Cutscenes tend to receive mixed reception among the gaming community. On the one hand, they provide a break from the gameplay by allowing the player to kick back and enjoy storytime, but on the other, they rip control from the player and force them to watch their character pull off the baddest ass stunts and killer moves when the gameplay a second ago had them standing still while throwing jelly beans at the boss. Games over the years have found workarounds for conveying story or have gotten clever with their implementation of cutscenes, namely 2018’s God of War, not to be confused with 2005’s God of War. But some of the most effective, impactful cutscenes I’ve seen in a video game come from another 2018 game, this one also a sequel installment into a series but not given the same name as its debut title, Valkyria Chronicles 4.
Cutscenes in Valkyria Chronicles 4 and its distant predecessor come in two distinct flavors: full-motion videos, where characters are fully animated and scenes are shot from multiple angles, and character heads in floating boxes staring off into the middle distance, loosely mouthing their prompts at the bottom of the screen. It doesn’t take an intelligence-enhanced orangutan to discern which effort required time and money.
If you break out a thesaurus and look up all the synonyms for the word spectacular, those all apply to VC’s FMVs. What should follow is a lauding of how arresting the screenplay is and how blood-pumping the action is, and these are all huge contributing factors to a given cutscene’s quality, yes. But none of them are the secret to what makes VC’s cutscenes leap out in an ocean of games full of cutscenes, and the secret to that is gonna sound mega strange before a proper explanation, because the pre-explanation secret is that its lackluster Talking Heads make its cutscenes so amazeballs.
It’s not new news that most anime are made on impossibly strict deadlines, and the MO for not falling too far behind schedule is to cut so many corners in the animation that it’s a wonder we don’t have to buy circular monitors to watch anime. Characters tend to stand stone-still the lot of the time, their mouths have three frames of flap, and scenes with running crowds are just still images shaken up like snow globes. From a technical standpoint, most anime aren’t that impressive. And then the animation will randomly bump up to such an extreme quality that your eyeballs will burst out their sockets so they can get a closer look.
Sakuga, which literally translates to “Holy smokes, I want this animation’s babies!” is basically any animation whose beauty you can sit and appreciate like snow-capped mountains or a cascading waterfall. The movement is smooth, the saturation is gorgeous, the effects are magical. Watching sakuga can have the side effect of needing to collect your jawbone from the floor.
Any sakuga on its own is a stand-out, but when you juxtapose it with such circular animation, it pops out at you like a pop-up book. It’s the same effect as learning about the impossibly mahoosive dimensions of the galaxy’s largest stars. Telling you that VY Canis Majoris has 17±8 the mass of our sun is one thing, but showing a to-scale diagram where our sun is just a literal pixel beside it can have the side effect of needing to collect your brain bits from the floor.
The VC series adopts this minimalist approach where about 91.5395% of the story is conveyed through Talking Heads and the remaining 8.4605% is reserved for FMV, but it’s not just any 8.4605% on the reservation list for FMV. Play any other video game and you’ll walk into a room and have FMV of two characters talking. Pretty typical and standard. But they’ll also use FMV for when buildings and aircraft start blowing up. VC saves all the explody bits for FMV, which only adds to the pop factor.
Effective as the tricks are VC uses for having such kickass cutscenes, I won’t advocate for every game from hereon out to adopt the same juxtaposing method. There’s a lot of subtly to be had in a given conversation, and that’s lost when you just have two character profiles standing still at opposite edges of the screen. Early on in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, a cutscene plays when an android named Poppi makes her debut by declaring undying fealty to her obese Furby master. This draws concerned stares from the main characters, so he resets her and tries explaining that, actually, it was his grandfather who was the total pervert who programmed her to satisfy his maid fetish, and as he shoots off this blatant lie, we get this close-up shot of Poppi panning her eyes over the obese Furby as if she’s thinking, “You lying son of a bitch. You had me put on one of those French maid outfits just last Thursday.”
This sort of gesture is technically possible in VC, but it adheres to its own Talking Heads engine so strictly that any chance for additional gestures or body cues is lost (I’m 96.2223971% certain a programmer coded the Talking Heads exactly once, then just swapped out the appropriate models, animations, and lines for every other Talking Heads across the games). Even if exceptions were made, Poppi’s eye pan is lost outside a three-dimensional space.
That’s all I have to say on this matter, and there’s not a lot to be said. Juxtaposition of animation quality and reservation of high-action sequences are about all there is to this. Might not be the prettiest or most smiled upon method, but it makes one hell of an excuse for skimping on the animation budget.