In this, the second installment of Diconstruction, Chris Marks discusses cinematics. How they were presented in Diablo and Diablo II, how other games handle them, and what’s their purpose and effect in games on the whole? Do they add to the story? Distract from the action? Or just give you a chance to pop your thumbs back into joint and and/or take a bathroom break? Here’s a quote: click through to read the whole thing…
Enough with critiquing the content of the cinematics, how do they fit in with the gameflow? First of all, cinematics are pretty much a fact of life as far as video games go. Even Tetris and Super Mario Land on my Gameboy had cinematics, as unimpressive as they were. Seriously, what?s with the castle turning in to a rocket ship for no good reason? And are we really sure it was a rocket ship with flames coming out the back, and not some sort of creature with really bad flatulence? The world shall never know.
Until a point, most games kept the cinematics in storage until you finished the game, and maybe had one at the beginning of the game. The first game I can clearly recall having cinematics in the middle is the old Sierra game Quest for Glory II, where if you let the city die you got to see it happen, and as you?re crossing the desert in the caravan the story of the crossing is shown to you rather than you playing it. Oregano is a hell of a spice, by the way.
“Video” Games, You Say?
If there’s one thing Metal Gear Solid 4 has taught us it’s that hour and a half cut-scenes are the Devil. They belong tossed down a long tube and burned, with only enough fuel being fed to them to feed the flames forever, or at least until the sun is extinguished by an unbelievably large urination. Cut-scenes are not gaming, they are filler for games. They’re what gamers use to pass time as they wait for their hands to uncramp and regain the shape of hands that belong to humans rather than birds. I don’t care how long you play, if it takes an hour and a half to regain the use of your hand you’re doing it wrong.
What I’m trying to say is that while cut-scenes are nice when used as a brief interlude to clicking as quickly as possible, they’re simply not the reason most people buy games. I didn’t shell out my hard earned money to watch stuff the animators did, I paid my money so I could do things myself: death, carnage, destruction, and all the other family-friendly things that come with a game of Tetris. I don’t care how many hours were spent perfecting the animation of the knee joint when the guy bends over, I care about how many ways I can destroy that person’s knee joint and with how many weapons I can do it.
It’s the difference between dragging the player through your plot so you can show your pretty little animations, and letting the player do their own thing while including the occasional distraction of animation to give the mouse finger a rest. We don’t want to be led, we want to explore and discover, and slaughter innocent sheep, with cut-scenes used as a distraction rather than a focal point. At least the Diablo games got the formula right.
Contents May Be Flammable
The first Diablo had precisely five cinematics: the four you know about and another that’s on the disc but wasn’t used. First, there was the introduction, which was meant to serve as a setup for the mood of the game but ended up dragging on too long with tacky music. If you installed the Hellfire expansion, this cinematic was replaced with a shorter cinematic about a wizard performing a summoning ritual, being surprised when it works, and then leaving and locking the door behind him. And yet the game still waits for you to kill Diablo before it ends, despite his now conspicuous absence from the opening cinematic. Interesting choice, that.
The second cinematic is about 5 seconds long and serves as an introduction to the Butcher, but was cut from the game for some reason. I don’t see why, since I think throwing a severed torso on to a meat hook is perfectly valid family entertainment. It’s on the CD though, so you can extract it if you really want to. Or watch it on the internet, since that’s where all closely guarded secrets go to be drawn and quartered in the middle of a courtyard. The third is another short cinematic that establishes Lazarus as a badass with no need for complete sentences, and doesn’t leave anything amusing to say about it at all. So I won’t.
Then there are the two end cinematics where your hero for some inexplicable reason jams a glowing red stone the size of his fist in to his or her forehead (I hope I didn’t just ruin the game for someone). As far as dumb things to do go, jamming a sharp object directly in to your brain is pretty close to the top of the list, right behind jumping chest first on to a bed of hot spikes, and just ahead of sticking your arm into a running snow blower.
The end cinematic also suffers from a problem known as “being a cinematic.” Because it’s a cinematic and as such is unchanging, they had to take a wild stab in the dark at what your hero would be wearing when you reached it. So if you decided to go through the game with no protection at all, like say a “commando,” all of a sudden you’re wearing a full suit of armor which is politely weighing you down from doing anything useful such as standing upright. It’s okay though, because once you’ve accepted the Lord of Terror as your personal savior you shed anything that could protect you from harm and walk around perpetually ready for a shower.
