Blizzard explains its approach to creating effective cinematics
One of Blizzard's staples are its lavishly detailed game cinematics, but putting pretty character assets in front of you isn't the studio's only goal when it sets out to create a cutscene. In a talk at GDC last week, StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm Lead Writer Brian Kindregan exposed Blizzard's approach to creating Pixar-quality animation that hooks players into a game's story on an emotional level.
"The amount of story we tell in a mission or on a map is very small," Kindregan said. "If I have a line of dialogue in a map that fires four or five times, people will swear they never heard the dialogue once. So we have very limited story we can tell in-game.
"However, when we put the story in a scripted scene, like a briefing or debrief, we are telling players that this is important, we're trying to make you look at it. But it doesn't necessarily mean it's a huge, impactful moment when a story turns. So, when we put story in a cinematic, we're telling players it's very important. It indicates what kind of story the player is about to get."
Kindregan used Swarm's intro cinematic as a sample of an animation that both drives the narrative forward and "defines what victory looked like in making it a good cinematic." He stated that the nucleus of a cinematic requires a central, expository idea and should avoid leaving the player with more questions than they had prior to watching it. He also shared some basic techniques for keeping watchers hooked.
"The cinematic needs to leave players in a spot that makes them think, 'Great, I want to go hit play now,'" he explained. "But the emotion of the end is wide open: you can have humorous, violence, bittersweet, sad, happy, all of those are on the table. The only thing you can't modulate or mess with is the tempo. The ending tempo needs to to be perfectly matched to whatever the following gameplay is going to be so the player is in the correct mode when they hit play."
I think cinematics are a worthy storytelling tool, but I think they shine best when conveying information or serving up exposition for the sake of narrative. Raw emotions like hopelessness, joy, and anger are far better encountered through hands-on experiences. Watching a no-win humans vs. aliens battle unfold is less memorable than actually taking part in it.
Oh yeah, and I wish more publishers were brave enough to use gameplay footage to market their games, rather than borrowing footage from cinematics that show actions players can't actually perform.