Game Design Spotlight #16: Lost Ark's Cinematic Cutscenes Unveils Zone Depth While Staying Cohesive
The isometric perspective does more for the game's cutscenes and zones than you think.
Welcome to the 16th installment of the Game Design Spotlight! This column is your weekly dose of my analysis of game design elements across many multiplayer titles, such as Path of Exile's skill gems and the sound and environmental effects from The Cycle: Frontier. Last week, I discussed the complications of level grinding prep in Final Fantasy XI. And as for today, I'm talking a bit about Lost Ark and how its cinematic cutscenes unveil the hidden depth of zones while staying cohesive to the overall map.
Back in 2014, like so many other starving MMORPG players, I saw the first trailer for Lost Ark and was stunlocked by how visually compelling it looked for an ARPG. The vibrancy of skills and their impact alongside character movement and interactions with the environment all felt refreshing. Sadly, it took quite a while to release in the West.
Much of that initial allure faded for me with the passing years. Although, from the breadcrumb trail of trailers and footage over those years, the cinematic direction of in-game cutscenes always surprised me. Dynamic panning shots, involved player-character moments, and more pulled me deeper into Lost Ark's world. And at the same time, I thought those scenes might be overblown in between gameplay and weirdly thrown in to be cool.
After playing Lost Ark for a bit, I can say that A) they are pretty cool, and B) they can introduce new aspects of a zone, unveiling additional depth hidden from player access. Those cutscenes seemingly expand what is available to the player while maintaining a level of cohesiveness. With both combined factors, Lost Ark's story moments, exploration, and the enemies with their zones become a bit more prominent and immerse the player into its world further.
One massive benefit that isometric games have over other perspectives is the ability to mystify the limits of a zone. That means obscured pathways, hidden enemies in the environment, and other elements that betray the layout of a minimap. Lost Ark adopts many isometric characteristics but predominately ties them with its cinematic cutscenes.
The earliest example happens when players first meet the traveling priest Armen. After witnessing his miraculous powers and hopping on a carriage with him, the peaceful ride soon leads to a dangerous ambush. Here, Armen takes control of the horses and slings the carriage onto a pathway inaccessible to players.
Meanwhile, the camera hooks around his drastic maneuvers of the carriage. It follows the fleeing vehicle through a narrow road as marauders slink into the frame from surrounding rocky cliffs and overgrown bushes, raining down burning arrows. After the bumbling ride that could have gone sideways, players are looped back to where they first found Armen and must walk a different path.
I loved this method of showing dangers and providing a reason for why my character was traveling down a singular road. Early players will see this scene and realize that Lost Ark's zones are more than meets the eye. The landscapes they will discover and explore could be way bigger than a single trail would have players believe. In a way, it's an "illusion" of depth that does just enough to characterize and grow the environment.
A Breathing Landscape
On the same token, these cinematic cutscenes are building intrigue and setting the stage. That early scenario with Armen is one of many down the line. However, the in-between bits offering context to the story and leading into instanced areas are not as dynamic. But by following the quests and rolling through those cutscenes, players can experience more of the zone.
That leads players to jump across small chasms, slide down hills, and climb up rocks to explore the map. Through the trail of cutscenes, players will see more and more ways of traversing the environment that breathes life into the landscape.
A kind of life that makes the setting more than rigid pathways or a mob-infested area you have to clean out for a quest or two. Not to say Lost Ark is beyond that MMO cycle, but it feels great to tap a button and do a neat character movement that can make exploration feel unique.
What Lost Ark does really well as players get further into the game is finding ways of blurring the line between its cinematic cutscenes and gameplay. Often, these are initiated by player input or stumbled across during instanced areas. As the spectacle of whatever is happening on screen occurs, players can still control their characters while in the middle of combat or running nearby.
These "gameplay cutscenes" are my favorite because the environment usually shifts to reveal more of the zone. Crumbling architecture could give way to an underground ruin, and activating powerful artifacts may raise stone steps leading to unexplored lands. This way, you never know how exactly the map will grow. For me, that's part of the thrill of Lost Ark's cutscenes and why its zones don't feel shallow like many others in the genre.
Well, that concludes another week of the Game Design Spotlight! Are there any cinematic cutscenes from Lost Ark that left an impression on you? Let us know below! Also, feel free to comment on games or features you would like me to cover for future stories if you have any suggestions!
About the Author
Anthony Jones is a gaming journalist and late 90s kid in love with retro games and the evolution of modern gaming. He started at Mega Visions as a news reporter covering the latest announcements, rumors, and fan-made projects. FFXIV has his heart in the MMORPGs scene, but he's always excited to analyze and lose hours to ambitious and ambiguous MMOs that gamers follow.
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