat information because the player wasn’t looking in the right direction, or force the player to walk from one side of the country to the other just to finish a thought, that’s going to mess with your story. Cutscenes are very useful tools because they are moments of locked pacing. You know exactly how long it takes between each moment of the story, you can control how much information the player gains, and you can control the timing to be sure the emotions build up smoothly and to the right pitch. Pacing is essential, and the primary way to control the viewer’s emotion.

When telling a story you want to control the emotion of the listener for only a small handful of reasons. Mainly, you’re trying to establish sympathy for a character, and understanding of who that character is. Once we understand who that person is, we must know why we should care about them. How does this story apply to our own lives, and what can we take from it out into the real world? A story that’s about something we can use is going to stick with us far more than a random story about someone making a sandwich, that broader context is critical to us as readers. The stakes of a story signal our brains whether or not we can relate, and therefore whether or not we should remember this.

To summarize what we’ve covered so far: 

  • We need to establish the character

  • We need to establish the stakes

  • We need to establish the broader context

All of those 3 are connected, the stakes and the character ARE the context, and vice versa, but I’m spelling them out in this way because those are 3 things we can tangibly use in our practice. So if our goal is to reduce our need for cutscenes, the way we accomplish that is by finding non-cinematic ways to establish our characters, stakes, and context. 

Part 2: Establishing character without cinematics

How do we establish character without the need for cinematics? How do I know the depths of a person’s soul without being told?

Who is this? 

This is a card from the game Magic The Gathering, and it’s got a whole bunch of text you might not understand. Let’s start by ignoring all that and focusing on the top. We see a big man, lots of muscle, fur clothes, armor, and his name is “Garruk, Caller of Beasts”. You get a pretty clear idea of who he is from this even without the mechanical knowledge. But let’s take a second to look at the mechanics here anyway, even if you don’t understand the rules of Magic. 

We can see lots of symbols we don’t understand, but let’s focus on the small text in the center. This main body of text is split into 3 sections with some numbers on the left of each. First one says put creatures into your hand. Ok! He likes creatures. Got it. We don’t know what the hand does, exactly, but it’s safe to assume that he does stuff with creatures. Makes sense for the caller of beasts, yeah? Second says you can put some creatures onto the battlefield, so again he does stuff with creatures, and this time it sounds like they’re gunna fight. Cool. Last one says you can search for more creatures. Ok! Clear picture here. This dude calls beasts! He finds creatures and he makes them fight.

Just by looking at this character, and making some assumptions about his in-game abilities, we can get a pretty clear picture about who this man is. If we could see him standing or walking, we’d have an even clearer image of his personality thanks to his body language!

So we can establish, in this static moment, a static character. That’s useful! But we also need to be able to show different facets of a person, after all no good character is going to be one-dimensional. Fortunately, Magic has dealt with this already as well.

This is a different version of Garruk. He’s still a big, muscley dude, but this time he’s got a cool coat and a big axe. If we look at the abilities here, we can see he’s still doing some beast calling stuff, but this time he can do damage as well. Cool! He’s got an axe now, so that makes sense, yeah? He’s still pretty much the same character. He’s in a different place doing some different things now, so he’s gotta focus more on his axe, but I’d still expect he probably calls some beasts from time to time, right? I don’t really need anyone to tell me what happened between the first card and the second card, cause it just seems like two aspects of a single person. We all wear different hats sometimes, and sometimes we use an axe while we work, ya know?

Now look at this:

It’s the same character, but at a very different moment in his life. He’s still muscley, but now he’s ragged and evil-looking. If we look at his mechanics, we see he’s still summoning wolves, but this time they’re death-touched, whatever that means. His second ability now involves a sacrifice. His third ability gets more powerful the more creatures you have in a graveyard. This dude is all about death and is drawing from some pretty dark powers! If this is the same person, clearly something has happened to him. 

In these 3 cards we see a single person at 3 stages of their life. At each stage of this person’s life, they present to the world slightly differently. Their appearance changes somewhat, but their game mechanics change much more. We can understand, through visuals and mechanics, who this person is and how they’re changing over time. What we don’t see here is what happened that made such a drastic change between the first two cards and the third one. 

