Cutscenes in Gaming: From Pac-Man to Pixel Perfection

When many people think of animation, they usually think of cartoon series and visual effects in films. Often, they overlook the animation in video games. Aside from the subtle movements of gameplay, jumps, walk cycles, often overlooked elements that come together to create a game as a whole, we also have the cutscene, a vignette, a video that separates gameplay and can offer moment of gorgeous character development, emotionally driven storytelling and visually stunning aesthetics. Let’s take a look at the development of the animated cutscene in video games.

Technically, 1980’s Pac-Man, contained what is considered to be the earliest cutscenes, depicting short stories that broke up the level-based content of the games. As time would go on, we would get some games that were pretty much just all cutscene, one solid animated film, with the player having to make decisions along the way. The word cutscene was first used in game in 1987, now being defined as cinematics within the overall play through and would become a staple within the industry until the present day. The first Ninja Gaiden game, Prince of Persia and Zero Wing, (the game that gave us the famous, “All your base are belong to us” mistranslation.

With the ease into the mid-nineties and the development of better hardware technology and an increase in storage space on home consoles, there became room for better quality cutscenes in games that would pave the way towards the modern era. We would see a number of games feature live action cutscenes featuring real actors before the development of voice recording and higher quality imaging became commonplace in the medium.

The progression of games being rendered in game engines allowed for a smoother albeit still blocky animation style that allowed games to become far more story driven stories of the early 2000s such as in the Final Fantasy games and across the horror genre. We would quickly see a transition from lower graphics to highly detailed animated sequences as we reach the modern day, allowing us to not only watch the visuals, but emote with them too. Mafia 2 and Gears of War 3 are highlights of these emotions, games that play with our hearts, providing moments of sheer anguish during a plethora of action-based adventure. 

Technology has come a long way since those early days of 2D cutscenes, through the clunky early years of blocky 3D models into the depth of design of the current game generation. Software can now be used hand in hand. An animator can create a piece, complete with facial expressions and well-timed movement in software such as Maya that can then be incorporated into game engines such as Unity for game integration. These cutscenes have now become so complex, so stunning, that often times they are now referred to as cinematics, something that puts them on par with their Hollywood counterparts.

From an animation point of view, to compare the progression of such elements would be to look at the principles of animation, the flow of movement in the modern cutscene, and compare them with the linear movements of their ancestors. Environments are fully detailed, shadows and clouds feel real, and they all work together to further build on the world of our characters. 

Some consider the cutscene to be a hindrance, detaching the player from the overall plot. In this event, cutscenes should be used sparingly and work as a symbiotic relationship with the in-game controls. When this is done, it leads to a beautiful development of the power of video games and shows that it is a medium that can stand up with the best of any storytelling platform, creating an enthralling experience that will only continue to grow as we do.


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