[Editorial Tuesday] What is the Ideal Length for Cutscenes in Games?

While there are many aspects that impact whether we like a video game or not, one of the most important of these is the way the story comes across. And although there are many forms of storytelling and world-crafting in games, cutscenes are a common mechanism in getting the plot across with emotional weight. Cutscenes are cinematic events that the player has no control over, wherein a pre-set sequence takes over from gameplay. In bigger franchises, such as Mass Effect or Call of Duty, you can expect cutscenes to be in certain areas of the game, and to elaborate on the plot little by little as you go. Even smaller indie games like Stardew Valley use brief cutscenes to let the player in on gameplay mechanics or character development. If you have played any sort of video game before, you have probably encountered a cutscene!

So how long should cutscenes actually be? After all, the goal is to avoid taking away from gameplay, but the cinematic sequences still need to connect a story together for the audience. Should the type of game affect how long a cutscene is? What about the system a game is played on? Luckily for you, we’ll look through all of these different factors!

Interrupting Immersion

If there is one thing that ruins the experience of a video game, it is the act of interrupting the flow of gameplay. The most logical place for a cutscene is at the beginning of a level or confrontation, and at its end. However, when games try to be creative and place their cutscenes in the middle of some sort of other activity, it can be detrimental to a player’s immersion. One of the most common complaints of interrupting cutscenes is found in Far Cry 4, where players are forced to watch the numerous sequences, as they are not able to be skipped.

Cutscenes can also interrupt the flow of gameplay if they go on for a long period of time. Metal Gear Solid 4 actually won a Guinness World Record for the longest cutscene in a video game at 27 minutes. It also won a world record for the longest cutscene sequence in a game, with four individual sequences totaling up to 71 minutes of cinematic scenes. While some people will tote this up to Metal Gear Solid being a story-heavy franchise, the length of the cutscenes in this game does seem to be excessive and distracting.

Like any other element used in video games, cutscenes certainly have their place as a storytelling tool. In games with a lot of lore, it is important to let the player in on how the world works. But there are other ways to introduce players to lore and backstory without always shoving a long cutscene in their face, especially at inopportune moments! With franchises like Halo, it makes sense that there will be some amount of cutscenes involved, usually at least two or three times per mission. However, players can predict where the cutscenes will typically land, which allows them to anticipate when harder battles will arise or when they’ve reached the end of a mission. Halo’s cutscenes also tend to be on the shorter side. Scenes in the middle of a mission are usually no longer than 45 seconds, and scenes before or after a mission are only 1 or 2 minutes long at maximum.

Of course, there are any number of ways that we could find cutscenes to be an interrupting nuisance – and that all depends on your preferences! If someone is immersed and interested in the story, the long cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 might actually tell an epic tale. If a player only wants to get into the rhythm of gameplay, any length of cutscene might take their experience off course, even if it’s just a short 30 second sequence. And as people develop shorter attention spans, we might be seeing video games with shorter and shorter cutscenes to compensate for their tastes.


How to Tell a Story

Since cutscenes are typically used to connect the plot fluidly in a game, they have become one of the main storytelling tools available to developers. However, in an era where players are begging for more gameplay and fewer cinematic cutscenes, how can a developer possibly please their audience? We have agreed that frequent cutscenes of an extended length will lose most players, as interrupting gameplay usually turns them off a game. But to tell a good story, there will need to be a certain amount of time put aside in a video game for explanations and world-building. How much of these moments are needed to tell a good, immersive tale?

A simple answer to this problem is to find an alternative to cutscenes, or to make them appear different to the player. An example of one of these alternatives to the typical cutscene formula is seen in Bethesda games like Fallout 4 and Skyrim. In both of these games, players start out forced into a scene-like introduction to the world and story, where you can only look around and create your basic character design. The scenario is always the same, with the player forced into circumstances beyond their control that will lead to their great adventure. However, after the five-ish minutes of this opening sequence are over, players in both of these games are free to explore the open world, to follow whatever quest their hearts might desire! And while there might be other brief dialogue cutscenes later on, players always have the option to leave or even kill the speakers if they get particularly bored. Sure, you might need these people for an important quest later – but that’s an open world game for you!

If an open RPG isn’t an option, how much storytelling should cutscenes do? Usually, the consensus seems to be that most sequences should last only a few minutes at maximum. This is enough for players to get little glimpses into characters and create an emotional bond, as well as enough to quickly move the plot along. And if the gameplay is longer or more difficult in between cutscenes, you might see a longer scene afterward to make up for it.

Basically, it’s all about balance. Gameplay should generally be longer than the cutscenes, especially if there are a lot of them, to give the players more time to actually enjoy the game. In the end, the game is all about the gameplay itself. Story is important, but if a game was just entirely cutscenes, it would end up more like a movie!