This is the moment of change. This is the thing which represents Garruk’s life being forever altered as Cruelty Triumphs over him. Represented statically, it uh… Doesn’t really work… We spoke earlier about the need for pacing at certain moments of a story, and here’s our example of that. I can look at this card all day, but it doesn’t really tell me what’s happening here other than that someone bested Garruk and taunted him while doing so. Where the Garruk cards read clearly, this one does not. However, that lack of clarity is incredibly valuable for us, because it tells us that we can understand who a person is just by looking at their appearance, and seeing the gameplay mechanics attached to them. When it comes to explaining the events of their life, however, we need more. 

To put that differently: The way a person looks and the way they interact with the world around them can tell us who they are, can establish much of their character. However, knowing who they are doesn’t build an emotional connection to them. When we’re planning our introductory cutscenes, we can use this combination of knowledge. We don’t need to use the cutscene to establish who a character is, we can do that just with their character model and gameplay mechanics. Instead, we can use the cutscene to show the player relevant events in the life of that character. We rely on gameplay to tell us who someone is, and then we use cutscenes to explain what has happened to them. 

Assuming we can agree on that rule, it still leaves us with questions because we also have scripted sequences and similar techniques which exist somewhere between cutscenes and gameplay. In this example, you can probably imagine a scripted sequence version of a bad guy corrupting Garruk, right? We could see that happening in the world as we walk by, if we wanted to. That choice may or may not be appropriate for our game, but that’s a director decision which must be made. What matters, when making THAT decision, is how important a moment this is for our story and our character. All of that is a matter of stakes. 

Part 3: Establishing stakes without cinematics

So how do we establish the stakes of our story without the need of a cutscene? How do we choose which moments are the important ones that must be cinematic? If we’re building off of our example of Garruk from Magic The Gathering, how do we know that the moment he becomes veil-cursed is worth the money we’re dumping into our cinematics budget? If we decide that this moment isn’t worth a cutscene, how then do we tell our story? What are our options if not for a cutscene?

This is a much more difficult problem than establishing character without a cutscene. You can get a character to work far more easily than you can establish the stakes of your story. I fully advocate for removing all character intro cutscenes from all games (and movies, for that matter, I don’t need to see spiderman’s origin story ever again, thanks!), but I can’t make that same blanket recommendation for stakes. Stakes simply need more direct control over our pacing, which cutscenes offer. That said, we can still get a lot of mileage from taking our story outside of our cutscenes as much as possible, and letting the cinematics be only those most essential moments. To find which moments are essential, however, we require some specific tools. 

Pixar has a technique that I find useful, where they break down a story into four “throughlines”: the protagonist, the friend, the antagonist, and the world. 

  • The protagonist throughline follows a character’s personal arc over time as they experience the events of the story. 

  • The friends throughline is about how whatever the protagonist is dealing with impacts the people around them. 

  • The antagonist throughline follows a conflicting viewpoint which tests and possibly interferes with the protagonist’s arc. 

  • The world throughline shows how all of the above is impacting society beyond its area of direct influence. 

This is a useful tool to ensure that your story matters to more than just your protagonist. Whatever they’re dealing with should at least be reflected in the world around them, because your story should be relatable to more than just a single person. If we can see that this issue is impacting not just a single person, but all the people around them, and is also reflected in the world at large, then we understand why we should care. This story matters to everyone, and so it matters to us. 

So that’s great for Pixar, but how can we use it in games?

Well, we can see the protagonist throughline in the gameplay, as we discussed with our Garruk example. Gameplay systems will show us who a character is before they ever speak a word. This applies both to our protagonist, and to the people around our protagonist. We see the game mechanics of every character in the game, and so those mechanics help us to convey both the Protagonist throughline, and the Friend throughline. We may also see the antagonist in our game, and we may also see how their gameplay changes over time. If we don’t directly interact with our antagonist (which is common, since games don’t want you fighting the final boss over and over), then we will certainly at least see their influence on the world. Monsters might change and grow over time, more villains may show up, enemies may become tougher and start wearing armor or carrying rockets. These are the ways the world changes over time to help us tell our story. All of this is the world showing the player the stakes. This story matters because as a result of this story, the enemies showing up are tougher. Difficulty ramps, in this way, are narrative tools as well as game design tools. 

