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'Battle for Azeroth's' Cutscene Problem

When Taking the Controls Away Doesn't Make Sense

Some cutscenes are better than others. (From World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth)

Blizzard's cinematics are some of the best in the industry, from the hype-inducing animations released before the start of every World of Warcraft expansion to the new story and character cinematics regularly released for Overwatch. Since Warcraft 3, Blizzard has carefully scrutinized its cinematics and been ahead of the industry in its desire to faithfully recreate its world in ten minutes or less. And with its latest, "Old Soldier," being hailed as one of its best, this is no less true today than ever; these cinematics put the player into the story in a way that almost nothing else in the game can.

Every expansion, Blizzard releases a new, impressive cinematic to draw new players into the game, and inspire confidence in returning players that this expansion too will be awesome. "Old Soldier" was the second of these released for Battle for Azeroth.

"The high fidelity CGI, pre-rendered cinematics, they're usually only relegated to one per expansion," Cinematic Project Director Terran Gregory said in an interview with "Daily Mail." "We just had an opportunity to make another one, and this seemed like the right place to do it."

And each of these cinematics create a good sense of world-building, introducing players to the main characters and conflicts in each expansion.

The Practical Limitations of an Art Department

But the game itself looks very different from these high-detail cinematics. A world as massive as Azeroth (plus Draenor and Outlands) couldn't be rendered in this "high fidelity CGI"—the technology to deliver that to players doesn't exist, and the strain that would put on developers and game artists is unprecedented. We don't live in a world where that's practical or possible.

To deliver key moments, Blizzard shifts between three styles of animated cutscenes: the cinematic which the player finds when they download the newest expansion, the much lower fidelity CGI cutscenes that are still visually impressive and also delivered at a few key moments, but not necessarily to sell expansions, and the much, much lower fidelity...well, they're just in-game models, crudely rigged up and posed for the player.

And the last of these don’t really need to be there.

At crucial story points, often to reward the player’s efforts in finishing or starting a storyline, they are presented with a cutscene. Some players enjoy these cutscenes, but there is also no shortage of players asking to skip these cutscenes entirely.

Why Some Cutscenes Fail

The questions at the heart of this discussion are how cutscenes can be neatly tied to gameplay, what purpose they serve, and why cutscenes can tarnish the experience of playing a game instead of enhancing the experience.

A widely held belief in game design is that the highest goal of any entertainment medium, and especially game development, is immersion. Everything, from the controls in a game to its soundtrack or visual style, aims to make a player feel “one” with (immersed in) the game they are playing. It’s similar to how a reader can lose themselves in a good book, or lose all sense of their surroundings when presented with a good film.

Immersion is a messy subject, and a concrete definition, or formula, can be hard to pin down. A game creator can’t hand deliver an experience to the player the same way every time—there are a lot of things that can be reinterpreted by the player, or lost in translation entirely.

So while one player might be taken out of the experience of playing World of Warcraft when presented with a cutscene, another might feel that it enhances the experience for them, recreating the world in higher detail.

But if a game’s goal is to tell a story, as WoW’s often is, then to the storyteller, what’s most important is communicating the story to the player with the same level of passion through which it was first invented.

In the Youtube video “A Case for Cutscenes—Everything Old is New Again,” Daniel Floyd of "Extra Credits" argued that cutscenes should strive to say something about the world that gameplay cannot.

“In an era where real-time graphic capabilities were extremely limited, cutscenes allowed us to show things that we could never do justice to in-engine,” Floyd said.

For the more emotional or important moments of World of Warcraft’s storytelling, WoW’s cutscenes make sense. They can deliver the story to the character in a way that text, voice, or the character models WoW normally uses cannot.

But the above mentioned cutscenes, animated with WoW’s in-game resources, don’t follow this logic. They’re not there to create a higher or different type of experience for the player. They don’t say anything to the player that the game can’t already.

And that, to me, is a problem. Interrupting a game has a cost - it means taking control—power—away from the player. It means temporarily changing the medium that a player is experiencing from game to movie. And that cost should be worth it to the player.

While these lower resolution cutscenes definitely had their place in the game six years ago, with the better quality animated cutscenes that have recently been introduced, they just feel dated. And they don't effectively tell important story points anymore.

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