I started playing video games around the time when they were transitioning to 3D and making use of CDs, which meant that the capacity to store beautiful visuals far outstripped the hardware’s ability to render them in real time. The upshot of this was that big-budget games often didn’t look great while you were playing them, but every now and then, you’d be treated to a lavishly rendered cutscene that would not only blow you away with its detail and artistry, but provide crucial context for what the regular graphics were actually meant to look like.
The canonical example of this is Square Enix’s Final Fantasy games for the original PlayStation. Last week, Final Fantasy VIII celebrated its 20th anniversary, while IX was re-released for the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One — I know, VIII got robbed — and the subject happened to be on my mind this week as I played through one of 2019’s newest, highest-budget, most visually stunning games. What I’m saying is that Anthem’s cutscenes look really bad.
When I’m actually playing Anthem, it looks incredible. It might be the most technically advanced game ever to grace my PC’s monitor, with amazing lighting and motion effects that convincingly simulate the experience of piloting an Iron Man suit through the world of Avatar. The narrative-driven segments in the hub world, meanwhile, feature beautifully drawn characters with excellent acting and facial animation. I can’t say enough good things about this game’s graphics.
But when there’s a break for a story beat, things look notably worse. Anthem’s cutscenes are meant to be epic, cinematic moments that depict events beyond the scope of the game’s regular action. But they’re delivered as compressed, low-resolution video files that run at a slower frame rate. It’s incredibly jarring to see crisp 1440p gameplay with pristine effects, and then feel like you’ve been dragged back to watch a Starship Troopers trailer from Apple’s QuickTime website in 2003.
Anthem is far from alone in this. I’ve found the same thing about most big-budget PC games I’ve played in recent years, from Resident Evil 2 to Far Cry 5. And look, I get it. The sheer amount of stuff going on in these scenes means it would often be impossible to render them in real time with the same assets, and saving the sequences as video files lets them be played instantly without having to load all the assets. (Though I will say that avoiding load times does not seem to have been a priority with Anthem’s development.) Games’ install sizes are continuing to balloon, too, and you can’t assume everyone’s going to care about cutscene image quality. It’s also generally less noticeable if you’re playing on a console with a 1080p TV.
The fact is, though, that these cutscenes look significantly worse than the actual game itself, and this seems bizarre considering how much incredible talent has been poured into Anthem’s visual presentation. Could EA and BioWare not at least have provided the option to download the video files at a higher bitrate for people with hard drive space to spare?
Even if they did, I think it’s fair to say the days of cutscenes wowing us are at an end. Games just look too good in real time these days for anything to seem so wildly implausible as, say, this CGI sequence from Final Fantasy VIII did at the time. This was a time when, don’t forget, Pixar had only just released its second movie:
I don’t know, maybe you had to be there. But still. “One day, games will look almost as good as this,” I thought to myself back then. “So imagine what the cutscenes will be like!”
Now, of course, games actually look way better than that, which is something to be grateful for. But I can’t say I’m not disappointed that the cutscenes somehow tend to look worse. There are some notable counter-examples, like the impressive real-time set pieces in Uncharted 4 or the anime sequences in Persona 5, but for the most part, the art of the cutscene appears to be slowly dying.
Ultimately, it’s for the best that we don’t need pre-rendered video for our games to look incredible. I just don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that the pre-rendered video doesn’t look noticeably worse.