End the Beginnings, Please: A Plea for No More Opening Cinematics in Games

I’ve got several beefs with opening cinematics in games. Not quite enough to fill a butcher shop, but maybe a neatly wrapped styrofoam tray. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a time when opening cinematics were as much a water cooler topic as any story mission or side quest. But I’m not interested in discussing their quality. The knee-jerk urge to simply dismiss them as hawt turbo grafixx understates how truly impressive they’ve become. No, I’d rather protest their inclusion in games at all. Live-action or animated, opening cinematics just shouldn’t be something we as gamers should have to put up with anymore. Not if we want our games to reach their full potential.

If that comes off a bit strong, I should mention that I think opening cinematics in games can work on a lot of levels. They can help set a narrative tone, or act as marketing tools to grab your attention. They can provide new perspectives on gameplay. Ultimately, I’d say opening cinematics are used to make good first impressions. They’re the video game equivalent of a hotel doorman, showing you where you’ll be settling in for the duration of your stay.

Consider the opener to Final Fantasy VIII. There are so many promises made in those three minutes of glorious CG that they’re practically gushing from its story sacs. FFVIII‘s opening cinematic acts as a narrative device by frontloading you with story info. Without it, you wouldn’t have the tension from having seen firsthand Squall’s feud with Seifer, or his vague yet magnetic attraction to Rinoa. It clues you in to how you should feel about these characters and tells you who the major players are.

FFVIII’s opening cinematic implies that, yes young player, in this game there will be tears shed and heartstrings pulled, just as much as it lets you identify the punk-ass ginger with the duster who gave you your scar.

This fuckin’ guy.

I guess my biggest issue is that I feel opening cinematics are becoming a crutch. They’re great at dropping players right at the inciting incident of an epic, triple-A narrative – but what excuse do strategy games have for them? Or multiplayer shooters? A game intro isn’t going to change my mind about Sid Meier’s Civilization, but it’s a waste of my time and the developers’ time to tell us what the game is about when they bothered to build an engine that could so easily show us. I mean, a 4-minute intro before Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2? Just 360 no scope me now.

Maybe we’re better off selectively using opening cinematics in single-player games that have sweeping, epic scope. The Final Fantasies and BioWare RPGs are already using them to this effect. But if I had my choice, I’d rather do away with them altogether. Because games don’t have to win us over with mocapped, pre-rendered movies anymore. Drop me into a world and let me discover it for myself, and I’ll love you all the more for it. An immersive experience that gives you the feeling that you are in the game universe will always trump one that has you watching it from the outside.

Half-Life understood this. Or rather, Valve in 1998 understood something similar about this sentiment. True, your actions as Mr. Freeman are limited during the game’s on-rails intro. But it’s completely in-engine, and you aren’t completely powerless. Movement is the first person shooter’s gateway to empowerment, its little blue pill to an opening cinematic’s impotence. At the very least, your illusion of agency and choice is never taken away from you.

But I’m nitpicking. I’m allowed that a little, aren’t I? Half-Life is a perfect example of a triple-A-quality title that knows that it’s a Game with a Capital G and is pursuing that status in every sense of the word. Few games have come close to offering such a pure Game experience, save for Half-Life 2 (which, tragically, does have an opening cinematic). You’re never pulled away completely from the action to learn about something, or see something from a different perspective. Your time in the game is all about YOU, the player.

More like ‘Half-Life: You,’ am I right?

Opening cinematics. like it or not, are holding games back. With games finally emerging as a recognized form of entertainment, so much that some even call them art, then the sooner games differentiate themselves from movies and film, the better. If graphics, the outstanding achievement of opening cinematics of yore, are progressing to being nigh-indistinguishable from what the cool kids call “RL,” then an opening cinematic is straight up redundant, yo. And with Virtual Reality becoming actual literal reality, games are looking better than ever. So why not let games be games?

I appreciate the cinematic vision. I really do. But games should be able to stand on their merits – their strengths – over other mediums. Yes, games and films are always going to influence each other. They can’t help it; they’re visual mediums. But with games we have this amazing opportunity to play, interact, and affect the digital worlds in front of us. It feels like such a terrible waste when you have to watch the playing being done for you.

I look forward to the day when I can launch a game, pass whatever digital billboards are on the runway, and land safely in the matchmaking lobby without having to watch an in-flight movie. Opening cinematics no longer hold sway over me, so why do I want to see more of these things? Let’s try for fewer opening cinematics in games. Or I’m up for compromising! I’d at least like to see less of an obligation to have them auto-included.

Oh, I’d never skip one, believe me. That’d be like leaving the mouse cursor in the middle of a playing YouTube video. It just isn’t done. But when a 4X strategy game compels me to sit through three minutes of Total Montage Warfare, that’s three valuable minutes I could be spending in tutorials. And to that, I say good day.

Eric Seal

Eric Seal is a writer, drummer, gamer, husband, son, and father, and he can't decide which of these he likes best. Also writes fatherly musings at mostlymetaldad.com.

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