This is a list of the best cutscenes in the history of video games. Great cutscenes don’t just interrupt the gameplay. They deliver truly cinematic storytelling, helping create immersive and complex narratives unique to gaming. These scenes don’t just move the plot along; they can take throwaway characters and turn them into the target of a thousand cosplayers.
There’s always a plenty of dissent amongst gamers about the real purpose of a cutscene. Naysayers will argue that bad video game cutscenes just make the player jam buttons until they skip them and get back to the gameplay. Ideally, a video game intro video should introduce the player to the world of the game and cutscenes should even out the pacing of a game, strengthening the player’s connection to the narrative, as well as their enjoyment of the gameplay. A rad final cinematic is always nice too.
In the future, video game developers may make cutscenes so good that they won’t even have to be skippable, because no one would ever want to skip them. But they’d still be skippable because everyone hates unskippable cutscenes.
Until then, we have this list of the finest cutscenes in video game history, from Pac-Man’s main squeeze to Mass Effect mega-controversy.
Halo 2 was a marked improvement upon its predecessor, one that gave a bit more heft to its story. This results in blockbuster moments such as this one, which could be the climax of a huge action movie: Master Chief requests permission to leave the ship. Why? Well, he wants to give the Covenant their bomb back.
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 may go down as one of the greatest RPGs ever designed, and it certainly has an epic story that’s excellently helped along by slick cutscenes. Commander Shepard (you) dies, is brought back to life with some upgrades, and is tasked with building a team who will go on a literal suicide mission on the other side of a relay where no one has ever returned. Now watch them return (FemShep for life, by the way).
Ron Perlman’s unmistakably gravelly voice immediately puts you in the world of Fallout with the first two sentences: “War. War never changes.” And thus was one of the greatest game series in history born. Here are cutscenes from the first three games, which lay out the entire world before sending you on your way.
One of the more controversial cutscenes out there, BioShock Infinite‘s ending is a work of art. Not only does it bring the story full circle satisfyingly, it also slyly comments on the very nature of gameplay and game design itself, something the series has been known to do since “a slave obeys.”
Mass Effect 3
Why was the debate about ending options to Mass Effect 3 so fierce? Opinions ran so deep because everything that lead up to the ending hit so hard. This moment early in the game, for example, where Commander Shepard witnesses the devastation of planet Earth, seeing images that burn into her brain forever – all set to the haunting sounds of Clint Mansell’s beautiful score (related: FemShep for life).
Final Fantasy VII
Before Sony started putting numbers on Playstations, back when the Squares were Soft and not Enix, Final Fantasy wowed the world with its three-disc seventh entry. That opening cinematic starts with Aerith before pulling out to reveal the city of Midgar before pulling back in on a train, causing fits of, “OH WOW IS THIS THE GAME? AM I PLAYING A MOVIE?!” among players everywhere. The graphics may have aged, but this intro still holds a special place in the heart of every RPG gamer.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
When the Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time opens, it opens with a nightmare, but at the time of its release it was also a dream come true: Link and Zelda in a three dimensional world for the first time. The cut-scene opens dramatically. A ravaging storm. The gates of Hyrule Castle. Zelda escaping on a horse. The first meeting of Link and his enemy Ganondorf.
Link may have awoken from that nightmare, but this cutscene was only the beginning of a truly epic adventure.
Portal’s end credits are better than the entirety of most other games. The credits sequence takes the tone of the entire game, turns it on its head, and makes the player laugh out all of the brain cells they used to solve all the puzzles. It solidifies GlaDOS as one of the most interesting, terrifying, hilarious characters, not just in video games, but in the last couple decades of pop culture. There’s also a really catchy song, which is always welcome.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
You wouldn’t think that a bunch of random characters who don’t really talk would make for the best cutscenes, but Nintendo really nailed it with Smash Bros Brawl. The best of these Smash Bros. cutscenes take advantage of nostalgia, play with expectations, and have a little too much Kirby for some reason. If someone could start an online petition to have the people who do the cutscenes for Smash Bros. make a reboot of Captain N: The Game Master, that would be rad, thanks.
Really all the Diablo II opening needed to be was a guy saying “Click your mouse a bunch and say goodbye to your job, relationships, good grades, and anything else you used to care about!”
