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The Cinematic Is A Lie: The Misleading Art Of Cutscenes And Trailers

JGaskill
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Posted November 19, 2009 - By Jake Gaskill




The Cinematic Is A Lie

I can tell you the exact moment when game cinematics/trailers moved beyond casual fascination for me. Fittingly enough, I was at a movie, waiting for the feature presentation to start. (If I recall correctly, it was the James Bond flick Die Another Day). One of the trailers that played before the movie was for Blizzard's WarCraft III. The trailer went a little something like this:

This isn’t a knock against Blizzard, since they have produced some of the most acclaimed games ever made. However, when you watch the trailer and then watch the below gameplay footage, it’s pretty obvious that two very different experiences are being presented.

The theatrical trailer has a very Lord of the Rings vibe of high intensity action-fantasy, and the gameplay is decidedly not that at all. Sure, there is action taking place in a fantasy setting, but it doesn’t even come close to capturing the same sweeping, epic tone that the trailer teases. I thought the exact same thing when I saw the following trailer for BioWare’s most recent effort, Dragon Age: Origins:

Dragon Age: Origins Sacred Ashes Trailer »


Now look at some gameplay:

Dragon Age Origins E3 2009 HD Direct-Feed Gameplay »


Granted, fighting a dragon is pretty awesome, and Dragon Age has received much deserved praise, however that gameplay sequence doesn’t even come close to feeling or looking as cool as the action that takes place in that trailer. Obviously, the point of the trailer is to intrigue people enough to want to pick up the game, so showing dialogue trees and pointing and clicking wouldn’t be the sexiest approach. But that’s exactly my point; if the game experience isn’t going to mirror what’s presented in the trailer, then isn’t the trailer – and, as we’ll see shortly, the cinematic -- just a big lie? And if so, what purpose does that serve, other than bumming out players who decide to check out the game thinking that it’s going to be one thing when it’s something quite different?

To answer these questions, we’re going to take a little trip down cut-scene memory lane and take a look at some of the most illustrative examples of games whose cinematics/trailers are less than indicative of their actual gameplay, and perhaps learn a little something about why these differences matter more for some games and less for others.

 

 
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One of the classic examples of this idea has always been the Final Fantasy series. My knowledge of the franchise is very limited, as I’ve only played parts of various installments. However, one thing I’m well aware of is how jaw-droppingly gorgeous Square Enix’s cinematics are. They are perhaps the best of any developer, and yet, when I watch them, all I can think of is how boring and unnatural the actual gameplay is. Clearly, I’m not a turn-based RPG fan (aside from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which is one of my favorite games of all time). So when I watch cut-scenes like the following one from Final Fantasy XII, it really bums me out because they make me really want to play it, but as soon as I see the actual game in action, that excitement is told to wait its turn.

Now here’s a bit of gameplay:

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the combat is “ugly” or flawed in any way; it just doesn’t reflect the tone and weight that the game world appears to have in the cinematics. Is there ever a cut-scene where characters are shown standing across from each other, having to wait for the enemies hit them before they can make a move? Of course not. This is probably because no one would want to watch a scene like that, but you see my point.

Let’s jump back to real-time strategy games for a second and take a look at Halo Wars. The game has some of the slickest cinematics I’ve ever seen, and some of the action depicted in them rivals that found in any of Bungie’s Halo games. The only "problem" is that the cut-scenes are so damn cool that they make you want to play whatever game Captain Forge and his Spartan troops appear to be operating inside when they are shown in the cinematics. Instead, after you’ve watched this breathtaking scene, you’re thrown back into building armories and ordering troops around a battlefield. Sure, that's enjoyable and entertaining, but also very different from the kinds of action portrayed in scenes like this one:

That’s a cut-scene for a real-time strategy game? Forget troop management; I want to be able to leap from ten feet away, land on the chests of a Covenant brute and dual-automatic pistol him in the chest from point blank range before moving on to take out the rest of those Covenant bastards. Instead, here is what you're actually able to do:

Halo Wars Direct-Feed: Campaign Mission 3 - Part 2 »



Again, there's nothing wrong with the gameplay, but compared to the cinematic, it doesn't come across as nearly as much fun or as invigorating.

