There are many ways to tell stories in video games, but often, the most direct method is the best. We’re talking, of course, about cutscenes- and crafting good cutscenes is no easy task. Cinematography, direction, acting, writing, sound, and visuals come together in these storytelling vignettes, and often, they do so in magical ways, thanks to the talents of the people making them. Here, we’re going to talk about ten developers who make the best video game cutscenes.
ROCKSTAR (GRAND THEFT AUTO, RED DEAD REDEMPTION)
Rockstar has always excelled at storytelling, and their talents have only become that much more prominent as time has gone on. Grand Theft Auto 5’s bombastic storytelling style shines through in each of its cutscenes, but the game where the studio really flexes its muscles is Red Dead Redemption 2. It hits so many notes, and hits nearly all of them perfectly- adrenaline-fueled action, quiet moments of introspection, sweeping views of gorgeous vistas, lighthearted moments of humour, and so much more.
Wolfenstein was never really a story-driven franchise, but when MachineGames took the series’ reins, that changed radically. Under the Swedish developer, Wolfenstein has emphasized story and storytelling heavily, and it does so with some of the best cutscenes you will ever see in games. Tightly written character interactions, scenes that allow the complex relationships and layered characters shine bright, sequences that embrace the hyperactive violence of the setting with an almost Tarantino-esque flare- every single cutscene in the Wolfenstein games is a spectacle.
RYU GA GOTOKU STUDIOS (YAKUZA, JUDGMENT)
If you were to just pass a casual glance at any cutscene from the Yakuza or Judgment games, you would be confused about RGG Studios’ placement on this list. It makes sense- on a surface level, the cutscenes look silly, overacted, and over-the-top. However, when you view them in context of the games, they become a lot more potent and effective. Matching the tone of the games, their characters, and their stories perfectly, the cutscenes manage to straddle the line between being serious and high stakes, and goofy and silly all at once. That they do it so well and so consistently without inducing any whiplash is ultimately what makes RGG Studios masters of the craft.
You must have seen this one coming. Pretty much everything that Atlus’ P-Studio has touched over the last couple of decades has turned to gold (or crimson gold, or purple gold), and that stands true for their games’ cutscenes as well. Just look at Persona 5, for instance- it’s hyper-stylized anime in the best way possible. Every cutscene is full of flourishes, every major moment punctuated perfectly by crescendos of hype-inducing music, every line of dialogue delivered with just the right oomph. That shouldn’t be surprising, either. Seeing as even the game’s most insignificant menu screens are bursting with almost excessive personality, it makes sense that so, too, are the cutscenes.
NAUGHTY DOG (THE LAST OF US, UNCHARTED)
There are few developers in the industry who can tell a story as expertly and effectively as Naughty Dog can, so of course, it follows that they make excellent cutscenes as well. And what really speaks to their talent is their ability to tailor their talent and abilities to the kind of game they’re making. Uncharted games boast high-octane, bombastic, blockbuster cutscenes, while The Last of Us goes for something much more grounded and somber, and Naughty Dog executes both with absolute perfection without fail. And of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the fact that they’re probably the best at seamlessly transitioning from cutscenes to gameplay, and vice versa.
INSOMNIAC GAMES (SPIDER-MAN, RATCHET AND CLANK)
Insomniac is probably the most well-rounded studio around right now, seeing as they deliver excellent looking games that tell great stories and are a blast to play, and do so with surprising regularity. Cutscenes in the likes of Spider-Man and Ratchet and Clank might not have the blockbuster appeal of something like Uncharted, or the overwhelming sense of style of Persona, but they’re incredibly effective at what they set out to do. Conveying everything from slick action to heart-warming character interactions to gleeful humour and so much more through cutscenes is not easy, but Insomniac’s games do it almost effortlessly.
NETHERREALM STUDIOS (MORTAL KOMBAT, INJUSTICE)
You don’t usually associate storytelling and memorable cutscenes with the fighting genre, but NetherRealm is a huge and glaring exception to that rule. Mortal Kombat and Injustice are both extremely focused on telling chaotic and gleefully over-the-top stories, and the studio’s stylish, slick cutscenes fit that tone perfectly. Whether you’re looking at the unexpected fights and interactions of the most iconic DC characters or the shockingly brutal violence that Mortal Kombat characters always indulge in, cutscenes crafted by NetherRealm never miss the mark. Of course, it helps that every single one of their games looks so darn good.
SIE SANTA MONICA STUDIO (GOD OF WAR)
The two eras of God of War are extremely different from each other- one is over-the-top and constantly revels in it, and the other, newer era is thoughtful and intimate. It really says something about SIE Santa Monica is storytellers that they’ve succeeded at both styles in such impressive fashion. The series’ cutscenes have gone from the adrenaline-fueled highs of fighting literal titans against sweeping backgrounds of staggering scale, to the diametrically opposed cinematics of the 2018 game, with its one-shot camera and extremely zoomed in style, and yet each method has been equally effective. We can’t wait to see where the series goes next.
KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS (METAL GEAR SOLID, DEATH STRANDING)
Okay, so Kojima’s cutscenes are not without their failings. Often, they make no sense. Often, they’re unbelievably stupid. Often, characters talk the way no real human has ever spoken before, and hopefully never will. Often, they’re bogged down by excessive, heavy-handed exposition. All of these things are true. Clearly, they’re not consistent. But when they’re good, they’re so good. Hideo Kojima has never hidden his love for cinema and filmmaking, and he takes every chance he gets to show that off in his games. Across Metal Gear Solid and Death Stranding, he and his team have crafted some truly stunning cutscenes that invoke memorable imagery. Sure, not all of his cutscenes are winners, but the ones that are have stayed with us long after we first witnessed them.
SQUARE ENIX (FINAL FANTASY)
Final Fantasy storytelling is a crossroads where over-the-top anime direction and typical blockbuster cinematic flare meet. Managing both those approaches simultaneously within a single experience can be a challenging task, given how unique they are from one another, but Square Enix does it time and time again with Final Fantasy. 2020’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake is the perfect example of that, and though the game’s cutscenes are certainly not perfect (the excessive and unnecessary grunts and noises the characters make can be more than a little infuriating at times), there’s little doubt that at their best, cutscenes in the game (and the series as a whole) are spectacular affairs.