Cinematography in video game cutscenes:

Opening cutscene – F.E.A.R.

22 March, 2020

F.E.A.R. is an FPS title that hit shelves during a time of significant cultural and technological shift in the PC action gaming space. Try saying that with a mouthful. Of cheese. Stilton.

Released in 2005, it entered the consumer consciousness when Western Cinema’s obsession with remaking, (mostly) butchering and over-marketing Japanese ‘creepy-children’ horror movies was in merciful decline. Much to Jimmy Savile’s disappointment. I assume.

By this point, these movies had scraped the proverbial barrel of iconography and narrative tropes to the point of transparency.

Of them all, F.E.A.R. most closely resembles (thematically and visually) Gore Verbinski’s 2002 take on Hideo Nakata’s, Ring. As such, it wouldn’t surprise me if these similarities effectively dated and quantified the game’s content (in the minds of the broader audience) at a mere glance. This is an audience whom by this point, could be forgiven for believing they had seen it all before.

Truth be told, they hadn’t.

The new standard in FPS storytelling and presentation

Despite abounding similarities in tone, mood and colour palette, F.E.A.R. is very much its own beast. The game followed Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 among others, in a wave of FPS titles that beckoned in a new era of expectation and production value for the genre.

Developers were comfortable implementing more organic storytelling following 1998’s Half-Life. Directx 9 pixel shaders had recently liberated and empowered artists to truly realise their visions. Scripted and non-scripted AI was fundamentally changing how narrative and gameplay design was approached.

Because of these innovations, games were truly starting to rival cinema as a business. That they’d target a cinematic level of presentation was not only viable, but expected.

It’s in this respect that I would argue F.E.A.R. truly surpasses its counterparts and it wastes no time in making that case for itself.

Because the opening cutscene is friggin’ boss.

Spoilers ahead.

Story continues below...

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Cold, creepy, brutal and wonderfully lit. This was in 2005.

Cold, creepy, brutal and wonderfully lit. This was in 2005.

F.E.A.R. what you hear

It’s worth mentioning that no small portion of this cutscene’s quality is down to the audio design. Because it’s great.

The naturalistic, ambient soundtrack diametrically opposes the clinical, corporate aesthetic of the visuals. Nevertheless, the two are unified in the cool temperature they elicit. Likewise in the movements of the camera, which sway with the gradual pulse of the music.

Sound effects are sparse and evenly spread across the duration of the cutscene.

They serve a very specific purpose in enunciating events that clash with the general tone of the piece.

Disturbing the peace

For the most part, the visuals and sound are calm and peaceful. But when a character gets his neck sliced, we hear it loudly. When an army of cloned soldiers wakes up (because let’s not forget – this is a video game), it’s to an ethereal scream and the sound of gun clips locking into place. The concluding sight of one man literally eating another is narrated by chunks of juicy flesh being torn apart.

These effects don’t blend into the general soundscape created by the music. They are designed to stand out, to announce and highlight key developments in the scene. They are intrinsically bound to the game’s narrative and tone, ensuring that what we hear, see and understand are connected at a fundamental level.

Discussing this aspect in much more detail would really take this beyond the context of cinematography.

I just want to make it clear that the sound design is thoroughly boss and goes a long way in establishing a cold, haunting tone. A tone which distinguishes F.E.A.R. from similar titles and continues throughout the game’s duration.

F.E.A.R. is in the eye of the beholder

Thematic and literal framing

Once the text has finished being boring, the first visual element we see is important both thematically and as a framing device – an eye.

The crux of F.E.A.R.’s story hinges around the telepathic link between a number of its characters. As much is literally stated in a line of dialog which follows this cutscene. Subtlety takes a bit of a backseat for the rest of the game.

Distinguishing what exists before the player character’s actual eye rather than just within their mind’s eye, is a thread tugged on by the story, gameplay and overall presentation throughout.

Stating this so explicitly in the opening seconds does more than just hit the audience with an abstract, striking image. It visualises a thematic principle that is at the core of F.E.A.R.’s identity.

In respect of framing, it introduces a pair of visual guides. These roughly follow the circumference of the pupil and the area within which a ghostly apparition begins to materialise.

Furthermore, the width of the outer circle and height of the inner, loosely line up with the Rule of Thirds.

Pupil

The edge of the pupil works as an effective framing device.

Combining thirds and centralised composition

The Rule of Thirds is a tried and tested principle in photographic composition.

Essentially, imagine a grid overlaying an image, comprising three rows of equal height and three columns of equal width. Framing subjects and points of interest along these guidelines and their points of intersection, typically makes for more balanced, pleasing images.

