Coming Attractions: Behind the Curtain of the Opening Cinematic «
When I asked one of my best friends to suggest her favorite opening cinematic for a videogame, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Her gaming tastes are dramatically different from mine, but we are pretty much in sync with movies, music, theater, sports… all the other arts. How bad could this possibly be?
“The opening for Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure is so different,” she said. “I can’t name another like it. A musical. I know you totally can’t use this.”
OK. I like musicals (I do — really).
“I’m mostly just gauging what types of things people respond to,” I replied. Had to do some research, after all.
“No one has played this. No one will know it. No one will be impressed,” she cautioned.
Dumbstruck in horror, all I could manage was, “I hope this sounds better in Japanese.”
Setting the Stage
I was assured that Rhapsody’s opening established what I could expect, were I fool enough to actually play it through to conclusion. Bubbles. Fairies. Happy music. Trite platitudes. This stage-setting is the primary purpose of opening cinematics. The expectation is that you will sit through the movie the first time you start a game, and that it will prime your brain for the experience to come.
The earliest opening cinematics were nothing but scene-setters. Westwood’s opening movie for Dune II was one of the earliest opening movies to include narration and animation.
In the days before the Internet and YouTube, however, you would never see this animation unless you had bought the game. If a game had an opening movie, it would be a plot hook or a “here’s what you are doing” clip. Many major games didn’t have them at all, some put them before the main menu, others only when you started a game. The purpose of the cinematic was very clear — set the mood you want to establish and give the player just enough context to know what’s going on.
Many of my friends and acquaintances cited Fallout 3’s opening trailer as one they enjoyed. A radioactive-green-hued mood piece, the scene doesn’t do much to communicate what sort of game Fallout 3 is. But it does establish the setting through a wrecked city and a period song that serves as a cue to the game’s backdrop of nuclear devastation.
“My assumption is always that the player has had no previous exposure,” says Bethesda Softworks’ Todd Howard. “The game needs to stand on its own, so that’s what the Fallout 3 intro does. It sets the tone for the universe, and gives you enough info on how the world got the way it is.”
Smaller studios often have less artful trailers, but they serve the same purpose. For the expansive strategy game Europa Universalis III, Swedish developer Paradox Interactive just strung together martial music and words of portent. The point? This is a serious game for serious people interested in the vast sweep of history. But the real challenge is to visually communicate a game that is not necessarily visually impressive.
“Since many of our internal games are historical strategy games, they do not always offer a very visual gaming experience,” says Boel Berman, Product Manager at Paradox. “The largest challenges take place on the map and in the gamer’s mind.”
The Paradox team admits that the video is not central to how they conceive of game intros. Two of Paradox’s recent titles, Europa Universalis: Rome and Hearts of Iron III, do not have intro videos at all — the games load static images and then go straight to the menu. This is an acknowledgement that their audience is less likely to get much from these videos. Berman says that they will pass on doing a video in many cases, “if we feel that the particular group of gamers that loves a specific kind of game is not really interested in an intro video — since they want to take command and assume their role in the game without delay.”
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