In fact, every single system in your game is telling your story whether you’re aware of it or not. In film we call this “mise en scene”, a french phrase meaning “everything in the scene”. We don’t have a quippy term for this in games, but “mise en joue” (everything in the game) should perhaps be something we spend more time developing. Just as every object on the screen of your film can subtly tell the story for you, your game systems can do exactly the same. Your progression system is showing us how your protagonist might grow, your UI is showing us what information your character thinks is true, all of these systems establish the stakes of your game, because they are impacted by the actions of your story.

To that end, ask yourself while writing: Is this story moment represented in my gameplay systems? Imagine your protagonist experiencing some great trauma and being unable to bring themself to use a particular set of skills. This is a plot point in the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, the protagonist finding himself unwilling to use fire bending for a long time during the show’s story. Imagine the player losing access to the fire skill tree to represent this story moment. They’ll get it back later, but imagine the impact of putting a big red X through a full quarter of the available skills in your game! 

The stakes of your story must reach beyond the cinematics. Real stakes have real impact. This isn’t something you can fake. If you tell the player that they’ve lost a leg, but their traversal mechanic hasn't changed, they’ll know not to listen to anything you say. If you tell a player that this was a big, impactful moment in your protagonist’s life, but you don’t make any changes to the gameplay, then the player will also not believe you.

You have to back up your claims with action. 

So let’s move back to Garruk to wrap all this together, shall we? We were trying to decide whether we needed to elevate that moment of Garruk’s change into a cutscene, right? Well, we established our character with gameplay mechanics and visual appearance. We know who Garruk is because of how he looks and how he summons wolves to help him fight. What we said we don’t understand is that moment of change where he becomes obsessed with death. That moment of change is where we need to put specific pacing, and thus where we need to put our cutscene. Before and after that cutscene, our gameplay is different because our story has a real, tangible impact on our world. We now can prove out the idea that we need a cutscene in this moment, because that moment changes our gameplay. 

Knowing this, we can then extrapolate this rule: Cutscenes should be placed at moments of tangible change. That change must be not just a narrative change, but also a mechanical one, because you have to back up your claims with action. If your story doesn’t have any impact on the gameplay, then you didn’t need to use a cutscene there. 

You might balk at this idea, surely I can’t be serious! Only using cutscenes at moments of gameplay change would mean so few cutscenes! That’s absurd! But don’t forget that there are multiple throughlines to consider here. We’re not only tracking a single character, we’re tracking an entire world worth of people and places, and all of them can and must change over the course of your story. 

Part 4: Context and Worldbuilding without cinematics

Given what we’ve spelled out so far, we now have an interesting new requirement for deciding on whether we use a cutscene or not, but what does that mean for a broader context? How does this play with our expectations for our game as a whole? More importantly, if this idea isn’t just a hairbrained scheme, then what does it look like when applied outside of the context of a single main character with a visible arc?

Well we can say one thing right out the gate here, which is that your game will absolutely have more than one person experiencing significant change. For our purposes, we can also say that the world itself counts as a character, because some of those significant changes will happen in the context of a region as a whole. 

For a concrete example of this, you can look at every Zelda game. We understand the default state of the world, and when we arrive at a location we see a cutscene establishing why this region isn’t what we would expect it to be. In this example, we’re doing the same thing that we did with Garruk, we’re showing a shift in the nature of a thing. The difference is that this shift will have happened before we arrived and we’re using an establishing cutscene to explain what’s going on here. We can then see very tangibly why it matters, because there’s a gameplay mechanic here that impacts everything we do. Just think of the ice covering the goron village and mountains in Majora’s Mask. Ice may not impact us much, but it makes some surfaces slippery and blocks paths. For a more extreme example, look at the weather systems in Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, and how the zora or the rito are being affected in their stories. 