 Now for comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at a trailer for a title that pitch-perfectly reflects the style and tone of its gameplay:

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Trailer »


And here’s some gameplay to show just how spot-on the trailer is:

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Direct-Feed Gameplay »


I understand Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is designed specifically to be a highly cinematic action game, and that explains why the trailer and the gameplay are so similar. Final Fantasy is a turn-based RPG, WarCraft III is an RTS and Dragon Age is an action RPG, so naturally, their cinematics and trailers need to adhere to different aesthetics because their gameplay isn’t conducive to telling the kinds of mini-stories that cinematics and trailers need to tell. Uncharted 2 doesn’t have this problem, and as such, it’s able to deliver exactly the kind of experience it promises.

Clearly, genre plays a big part in terms of comparing cinematics and gameplay, but the fact that most cinematics present themselves in the same way (adhering mainly to film aesthetics), is a problem, especially since these various genres have decidedly different styles of gameplay. As a result, it means that ultimately the games end up featuring two narratives: the one told through the cut-scenes and the one told through the gameplay, even though they are both supposed to be telling the same story. For me, this is the worst possible scenario, because it means the interactive experience the game is supposed to provide has splintered. As a player, you’re left watching a bunch of fantastically cool stuff happening in the cinematics, while receiving enough exposition to make your next chunk of gameplay feel meaningful before jumping back into the game where what you’re doing bears little resemblance to what you just saw happen in the previous cutscene.

One of the more extreme examples of this idea is the Sega Dreamcast title, Sonic Adventure, which contains an opening cinematic that bears zero resemblance to the rest of the game. Check this out. Here's the opening scene:

And here's the first level:

That cinematic looks like an animatic for a scene from a Roland Emmerich movie. If it weren’t for the brief glimpses of the familiar Sonic cast of characters, you’d be hard-pressed to be able to tell what the game is about or what the gameplay will be like.

The other side of this coin would be something like Valve’s Left 4 Dead 2. While I’m firmly against cinematics in first-person shooters (thank you Half-Life!), primarily because jumping between first and third-person perspectives ruins the immersion for me, L4D2 gets a pass. The cinematic accurately reflects the tone and style of the gameplay, and it makes me feel like I’m not being cheated out of an experience that I desperately want to have when I finally get to play the game. Here’s the scene in case you haven’t seen it:

Left 4 Dead 2 Leaked Cinematic Trailer »


And a gameplay comparison:

Left 4 Dead 2 E3 2009 Garden Maze Gameplay Trailer »



It doesn’t even matter that the cinematic doesn’t explicitly indicate the game is a FPS, because once the game starts and you swoop into your character’s head, you’ve been properly introduced to what awaits you in terms of gameplay.

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There is an infinite number of examples that further demonstrate the point, but the overarching lesson here is that for the most part, cinematics and trailers aren’t to be trusted. Sure they’re pretty to look at, and they’re good for getting across story points, but rarely do they end up accurately reflecting the gameplay experience. I'm not entirely sure why gamers have become so accepting of the artistic and philosophical issues raised by this dichotomy, but I think it's because we like seeing sexy, polygon-riddled scenes that show off the bad ass-ery of the game we're playing/thinking about playing, even if it bears little resemblance to what we're actually doing in the game.

Given that technology has closed the gap considerably between the graphical quality of cinematics/trailers and actual gameplay, it would seem that publishers wouldn’t be able to mislead gamers as easily as they could in the past, and yet this practice still occurs, and it doesn't look like it will be going away anytime soon.

Have you ever been fooled into checking out a game based on a trailer/cinematic only to find out the game was something completely different? What games ended up being far better than what was shown in their cinematics/trailers? Does the fact that the gameplay and cut-scenes are drastically different bother you at all? If not, why?

The Cinematic Is A Lie: The Misleading Art Of Cutscenes And Trailers
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