This is in contrast to central-based composition, which frames its subject right in the middle.

That’s not to say centralised composition cannot work. F.E.A.R.’s opening cutscene implements it effectively in a number of shots. But even in such cases, the surrounding geometry and/or characters are composed symmetrically and along these guiding lines. The Rule of Thirds remains in effect.

Because of this, in frame elements are naturally balanced and neatly compliment the central subject.

What’s this got to do with the eye thingy?

Like I say, these are fairly common guides for composing images. Neither are unique to F.E.A.R. or its approach to visual storytelling, though I would argue they were hardly widespread in FPS gaming circa 2005.

What is a little more unique, is how strictly F.E.A.R. continues to employ the circular guides it establishes with the opening shot of the eye.

Various characters, props and environmental details sit directly upon, or very close to these circles, in addition to their general adherence to the rule of thirds.

To demonstrate this, I took a ton of random screenshots from throughout the cutscene. I then overlayed these circles. Many (not all) frames feature elements that sit within or along these guides.

Even the lists of developer names who worked on the game:

FEAR composition

Many characters or environmental shapes follow this curvature closely.

Familiarity through consistency

This consistency is important in establishing the game’s style of presentation and effectively communicating with the player. The approach can also be felt during some gameplay sequences, as well as later cutscenes which are viewed from the player character’s perspective.

Out of interest, I took a look at some of these instances from throughout the game. I wanted to see if adherence to these circular guides continued.

Indeed they do.

Cohesion in visual storytelling

F.E.A.R.’s cutscenes move fairly seamlessly in and out of its gameplay segments, rather than disrupt them. This would not be the case if camera framing and movements were distinctly different to how they feel during gameplay.

For example, Halo: Combat Evolved’s cutscenes feature a distinct shift in style, tone and transition from the core gameplay. They stand out as bookends to a chapter, as structural milestones in the unfolding narrative rather than a cohesive part of a unified approach to storytelling. It’s by no means bad, it’s just different.

The key to making it work in F.E.A.R. is consistency. This consistency is established throughout this entire cutscene and from pretty much the moment it begins.

Were there other games around this time that used the same approach to framing? Probably. But I don’t think many laid it out so explicitly. Nor do I think they built a connection between a framing device and thematic visual.

But then, maybe I’m just seeing stuff that isn’t actually there.

Like when I see my cat’s affection for me, deep in their eyes.

Anyway, back to the actual cutscene.

F.E.A.R. of the dark

Living in light

Horror games generally employ liberal use of darkness. Resident Evil, Alone In The Dark, System Shock and Silent Hill are all prime examples.

But the lighting in F.E.A.R.’s opening cutscene is far more reminiscent of what you might expect to see in science fiction or a political thriller. Sure, it’s not a horror game in quite the same way these are, but it’s no less committed to gore, scares or playing with mankind’s innate fear of the shadows.

Doom 3 released some twelve months before F.E.A.R. and in many ways, embodied everything you’d expect to see in a horror-themed FPS.

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Doom 3's cutscenes take a distinctly different approach to lighting.

Doom 3's cutscenes take a distinctly different approach to lighting.

More neutral and more natural.

I actually forgot how great that cutscene from Doom 3 is. I’ll talk about that one next. Admit it – you can’t wait.

While F.E.A.R.’s lighting might not be as dramatically impressive, its more naturalisic approach is no less effective or immersive.

Very little of its opening cutscene gets hidden in darkness. It’s far more careful and specific about what light and shade are used for, than Doom 3 is.

Shadows that drape across a character’s body, as their own cast against a concrete wall. Strobing alarms that illuminate a cheek and spacious backdrop to comparable effect.

They all bring life to every frame without ever having to scream at the audience “Look at me, aren’t I pretty?”.

F.E.A.R.’s has no time for such insecurity. It’s too busy bossing every pixel on screen.

F.E.A.R.'s opening cutscene features a range of shades and use of light and shadow which we simply weren't used to in games of its ilk.

F.E.A.R.'s opening cutscene features a range of shades and use of light and shadow which we simply weren't used to in games of its ilk.

Not your conventional horror colourscheme

This disinterest in 2000s’ gaming horror conventions continues with F.E.A.R.’s use of colour. It omits intense, vivid tones and gorey, aggressive reds in favour of a more neutral, earthy palette.

I’d almost describe it as mundane and that’s not a criticism. It’s an important component in establishing a feeling of believability. It seeks to dispel any trace of the fantastic, theatrical or indulgent.

