How to make a cutscene.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Xalavier Nel­son Jr.

You might as­sume that cutscenes are a sim­ple piece of game de­vel­op­ment, with­out all that pesky in­ter­ac­tion. This is not the case. In fact, ex­am­in­ing the pro­duc­tion process for cutscenes re­veals a messy truth un­der­ly­ing most games – the in­her­ent risk ac­com­pa­ny­ing their non­lin­ear de­vel­op­ment.

“For us, the cutscenes were writ­ten months be­fore the game­play was fi­nalised, so we were writ­ing these cin­e­matic beats of high ten­sion and emo­tional ful­fill­ment... when all the lead-up to those mo­ments hadn’t even been con­cep­tu­alised yet,” says Dead Ris­ing 4 writer Shan­non Camp­bell. “We had a map and we knew the rough des­ti­na­tions we wanted to hit, but the road we’d take to get there was a com­plete mys­tery.”

This process is not atyp­i­cal, as cor­rob­o­rated by As­sas­sin’s Creed III and Far Cry 4 cre­ative di­rec­tor Alex Hutchi­son. “Usu­ally you want to lock the script as late as pos­si­ble,” he says, “so it can re­spond to changes in de­sign and mis­sions ef­fec­tively. But you need a draft script and a strong sense of the nar­ra­tive early so you can make sure ev­ery­thing will fit to­gether.”

In large projects, due to the need to in­te­grate el­e­ments from ac­tor per­for­mances to the lat­est ren­der­ing tech, once a cutscene is built, changes range from ex­pen­sive to im­pos­si­ble. “Ev­ery change costs more the later in the process you ask for it,” says Hutchi­son. “Chang­ing a whole story on day one costs noth­ing be­cause you’ve in­vested noth­ing, but chang­ing some­thing in the last month is not only very ex­pen­sive, it’s prob­a­bly im­pos­si­ble un­less it’s a straight cut.” Camp­bell calls out per­for­mance cap­ture as an ex­am­ple of flex­i­bil­ity restrict­ing as time goes on. “De­pend­ing on how much money and pro­duc­tion time you’re drop­ping on cutscenes, once a scene is per­formed and cap­tured, there’s not much edit­ing you can do to the ac­tual phys­i­cal per­for­mance.”

While cutscenes are be­ing writ­ten and con­ceived, it falls to artists like Alex Ka­naris-Sotiriou to be­gin see­ing whether they’ll even work. “The con­cept­ing stage for cutscenes gen­er­ally be­gins early in a project once the core game­play and broad nar­ra­tive/event arc have been es­tab­lished,” Ka­naris-Sotiriou says. “Most pro­duc­tions will want their cutscenes blocked out in some form for al­pha (where the game is playable from start to fin­ish us­ing place­holder as­sets). The cutscenes at this point may be video an­i­mat­ics (mov­ing sto­ry­boards) or im­ple­mented in a crude fash­ion with rough cam­era shots, slid­ing ‘T-pose’ char­ac­ters and place­holder robo-di­a­logue.” Pre­vi­su­al­i­sa­tion, or ‘pre­vis’, fits neatly into this process, com­bin­ing 2D and 3D as­sets to block out scenes be­fore the re­sources are ded­i­cated to fully re­alise them.

As de­vel­op­ment ac­cel­er­ates, de­sign­ers have to get crafty – par­tic­u­larly in cases where cutscenes are shown in-en­gine. James Hen­ley, a for­mer cin­e­matic de­signer at BioWare, re­veals some short­cuts nec­es­sary to get the sheer amount of dra­matic con­tent needed into Jade Empire, Dragon Age: Ori­gins, and Mass Ef­fect: “Work­ing with pre-ex­ist­ing an­i­ma­tions, we of­ten al­tered blend weights on an­i­ma­tions or used small parts of a longer an­i­ma­tion that may im­ply an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ac­tion when viewed out of con­text. … Non-stan­dard move­ment was of­ten im­plied by cob­bling starts and ends of other an­i­ma­tions to­gether and care­fully manag­ing cam­era mo­tion and cuts to im­ply ac­tion.”

“Ev­ery change costs more the later in the process you ask for it”

salarian cin­ema

Once a cutscene is pro­duced, it falls to peo­ple like Michael El­liot – a for­mer con­tent QA tester on Mass Ef­fect 3 – to en­sure ev­ery­thing runs smoothly. Some­times, this re­quires view­ing the same scene mul­ti­ple times. One day, this cul­mi­nated in an at­tempt to track an is­sue with the fi­nal con­fes­sion of Mordin Solus. “There is a mo­ment, near the end of the scene,” El­liot re­counts, “where Mordin cuts off Shep­ard mid-ar­gu­ment and yells, ‘I made a mis­take!” Then there’s a beat where Mordin calms him­self and says again, “I made a mis­take.’ ... Dur­ing one of my playthroughs when I was test­ing the scene my PC hitched and Mordin’s beat be­tween the two lines was miss­ing. With­out it that piv­otal mo­ment felt wrong, it felt rushed, you don’t get to see Mordin came to terms with what he is say­ing.

“See­ing how [those] few sec­onds of si­lence made all the dif­fer­ence in that scene made me re­alise how much at­ten­tion went into cre­at­ing the game, and how much I en­joyed what I was do­ing.”

That’s what all of this work from all of these peo­ple ul­ti­mately hopes to achieve. A two-sec­ond pause that, for the player, will mean ev­ery­thing.

I’m a full-time game writer and nar­ra­tive de­signer, with cred­its in­side and out of gam­ing. Xalavier Nel­son Jr.

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