Note: A Poll has been added on the right hand side for preffered cutscene types.
The Olden Days - Sprite based Cutscenes
The Olden Days - Sprite based Cutscenes
Ninja Gaiden's (NES) Opening, one of the first cutscenes of it's kind in games
Cutscenes have long since been in games. Even the very first sprite based games have used them for their introduction and ending sequences. One of the very first games to do this was the first Ninja Gaiden, starting with two ninja’s on a grassy plain, battling it out. It was a sight to behold for the first time since never before had there been a cutscene with cinematic qualities been featured in a game like so. In this day and age, there are two kinds of cutscenes, Real time or Pre-rendered. Since Ninja Gaiden used sprites, technically neither of these terms applies to it, but the closest one would be considered Pre-Rendered, since Ninja Gaiden never actually used the images shown in the introduction and ending in the actual gameplay.
Final Fantasy VI's opening, using the "Real-Time" method
This applies to other sprite based games, such as the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy IV and VI, (Final Fantasy II and III in the US) were staples of storytelling at the time. They themselves used cutscenes in some form, opting for it to be real time, by using in game sprites and assets that are normally featured during gameplay and not specifically drawn for a specific cutscene (like Ninja Gaiden’s opening). The characters performed expressions that stayed true to the current sprite they had, such as exclaiming in surprise from their current idle pose. Final Fantasy masterfully used these kinds of cutscenes all the time, telling you more about the intriguing characters and world, leading to shock revelations and exciting moments like any movie might do.
TMNT IV's opening, using the "Pre-Rendered" style like Ninja Gaiden. Cutscene at 0:36
Final Fantasy is of course not the only other game which featured these kinds of “real time” cutscenes, many other games used in their art assets like this to make the transition from gameplay to cutscene less noticeable. There are also others like Ninja Gaiden which used cutscenes in the “Pre-Rendered” fashion, another example being Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. They used this method for the introduction, ending and transitions between stages. There were no other “Real-Time” cutscenes other than a boss randomly uttering a single line before battle such as “Tonight I dine on turtle Soup.”
But since sprite era, there has been the transition into 3D and with that, that tools to create 3D models were also developing. This transition created 3D pre-rendered cutscenes for use. Whilst creating sprites was a painstaking task, requiring a lot of effort in order to make every sprite, especially the “Pre-Rendered” one time use sprites for cutscenes, 3D was not quite as bad. Of course you had to make the base 3D model that had to look good, but the 3D models could start off as high quality and detailed then dumbed down to simpler models in order for the in game engine to handle easily. This allowed you to have a high quality 3D model for Pre-Rendered needs, and then a lower quality one that would fit and run with the game engine at your desired frame rate.
As can be seen, technology for Computer Graphics has increased in efficiency and capability over the past years exponentially. The quality of the Computer Graphics you can see in all industries, from movies to games is starting to become photorealistic. Even hyper realistic, to say they look so good, there is no way that they are real. In video games any game can use either, they have access to both, the question is, when do we use it? Well that all depends on many factors. What are the benefits to each?
Real Time Advantages
COD 4's ending, at 1:26 a non-interactive cutscene and at 2:55 giving it back
Well for one, Real time cutscenes use the in-game engine, meaning that the transition between cutscene and gameplay looks much smoother. Some games can literally transition instantly from one to the other without you even realizing. Others like to simply fade out to the cutscene, but nevertheless it remains consistant in look and feel. You don’t see a character or environment suddenly look better. Games such as Call of Duty have made it so that there isn’t really even a “cutscene”. Though control may be taken from you (Though you can still do minor interactions though they won’t actually effect the scene), a building blowing up in front of you as you’re knocked down and your teammate drags you to safety increasing the level of immersion immensely. With some minor control it can still really make you feel part of the game. In some cases you are given enough control to make a "cutscene" feel amazing. I won't delve too deeply into the interactive aspect of cutscenes, it will probably be in another blog.
Real Time Disadvantages
BattleField 3: Though not a cutscene, it shows that there are limitations to hardware. Trying to make a cutscene too fancy could cause a frame rate drop such as this.
But what about what’s wrong with it? Well of course it won’t look as pretty as a pre-rendered cutscene. The limitations remain in the beauty of the game engine itself and the power that the system provides. Consoles are the most popular platform and even PCs have limitations, forcing you purchase top of the line systems to run the highest quality games. Games have to make due with the limitations of the system and for PCs, the limitations of their target audience. Sometimes features have to be cut that will make the game look worse as a result in order to maintain a steady framerate that the game should be cut. The overall disadvantage of it is simply put, limitations of the hardware.