Immediately we can understand that these places have been changed and are somehow suffering, which compels us, as players, to help. These cutscenes may show us a change that happened before we arrived, but it’s still a cutscene which focuses on that change, and so it still follows the rule we created. Similarly, if we haven’t yet established the status quo, we can establish it by showing it outside of a cutscene. We don’t have to tell the player that Rito Village is suffering because of the extreme cold, we just show a bunch of shivering birds and have a bunch of quests demanding food to bolster the dwindling stores. In seeing those things, we understand that this current state of being isn’t normal, and thus we are motivated to return things to how they should be. The emotional impact comes from the mechanics, from what we can see happening, not from being told what we’re supposed to feel. We can see the rito suffering, and in seeing this we understand our purpose here without being told. This is the same end goal as with “Show, Don’t Tell”, but now we have a framework for how to do that in a videogame. 

If we then extend this line of thinking, we can also use it to help us deal with our initial premise for this blogpost: How to know when to use a cutscene. 

By the rule we’ve established, we should put cutscenes at moments of tangible change. In the character example, we are using a cutscene to understand what has happened to a person. In the broader context of the world, we’re using a cutscene to understand what has happened to a place. In both scenarios, we’re doing this because there are tangible gameplay systems which are impacted by these story beats. We must establish these things because the player needs to know what’s going on if they’re going to play the game here. If something has changed in a way that impacts the gameplay, we use a cutscene.

Our Pixar formula teaches us that impactful stories are those which impact more than just one person, and so we use that as a basis to understand our cutscene needs. If a story is only impactful for a single person, or only expands on a detail about a person and gives us additional context for that person, then we can leave that for non-cutscene dialogue. Those types of details aren’t so broadly impactful, and they can be presented out in the world as people stand around and exist within your space. They could be your books or your voice recordings or just your item descriptions. These details are still important, but because they don’t directly impact gameplay, we can emphasize them less. 

For example, let’s continue our discussion of Garruk. Do we need to show his change of personality, his fall from grace, via a cutscene or via a scripted sequence, as I alluded might be an option earlier? Well, let’s ask ourselves: Does his change impact our story beyond just him? Is he a villain now and we have to start fighting him as we explore the world? Cause if so, that’s a change in mechanics and we need to use a cutscene. If he’s just a background character and want to see his corruption but it doesn’t impact us as players, then we can put that into a scripted sequence. Maybe we still put in the effort to be sure it’s emphasized, we just put in a little less effort to polish it, and we don’t force the player to watch. Either way, we can expand on it further with item descriptions, background dialogue, etc. because no matter how we treat it, we still want to see how the rest of the world responds to this change. Even if a story matters a little less, it still matters, and it still has impact. 

So we started this blog post with a question: How do we tell our story without needing to rely on cutscenes? As a result we’ve arrived at the following rules:

  • Use cutscenes to show mechanical change, because stories which change game mechanics are the ones which are the most important as they have the greatest impact.

  • This mechanical change can be something which changes while you play, or something which changed before you arrived, as long as you have to deal with its effect.

  • These changes can impact a person, or a location.

  • If a story doesn’t change any mechanics, use lower-effort techniques like ambient dialogue or scripted sequences.

  • We can see character growth even through static moments, so the lowest impact stories can simply be seen through character appearance and idle animations.

With these rules, we can prioritize our use of budget for the most impactful moments. You can also apply these rules to your game which doesn’t even have cutscenes. Are you a solo indie making a pixel platformer that never uses cutscenes? Well, you should still put your emphasis on those moments that change the gameplay, and you should still write your story such that your plot points are important enough to impact the entire world and not just a single person. A story which impacts everyone will need more emphasis and focus, no matter which presentation techniques you’re using.

Similarly, you can also add more cutscenes beyond what I’ve been talking about here. You’re more than welcome to use a cutscene for a moment without a tangible change to your gameplay mechanics, it’s just that those are less impactful and less necessary. Do what your budget allows and your vision wants. 

All in all, these techniques can help us all to make better decisions while planning our games, and they are applicable at every scale and budget. 

I sincerely hope that something here has stuck in your mind as useful. Afterall, that’s what this story was written for!

Thanks for reading. 

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