Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cinematics in Games : First person vs. Third person

Cinematics have been in games for a long time, since even the earliest days. They have always been an essential tool for helping to tell a story in a game but there have been different ways of using it. One of my previous blog posts covered real-time cutscenes vs. Pre-rendered cutscenes, which focused more on the technical aspects rather than the immersive aspects of them. In this blog post I want to talk about the different ways of using cinematics, first person or third person. When I say third person I usually mean in the typical fashion that is normally seen in games, looking like a film, taking the perspective of a camera watching the action unfolding in front of you. For example, you would typically see these in all final fantasy games. For first person, well it’s rather obvious, you take a first person perspective. The action unfolds in front of your very eyes and sometimes you have control, sometimes you don’t but you never leave the body of your character as they watch the actions unfold. This is typically seen in the Elder Scrolls, Oblivion and Skyrim clearly demonstrated this. So now let’s see what each of them offers?

Third Person

We’ve known these kind of cinematics for the longest time, they’ve appeared in far more games than first person style cinematics have. This is pretty much the default cinematic approach, to take the approach of using a camera just like a film would use. So that means it’s not exactly and original approach to take but many games can live or die by these. Bad cutscenes and poor camera work with these kinds of cinematics may make players want to skip the cutscenes and therefore lose immersion and interest in the story. Some games hardly focus on these, using poor camera work or no real camera work at all. These are the games that players want to skip over. Meanwhile other games such as Final Fantasy and Metal gear Solid show great camera work and cinematic quality, taking angles a film maker might want to take and shower great detail and care into making their cinematics worthy of film.

The long opening cinematic of Metal Gear Solid 4

Camera work and programming

Camera work can require quite a bit of effort, especially for in game cutscenes. Camera work needs to match the action on screen and a variety of effects (such as blurring) to help enhance the effect of the action on screen. Programming wise this means quite a bit of calculations and positioning to place the camera in the right places and at the right moments. A lot of timing is required and no doubt storyboards and some sort of process would be used to try and determine how the cinematics might look like. Not to mention Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy have a ton of cinematics all over the game (Metal Gear Solid 4 being famous/infamous for 30 min+ long cutscenes). A lot of care and detail is made into making the cinematics match the flow and tone of the game and make them interesting enough to watch. If it was just a static camera during every cutscene, people would be even more inclined to try and skip over them.

Mass Effect 2's opening sequence

The Experience

These kinds of cinematics create a film like quality, that some may or may not like. I for one enjoy cinematics of these kinds if they are done well enough. Certain series are able to offer consistently good quality to make these cinematics a pleasure for me to watch. There is a reason games need a team dedicated to cinematics if they are known for providing a lot of them.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 opening cutscene

So depending on the company and game, these kinds of cinematics can be rather bad if they can’t put a large enough budget or no effort into them. It makes them a bore to go through and gets one less engaged in the experience. If done right they can provide great dramatic moments that films provide and help tell the story in ways that normal gameplay wouldn’t be able to. Or can it?

First Person

These are the new kids on the block, not every game uses these and not all of them are good, but a number of them excel in making use of these kinds of cinematics. First off, to qualify as a first person cutscene is that, most of the control is taken away from you. You are still guided and have some input into the scene at hand but for the most part things will always lead the to the same conclusion whether you decide to act or not.

Skyrim's first person, opening cinematic

Actually there aren’t a whole lot that greatly dedicate themselves to these kinds of moments. I am looking at Skyrim, Call of Duty, Bioshock as my examples though, I can’t quite think of many others. I will take a closer look at Bioschock since it’s really the best example of this.
 In Bioshock, there is not a single instance you are not in first person, you are always playing from the perspective of your character’s eyes. There are many moments where you can move around a bit, but ultimately you won’t be going anywhere until the “cutscene” is done. For example at the beginning of the game you take a device that transports you into the heart of the city of Rapture. You are stuck in this capsule the whole time but dramatic music and narration cues as the sights of the city come up in front of your view. It shows all the signs of being a cutscene while you’re looking at it from a first person view. 

Bioshock's reveal of rapture

Bioshock consistently shows these cutscenes throughout the game, particularly in one instance where you...

Kill Andrew Ryan, the game’s antagonist in first person, not able to control whether or not you smash him with a golf club.