Types of Games vs. Cutscenes

Speaking of games that are more like movies, there are a whole group of games in this vein, often called “narrative” games. These games are created by companies like Telltale Games, and are growing more popular recently. Narrative games are more focused on telling a story than actually getting to do much gameplay. With games like The Walking Dead or Life is Strange in this genre, players spend time making dialogue-based decisions and searching around for objects to help them further the story. Although there are occasional action sequences, most of this relies on a cutscene format to drive both gameplay and story.

Obviously, this genre of video game vastly differs from an RPG or a shooter. And while a narrative game might desire a large amount of long cutscenes for an ideal performance, using the same length of cutscenes in one of these other genres would change the effect of that game drastically. Therefore, the type of game should also determine how long its cutscenes shoot for. Shooting or fighting games will not use as many long cutscenes as an RPG. The same goes for most platform games, although there are a few standouts like Ori and the Blind Forest that try to add storytelling with shorter cutscenes.

Most games with cutscenes have at least one cinematic sequence for every big plot moment. These scenes will vary in length depending on how much explanation is needed for the player. For example, if it’s a villain telling the protagonist about how his plot is coming together, the cutscene might be a few minutes in length. If it’s a moment where the player encounters a fierce beast to fight, it might be less than 20 seconds of animation. You can see how franchises like Final Fantasy tend to have longer cutscenes than those found in Titanfall – one needs more time for story development than the other!

Of course, with this type of distinction, it is once again all about what you prefer. If you like playing RPGs and indie games, you might be in for more cutscenes. If games like Street Fighter or Battlefield are more your style, you will probably be in for a few brief cutscenes per level. Depending on the game’s genre, it is logical that more story-driven genres will see longer, more frequent cutscenes.


Console Wars

As in almost anything to do with video games, the system you use certainly plays a part. Whether you use a console or a PC, controller or keyboard, Xbox, Playstation or Nintendo, the games that you’ve played will include cutscenes. Although most cross-system games don’t change based on the system you use, there are a few exclusive titles that vary in their own right.

One perfect example of a console which frequently uses exclusivity is the Playstation. Sony has always had a special deal that gives them access to a lot of the Japanese-released, anime-based games that don’t come to any other systems. These include games like Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth and Sword Art Online: Lost Song. Playstation also has exclusive access to other story-driven games like The Last of Us and the Uncharted series.

Because of the exclusive story-based titles lent to Playstation, it appears that this console trends toward having more cutscenes in their games. While other consoles can obviously have games with just as many cutscenes that are longer, Sony’s deals with certain companies have allowed the Playstation to rise as a specific purveyor of plot-driven video games. And because stories are commonly told through cutscenes in games, this leads to Playstation having a certain reputation for longer, more detailed sequences.

Nintendo is another company that trends toward exclusive games in this fashion. Boasting franchises like Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda and Mario, Nintendo relies on story heavily in their games, leading to more frequent cutscenes. However, their reliance on a silent main character for most of their games means that the cutscenes in Nintendo games are usually shorter, with heavy dialogue on the part of supporting characters providing explanations.

As gaming systems begin to open up to include more cross-console play, worrying about which system has longer cutscenes seems a rather moot point. However, if you favor one specific game or franchise that is an exclusive title, you might want to consider what you prefer when it comes to cinematic scene length in games.


Final Thoughts

If you like playing video games, you’ve probably encountered cutscenes in your lifetime. Regardless of the genre of game or console system, games of all types rely on cutscenes to help tell a story and connect the player with the characters.

So what is the right length for a cutscene? Well, we’ve determined that for most games, cutscenes should not be longer than time spent actually playing the game. The cinematic experience is needed to tell a story fluidly, so it should be involved in some way. However, unless you are playing a narrative game, players actually want to be involved in the game mechanics. Therefore, cutscenes should be short, no longer than 5 minutes usually, unless they need longer to tell a story (as in some specific cases). Really, it’s determined on a game-by-game basis; as long as there’s balance between cutscene length and time spent in gameplay, a game can be successful!

Do you have any experiences with cutscenes that ruined your enjoyment of a game? What do you think of the points we made? Let us know your thoughts on this issue in the comments below!

Meghan May Dellinger

Writer

Author: Meghan May Dellinger

Konnichiwa! I'm a writer/daydreamer who gets a little lost along the path of life from time to time. I love watching anime and playing all kinds of video games - everything from RPGs to first-person shooters. I hope to be an author someday, but until then, I'll share my words with the world any way I can! I love making new friends, so don't be afraid to leave a comment!

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