Just one of Final Fantasy XIII's stunning cutscenes
The opening cinematic of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
So we can see the benefits of a real time cutscene. What about a Pre-Rendered cutscene? Well the main advantage is that it can look stunning depending on how good the studio creating is. Take a look at Final Fantasy XIII’s cutscenes, they are absolutely stunning. The characters look extremely good and I will use the term “Hyper realistic” again, because they look absolutely gorgeous. Another studio who’ve always been good with cutscenes is Blizzard. If you take a look at the introduction cutscenes to world of Warcraft, Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, they look amazing. Same with their Diablo III cinematic and Starcraft II cinematics, stunning. You aren’t limited to the game engine with this either, you can make the cinematic look as beautiful as you want. Sure it might not fully transition right from gameplay instantly but you get to floor your audience with their stunning beauty in that instant. In the cases of opening cinematics to a game, you don’t even need it to transition right from gameplay anyways.
So we can see they are beautiful, so how can there be disadvantages? Well like I said before, transition from gameplay. You can’t use these kinds of cutscenes in every case, it just won’t look quite right. If you were to show too many of these to gameplay ratio, people may even complain that playing the game will never look as beautiful as the cutscenes are (though they still do even if it’s a low ratio). But well they can’t even use them that much anyways. Generating Pre-Rendered cutscenes consumes a large amount of resources, it can take hours, if not days of weeks to Pre-Rendered an ultra high quality cutscene, and that’s with the use of multiple very high powered computers as well. Sure they aren’t constrained to the engine but they have their own constraints as well. These files can be big, especially trying to get to 1080p quality that most console games go for now. And most games have a limited amount of space on the Disk. For the Xbox 360 they only contain 6.8 GBs of memory, although for PS3s they can have from 25 GBs to 128GBs depending on the Blu-Ray Disc they happen to use for the game. If you ever take a look at any pre-rendered cutscenes on Xbox 360 and compare them to PS3 cutscenes, usually PS3s have the full quality of the cutscene while Xbox 360s have to compress their video files, you will notice distortion and loss of quality in most Xbox 360 games. You can only fit so many of these video files on one disc, since you still must consider putting your actual game on the disc.
Real-Time vs Pre-Rendered
Various cutscenes from Gears of War 3, all real-time
So we can see that Real-Time leads to easier transitions to gameplay while Pre-Rendered cutscenes look very pretty. There are many game developers who will use a combination of both of them. Some might go for pretty only in game cutscenes such as Gears of War, Legend of Zelda, Bayonetta, Call of Duty, The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Bioshock just to name a few. Some of these games actually use Pre-Rendered cutscenes but maintain the exact same quality that the gameplay models provide, not looking to one up the engine’s limitations. Though the content itself is a video file, it looks like the game engine anyways. I’ve seen Gears of war also use this as well as Bayonetta. Since the gap between Pre-Rendered and in-game is less noticeable these days, many games opt not to use Pre-Rendered cutscenes at all. I have noticed this in many new titles, but the fact is that doing so also saves more resources in the end since generating Pre-Rendered cutscenes can be rather time consuming and expensive as well.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2's Opening cutscene, it's only Pre-Rendered cutscene
There are others that will transition use real time or pre-rendered sparingly such as only in the introduction and ending scenes, such as Tekken, World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Portal 2, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic.
Catherine transitions from gameplay, to animated cutscene during some key moments in the story.
There are some that don’t use actual models of higher detail, such as Tales of Vesperia, Catherine, even Super Street Fighter IV which all use anime cutscenes instead of Pre-Rendered at key points in the games.
A spectacular fight scene in Final Fantasy XIII
There are some that try and maintain using Pre-Rendered Cutscenes as much as possible and what comes first to my mind is Final Fantasy XIII. Most Square Enix games tend to go for this, although there are of course exceptions. Final Fantasy XIII featured a large number of amazing cutscenes, all of them looking fantastic. At some points it transitioned from a real-time cutscene to a Pre-Rendered cutscene and I didn’t even care that it looked different. It simply looked too amazing, I actually wanted them to do it more because it showed you just how great graphics could become in the future. The in game graphics are already amazing and the Pre-Rendered cutscenes showed the true life they wanted to bring into the game.
So really there is a trade off. Real time is the least expensive, easiest to do and can still look great if your game looks great. For Pre-Rendered to truly pay off needs to look a good deal better than the real time engine. The overall advantages of real time outweight Pre-Rendered, which is why there is such a large absence of Pre-Rendered heavy games. Some just don’t have the type of team that can develop those kinds of cutscenes, or they opt for the real time route for immersion purposes (Great example for that is Bioshock). I am however glad there still remain some companies that will make great looking Pre-Rendered cutscenes, it is a great tool to show the true vision of a game.
For the industry they prefer Real-Time and the cutscenes look great, but I will always love the look and feel of Pre-Rendered if they are given the dedication and beauty to make them stand out.