This is a pretty solid representation of a first person cutscene. It’s going to happen, you can’t stop it but you can feel and see what’s happening first hand. You can even feel the vibrations in your controller from the blows being struck. Dramatic music cues enhancing the scene, makes it immersive and rather different than a third person cutscene. Done right these can be even more effective than their third person counter parts.

Another example of this is in Call of Duty 4. You’re trying to escape in a Helicopter from a killzone after rescuing a pilot because there is a potential nuclear threat. You think you’re safe until suddenly the nuke goes off and your helicopter is caught in the blast. You wake up moments later, dazed and the scene is a sickly red hue. Everyone around you is already dead and your controller vibrates as you feel your character struggling to move. The effects of blurring, shaky camera, and struggling breaths help accentuate the feeling of appending doom. You can walk around, try to make it out of the broken down helicopter but the conclusion is always going to be the same. You walk out, but no matter how far you get you collapse and look to the sky, dying.

The Experience

It was a dramatic moment that players didn’t expect when they first played the game, and it was pretty powerful at the time. The fact that you played and viewed this in first person the whole time made it definitely very dramatic and even better than it could have been done in third person. Why? Because well we hardly knew this character to be honest, so if he died in third person who would really care? But the fact that it was done in first person made it a lot more impactful, because it was like you were embodying the character as well and you were dying. Not to mention the various effects that helped enhance the scene (The blurring and staggered walking would not have worked as well in third person). This is a very solid example of how well cinematics in a first person can work, done in a way that a third person cinematic would not be able to replicate.

Call of Duty 4's immersive ending

Camera work and Programming

In terms of programming, this can be rather difficult to get done right. You need to have certain camera work still, shaking the camera to replicate the first person view. You need to make sure all the objects are at a certain perspective and position so that it will make the most out of the view. If these are out of place it can make the view just look bad and not be very powerful. If the camera is not shaky enough to represent both the viewer and the effects on screen (Such as massive explosion), the viewer won’t feel like they are experiencing it and it will just look bad. Getting the camera movements right in this mode is essential for any game striving for first person cutscenes. If they are done wrong it completely ruins the experience because in my experience I have not been able to skip them. And you should not be able to as well since they are first person, but people could be rolling their eyes if they are simply really bad and non immersive experiences. It definitely has more risk than third person cutscenes, which is probably why there are way more games that just focus on trying to use third person cutscenes.


Not one method is better than the other of course, but overall there is less risk in using third person methods. Because it allows players to simply skip it and can still use lower quality camera work to function properly, it can get players right back into the action. Or they could put a lot of resources and make every cutscene a great cinematic experience to draw you in the story, you have either option really and you can put as much coding effort as you want or don’t want. Also to note is that any game can use third person methods as well, even if it’s a first person game. You can use these any times.

First person is more limited because you typically only want to use it in a first person game. There can be times when it can be executed incorrectly and just be boring, but in general it’s not that hard to make it not that boring. More and more games seem to be using it, though only the best can truly immerse the player in the experience. Coding can be a finicky issue because some games, such as Half Life 2 allow the player to move around fully during important events where NPCs are talking. This requires coding for the NPCs talking and lip synching but no camera involvement. This make it easy to code for in that sense but does this really count as a first person cutscene? Some might argue it does since it’s still a cinematic experience, while others might say it’s less engaging. In any case, coding can take the same role as third person, because there can be those moments like I just mentioned in half life where it can be easy to code, while there could be more complex coding in first person sequences such as a cinematic view during Bioshock.

Weighing in overall experiences involving watching and experiencing cutscenes, overall I have to say that coding in third person cutscenes can be harder. The way they are both coded are different and provide different experiences, but overall you have more flexibility in making interesting cinematic shots in third person, while first person can really immerse you if done correctly. But you are of course limited to that first person perspective, which should give you less potential options for complex cinematic shots. But I am not going to say one is better than the other. They both provide great experiences when done correctly and they both provide different experiences. First person is more unique because it’s used less and can pretty much only be used in first person games (with some exceptions I can’t think of currently but I know they are out there). Third person can provide great cinematic experiences though they are used much more commonly. They are both necessary for our games and I’ve enjoyed a variety of both types of cinematics. 

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