F.E.A.R. game colour palette

An example of the cool, earthy colour palette employed by F.E.A.R.

It evokes comparisons with Wally Pfister’s work in Christopher Nolan’s movies. The Dark Knight and Inception especially. Both incorporate colour into their storytelling, whilst being grounded in reality.

By the end of the cutscene, the variety of colours inframe has increased and so too have the levels of saturation. It’s almost as if the central character’s progression and awakening is reflected in the gradual intensifying of colour.

What’s also commonplace by this point, is the use of red. Streaks and splatters of blood contrast starkly with those well established tones we’ve gotten used to. The soft, neutral palette has become a canvas upon which expressions of violence and anger are stains.

The blood isn’t a gimmick or a reward. It doesn’t blend comfortably with the other colours. Rather, it breaks the serenity of the palette in much the same way the sound effects break that of the music.

By all accounts, it is a fairly uncomfortable thing to witness.

Quality in clarity

Finally, there’s a refreshing absence of effects, either special or related to the camera.

Today, a horror game just isn’t a horror game without an obnoxious amount of chromatic aberration, gritty filters, lens flair and motion blur clouding the actual content.

Not that Jupiter Ex (the edition of Monolith’s propreitary Lithtech Engine used by F.E.A.R.) isn’t capable of many of the above.

The game made effective use of volumetric lighting, parallax maps and depth of field in addition to many features considered game-changers in the early noughties. Its particle effects were especially impressive and frankly, years ahead of their time in terms of how they’d bring a scene to life.

F.E.A.R. game particle effects

Muzzle flair. Sparks. Debris. Clouds of blood and smoke. You’d forgive Monolith Productions for wanting to show all this stuff off in the opening seconds, but their restraint benefits both the audience and the game.

F.E.A.R. – Saying more by showing less

In 2005, a game could sell purely on the basis of its graphical capabilities. That so much of what F.E.A.R. can do is kept out of its opening cutscene, is testament to the authenticity of the team’s vision and their commitment to realising it.

There are no melodramatic shafts of light to build an immediate sense of atmosphere. Not once is depth of field implemented to show how cinematic the game can look. Only what is absolutely necessary to establishing the tone and key components of the narrative are used.

The result is a video game cutscene which is effortlessly confident, undeniably dramatic and has stood the test of time in the fifteen years that have followed. Unlike literally anything in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Shots fired – I guarantee you that JJ Abrams felt that sick burn.

Only in the final few seconds, does the cutscene really indulge it's more conventional horror inspirations.

Only in the final few seconds, does the cutscene really indulge it's more conventional horror inspirations.

An incredible opening to an ultimately forgettable plot

As strong as I feel this opening is, it wasn’t the first to exist in an FPS with such strong cinematic inspirations. The aforementioned Halo: Combat Evolved boasted some great sequences of its own some four years prior. By 2005, Rockstar Games was ‘redefining cinematic expectations’ on an annual basis.

And F.E.A.R. certainly isn’t an especially widely remembered game. When I do witness people reminiscing, it’s rarely about this particular sequence.

It probably doesn’t help that while the game’s standards in presentation remain high throughout, the story itself gets a bit muddled and confusing.

Now, I appreciate that effective horror often depends on a healthy degree of ambiguity.

I also concede that twenty one year old me was probably quite thick.

Regardless, very little of the plot seemed coherent or built on clear narrative key points. Really, precious little of what follows this introduction has remained steadfast in my memory.

Besides the utterly euphoric combat.

Failed by the future

It definitely won’t have helped that future entries in the series took a serious nose dive in quality. Single-player expansions F.E.A.R. Extraction Point and F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate are inconsistent in terms of quality. The first direct sequel, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is a competent shooter in its own right, but suffers from a complete lack of innovation or presence of anything that made the first truly special.

The third game is shit. Just shit.

So perhaps if the series had done better, the first game and its opening cutscene maybe more widely, favourably remembered. The exact same could be said for Condemned: Criminal Origins. Though a very different experience, it released soon after F.E.A.R. having been developed by the same company and on the same engine. Similarly, the promise it showed was ultimately failed by an utterly abhorrent sequel.

Nevertheless, this cutscene remains one of my personal favourites and I maintain that the use of cinematography itself is consistently brilliant. It sets the tone for a gameplay experience that was unique at the time and has never truly been matched in the years that have followed.

Thanks for reading, please do keep an eye on my Cinematography in video game cutscenes feature if you’re interested in more breakdowns such as this.

Oh, and buy F.E.A.R.

F.E.A.R. game logo

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