Cut-Scenes and Loading Screens: How They Can Make or Break a Game

Games have had cut-scenes about as long as movies have had actors. Any time that you stopped playing to watch a scripted event take place you were viewing one of these cinematics. These short events have taken many forms over the years. Some play out like scenes from a movie while others are little more than actions acted out by NPCs that you watch from the eyes of your player.

Loading screens have been just as prevalent, if not even more so, in gaming history. Every game has to load something. Whether it is entire worlds like Skyrim, a basketball game, or just the next level, loading in excess can become extremely tiresome.

Both of these elements are present in nearly every title released, and every year there are those who use them well and those who fumble around and lose cohesion along the way. What is it about cut-scenes that draws (or loses) our attention? Can a game be too cinematic? How many loading screens are too many? Is there such a thing as too few? To better illustrate the dos and don’ts of these tricky elements I am going to compare (and contrast) three titles that I think each have their own strengths and, if applicable, weaknesses. And the releases I am going to throw on the chopping block are: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Max Payne 3, with a few other examples sprinkled into the mix.

I’ll start with the game I think rests in the middle ground of it all: Skyrim. Now, Skyrim is a massive adventure game with more than 300 hours of possible gameplay. 300! That being said, it is understandable that a game of that size would lack seriously scripted cut-scenes. While there are still cut-scenes they are extremely limited and are always seen from the perspective of your character. Skyrim strikes an interesting balance here. The absence of stand-alone cut-scenes actually works in Bethesda’s favor. Because there is very little to separate the player from his controller the game plays in a very fluid manner. The only break in continuity comes from the title’s loading screens.

Loading screens in Skyrim occur in three very distinct places, and they are: Entering any hold, home, dungeon, or fort, resting, and fast-traveling. Aside from those three areas there are no loading screens. If take all of those instances into account, all of those occurrences are somewhat avoidable. You don’t have to fast-travel; traversing Skyrim’s beautiful environment is one of the game’s strong points. Entering any establishment is more often than not a choice you make. In most cases it is to sell your looted items, a tedious task in itself, and therefore you are already setting time aside to shop, so get over it. The third, as listed above is resting; standing in place and waiting for an amount of time to pass. I hope I don’t have to detail why that isn’t necessary. Resting in a bed does actually give you a resting bonus so, if you must rest, do it in one of Skyrim’s many inns. Just remember, “There ain’t no rest for the wicked”.

On the opposing side of the spectrum is Max Payne, a marvel in storytelling. The campaign is completely load-screen free. Much like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, MP3 uses its cut-scenes as its loading screens. This creates an experience hard to match by other titles in the genre. The narrative arc is never lost in Max Payne, as beautiful cinematics connect gameplay seamlessly. Another exciting element about Max is its instant start; as soon as the title screen displays itself (and you hit start), it dives right into the story (what menu screen?).

There are weaknesses to this means of entertainment though, it isn’t flawless. The amount of video features this method uses makes possible the alienation of the gamer watching them. The cut-scenes are often somewhat lengthy and there is no player interaction during them. That leaves a large amount of player interest in the hands of the story. If you write a story that’s not entertaining enough you will inevitably lose your audience and in a competitive market, that can’t happen. MP3’s cinematics also don’t allow you to quit, unlike Uncharted, until either the gameplay is finished loading or the scene is over completely, which sucks if you just finished a level and need to run out the door. If you turn off your console the game will reload at the cut-scene but if you just want to get back to the menu, sit tight buddy!

Last on my list is The Witcher 2. Cinematically this game falls in between the two I just talked about. With cut-scenes that are both scripted and interactive (and some that are just one or the other) Witcher’s cinematics allow the game to tell its story while still allowing the player to retain a measure of control, much like Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell Conviction. Cut-scenes in Witcher 2 however are a little more long-winded and a little less interactive.

Witcher’s greatest downfall comes from its loading screens. In story rich segments of the game, loading screens dictate the pace. Loading from building internal to external, even floor to floor, disrupts the title’s flow. I even had times where I could hear the fighting on the other side of a door, then having to open said door and endure a fifteen second load screen before lunging into the action. And that wasn’t an entirely rare occurrence.

In the end, cut-scenes and loading screens can either augment or hinder your experience, and the balance between the two is elusive at best. I like elements of all three styles, but what do you prefer in a game? Do you prefer the Skyrim model, where your cut-scenes are no different than the gameplay, or are you on the other side, where cinematics are distinctly different? Or are you somewhere in the middle? Let me know and share your thoughts.