Diablo’s Animations, Reborn
In Diablo 2 they got around that problem by having the cinematics occur in the same place as you, but at a different time and with your previous character (who is now male, regardless of how many times you selected Rogue in the first Diablo). The opening cinematic clearly demonstrates that jerks are destined to be killed by monsters from another plane of existence, and that there will never be a shortage of either.
There is then a cinematic between each of the acts of the game that follows your character from the first Diablo and the one guy in the entire bar who was polite to him as they cross the desert on surprisingly little food and water, eventually revealing the weakness of man and how awesome old Chicken-Legs… I mean Diablo… looks up close. When you finish the original four acts, the last cinematic politely reminds you that you’re destined to spend more money on an expansion or sequel to finish the story.
Then, if you’re playing in the Lord of Destruction expansion, you immediately get another cinematic that reveals that man is still stupid, followed by a new ending cinematic where Tyrael blows up the only thing that was keeping the various planes of existence separate, now that the Prime Evils have been destroyed, presumably so he can bring them back to life and invite them to a rave. To its credit, the Worldstone blowing up is pretty awesome.
But Where’s The Substance?
Enough with critiquing the content of the cinematics, how do they fit in with the gameflow? First of all, cinematics are pretty much a fact of life as far as video games go. Even Tetris and Super Mario Land on my Gameboy had cinematics, as unimpressive as they were. Seriously, what’s with the castle turning in to a rocket ship for no good reason? And are we really sure it was a rocket ship with flames coming out the back, and not some sort of creature with really bad flatulence? The world shall never know.
Until a point, most games kept the cinematics in storage until you finished the game, and maybe had one at the beginning of the game. The first game I can clearly recall having cinematics in the middle is the old Sierra game Quest for Glory II, where if you let the city die you got to see it happen, and as you’re crossing the desert in the caravan the story of the crossing is shown to you rather than you playing it. Oregano is a hell of a spice, by the way.
The Diablo games use cinematics to enhance the mood of the game, rather than for pure storytelling purposes. In the first game, the cinematics set the initial mood, introduce you to a fight you’re probably not prepared for if it’s your first time playing, and provide a pseudo-satisfying ending for the game. They’re concise, they’re out of the way, and you can skip the intro by doing… anything, really.
Diablo 2 offers you cinematics after each significant milestone you achieve in the game, and still allows you to skip them if you’ve already seen them a hundred times and since you’re just rushing your character to optimize your build anyway who really cares? They also recognized that the cinematics are rather well done, however, and have allowed you to go back and watch them at your leisure as long as you’ve legitimately reached them in a game.
The Diablo 2 cinematics are a little more invasive than the Diablo cinematics, but allowing you to skip them makes up for it. I suppose it would be nice if they used the cinematic time to preload the next act, so you don’t have to sit waiting for the 3 seconds or less it takes to get to town so you can buy nothing and set out murdering small indigenous animals like the good boy or girl you are, but if you’re in that much of a rush to kill something it’s probably best if you get therapy and don’t play Diablo in the first place.
It’s clear the development team at Blizzard thought the cinematics out in advance. They knew what their game was and why people would buy it, and added some pretty animations as a bonus for those of us who still play games for plot, as few and far between as we are. They even go the extra mile, letting us replay them at our leisure, in case we want to bask in the memories of good times gone past.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if real life were like that? Just imagine, you’re sitting at your desk at work, looking at porn (I refuse to believe I’m the only one who does this), and all of a sudden it hits you: “I’d really like to see me dancing with that girl at prom who’s now gone on to fame and stardom and left me behind in this rathole.” So you pause your life, step sideways, and press the button marked depress me about my current life situation and remember when things that happened in high school were not only relevant, but important. Then the scene comes to an end, and you can either return to watching other people have sex, or continue watching yourself not having sex. Fun times!
In the end, cut-scenes are a tool. If used properly, they can be a very powerful tool to further the plot and character development. It’s really up to the game developers how they want to use the tools they have at their disposal, and so far the fine folks at Blizzard have been very careful with their cinematics. Of course, most of the people who designed Diablo 2 have left the company and been replaced by people who for all I know are raging psychopaths with furry fetishes, and there’s no telling what those lunatics are likely to come up with. Just remember, developers, Diablo is a game franchise, not a cartoon.
Diconstruction (Diablo Deconstruction) is written by Chris Marks. It examines differences between the two (soon to be three) Diablo games, as well as comparing them to other games, in a hopefully amusing style. Diconstruction is published on the first and third Tuesday of every month. Leave your comments below, or contact the author directly.