Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In Defense of the Pre-rendered Cut Scene

Final Fantasy VII’s impressive cut scenes took it to new levels of popularity.

I’ve been playing Demon’s Souls, From Software’s dungeon-crawling action-RPG that’s coming to American shores soon thanks (once again) to Atlus. During a recent playthrough it struck me that while the game’s dark fantasy aesthetic does look good, it doesn’t look as good as its cut scenes do. The cut scenes look stylistically similar to the rest of the game, but there’s more detailed texturing, smoother animation – in fact, it looks better in every conceivable way. Demon’s Souls uses pre-rendered CGI footage for its cut scenes, sparingly placed between long chapters of dungeon crawling. It reminded me of the PlayStation games of the late 90s, when pre-rendered footage was the standard for video game cut scenes. A decade later and CGI cut scenes are almost completely out of fashion. What happened?

It used to be that games traditionally told their stories via text and in-game animations. That all changed with the advent of 3D gaming around the PlayStation era. The industry shifted towards pre-rendered cut scenes using computer-generated imagery to help push narrative forward, with Final Fantasy VII being the epitome of this shift. Prior to VII, the series had always been rather niche outside of Japan, but Square’s debut on PlayStation employed CGI cut scenes for the first time in the series. Sony’s merciless promotional campaign featuring these lavishly produced cut scenes – and none of the game engine – helped to ensure Final Fantasy VII’s immense popularity, and to make the brand a household name. Everyone wanted the game that looked like a movie, and its dependence on pre-rendered cut scenes quickly became the dominant form for video game storytelling for several years.

Yet by the time the PlayStation 2 had launched, the impetus within the industry was to use game engines to handle cut scenes. Games like Metal Gear Solid proved that developers didn’t need to rely on flashy CGI movies to tell a rich, complex story, while the PS2 allowed them to achieve fully realized 3D character models that weren’t overly pixilated. By the time this generation of consoles launched, the concept of pre-rendered footage became all but taboo. But I think there was something to the old way of doing things that’s been lost in the industry’s dogged persistence to prove it can do everything within its game engine.

Check out the rest of the article here, at TGR.
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