After God of War, It’s Time to Ditch Pre-Rendered Cutscenes

For the ways I have nitpicked God of War, there’s certainly one area where it’s been flawless, and that’s its presentation. It’s not only the most stunning-looking game on PS4 but manages to maintain this quality with nary a camera cut, so that there’s no mistaking that what you see and what you play are all in harmony.

Generally, Sony’s first party studios have been very good at harnessing the PS4 hardware to produce exceptional results, emphasizing during their big conference demos that everything you see is running in real-time and in-engine on PS4. Which naturally leads me to wonder why, when it comes to big reveals from publishers and marketing, that pre-rendered cinematics remain widespread when games like God of War prove they aren’t necessary?

The latest culprit is Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It probably didn’t help that its reveal was spoiled by an abundance of leaks months in advance, meaning that there was little to be surprised about. At this point, perhaps some gameplay of what we can expect Lara to be doing, maybe something to wow us like an Uncharted 4 set piece, would’ve been great.

God of War Cutscenes: Is it Time to Ditch the Pre-Rendered Cinematics?

god of war cutscenes shadow of the tomb raider

Instead, what we got was a reveal trailer with the dreaded caption at the start: Not Actual Gameplay. I honestly couldn’t tell you what happens in this cinematic — apart from a guerilla Lara getting all stabby in the jungle — because at this point I had lost interest.

Obviously, these reveals are done to generate hype and excitement for your new game, so I can understand the desire to make it look as good as possible — and goodness knows that making a cinematic isn’t cheap either — but I also find this reliance on such pre-renders a dishonest way of marketing a game.

Of course, pre-rendered cinematics have been used for games since CD-ROM has existed to store the video files, as some developers wanted to be able to better depict the rich world they’ve created that was beyond the capabilities of the host hardware. Final Fantasy VII is a prime example, given how jarring the CG character models look compared to their deformed low-poly counterparts that you spend the majority of the game with (which, of course, never featured in any of the TV commercials that ran during its promotion).

At least, given the inconsistencies, you couldn’t be fooled that the pre-renders were anything but a nice cutscene you saw every once in a blue moon. However, as technology advances, the lines between what’s really being produced by the hardware becomes blurred. For instance, on PS3, the Uncharted series produced some incredible cinematic action set-pieces, but it still relied on pre-rendered cutscenes using more detailed character models than the ones when you were controlling.

God of War Cutscenes: How Other Developers Can Learn From Santa Monica Studio

god of war uncharted

But now that we have reached this current generation, it’s evident that, at least on PS4, there’s no need to distinguish between gameplay and story, and it’s something Sony delights in boasting about with games like God of War. So when visual fidelity has already come so far, it’s arguably even more dishonest if you’re going to use a cinematic to enhance the appearance of your game. Or in Bethesda’s case, when they’re not creating janky open-world games, a game like Wolfenstein still finds itself telling its story by pulling you out of the real-time first-person into third-person cinematics.

I’m also reminded of last year when Microsoft had its own event before Gamescom, not long after its reveal for Xbox One X at E3. You’d think that if you’re going to demonstrate the most powerful console in the world, the last thing you’d want to start with is a cinematic trailer of Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Except that’s how that underwhelming live show unfolded. Of course, I could tell it was a pre-render, but the trouble is some people may have watched it and genuinely believed that was demonstrating true 4K power, which is jarring when the next game on show isn’t as visually polished, like PUBG or State of Decay 2.

This doesn’t mean a game trailer can’t be used to focus on narrative or mood-setting, only that developers convey this with the tools they have instead of reaching for a shortcut. Rockstar excels in this regard, as the master of its craft for creating living, breathing open worlds and sophisticated storytelling, and the latest trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 is more evidence of the studio refusing to pre-render its work. Perhaps Rockstar is too exceptional a developer, but it doesn’t mean other studios should be cheating to look as slick.

This doesn’t even touch on the other dubious practice of platform holders using PC gameplay footage for their own adverts, or the photoshopping work behind marketing bullshots. Nonetheless, if God of War has been able to demonstrate how we can stay gripped and immersed in both story and gameplay without missing a beat, then come E3 next month, let’s hope publishers leave the cinematics on the cutting room floor and concentrate on the game itself.