But Blizzard said, “No, we’ll make a totally metal opening movie.” It tells the timeless tale of a dude getting drunk in a bar and meeting someone who may or may not be a demon. A bunch of fire demons and skeletons pop out and destroy the bar, pretty much guaranteeing that any other patrons are gonna go home and write bad Yelp reviews. “Great night out soured by bad service/a lot of demons. Spent the next year clicking a mouse button to kill them and make them drop mad loot. 3 out of 5 stars.”
God of War III
And then there’s God of War III. While many great cutscenes are intricate and affecting, this cutscene is not. Not at all. Instead, it aims for awesome and explodes the target. Who needs complexity when you’ve got Kratos literally ripping the head off of ex-God Helios?
You never forget your first. A B-movie in a different medium, Resident Evil eased gamers into the experience with a live-action cinematic introduction that really could’ve had better actors. While it looks laughably goofy now, it was utterly terrifying in 1996. At the time, it was unprecedented. And it marked the beginning of whole the survival horror genre.
Resident Evil 2
Upping the ante on graphics/gameplay and ditching the live-action shtick of its predecessor, Resident Evil 2 brought a lot more depth to this series. Even if the characters are sometimes on the nose, they’re compelling enough to wring some real emotion out of gamers.Just one example is the death of Ada Wong, the shadowy operative who had a tense relationship with Leon Kennedy.
Gears of War 3
In the third installment of the bro-iest bro game that ever bro’d, without warning, there’s an incredibly affecting and heartbreaking cinematic saying goodbye to a comrade that’s been by your side for the whole game. It comes from out of nowhere. It’s all done to the piano track of “Mad World,” which was cruelly used in trailers. So as soon as you hear it in the game, you know exactly what’s going to happen and that you can do absolutely nothing to stop it.
Silent Hill 2
A conclusion in what’s still considered the best entry in the series, Silent Hill 2‘s “Leave” ending puts you through the emotional wringer. James, the character you’ve been controlling all along, realizes the horrible things he’s done and why everything has been happening to him. It’s completely devastating.
Assassin’s Creed III
There are plenty of cutscenes to love in the Assassin’s Creed, which is one of the most cinematic game franchises ever developed. Great cutscenes can actually be tough to pick because they’re all so seamlessly integrated into the game. But this scene in Assassin’s Creed III, where Ratonhnhaké:ton chases and shoots Charles Lee is standout. After all, Ratonhnhaké:ton then shares a drink with Lee as both men bleed profusely. Then he shoves a dagger in Lee’s heart. Talk about cinematic.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
The Max Payne series is all about making video games out of film noir tropes, cranking them up to 11 in the process. And it’s ridiculously successful. There are a lot of cutscenes to choose from (including the meta “I’m in a video game” cutscene), but we’d be remiss if we didn’t pick the heartbreaking death of Mona Sax, one of the more complex female characters ever created for a video game.
Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger
Wing Commander III’s cutscenes had everything a gamer in 1994 wanted: Cat people, awesome special effects, and that guy who played Luke Skywalker. Hollywood would make a full-blown Wing Commander movie starring Freddy Prinze Jr. five years later, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good as the cutscenes in Wing Commander III. At the time, these cutscenes were so mind-blowing that players weren’t even sad when they found out Wing Commander was about space combat, not a guy who managed a chicken wing restaurant.
Ms. Pac-Man makes it onto this list of the best video game cutscenes because it is the first game to have cutscenes. Ever. They didn’t need full motion video or motion capture or voice acting. All Ms. Pac-Man needed was the love story between a circle and another circle with a bow on it.
Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War
The introduction to Descent: FreeSpace immediately gave us chills and opened up a world of possibilities that the rest of the game proceeded to deliver on a regular basis. The scene dramatically hints at the power of an unknown enemy, focusing on the terrified expression of a pilot to convey the gravity of the threat and the brutality of the war to come.
Before TEAM ICO brought us the hulking beasts of Shadow of the Colossus and the never-actually-going-to-be-released cat-bird-thing of The Last Guardian, they introduced their unique creative style with Ico. The opening cutscene, devoid of any text or dialogue, quickly acquaints the player with the tone and emotion of the game, giving them an excellent lead-in to the adventure that is about to begin.