Tuesday, 26 April 2011

In Defense Of Cutscenes

...I like cutscenes in video games.

No, I don't know what is wrong with me. Or why I am "teh GAYZ", as I imagine would be the typical reaction if I could think of anyone else who liked cutscenes in video games. Perhaps it would help if I re-iterate:

I like GOOD cutscenes.
Pictured: A damn good cutscene. Think games are art? You pretty much have this to thank for that.

I don't like unskippable, badly-acted, quick-time event, Resident Evil 5, free time-destroying travesties. I like being able to put the controller down and see a little movie as a treat, maybe to learn about the characters and situation in a way I couldn't when I was in control. Maybe see a dramatic camera angle or the expression on a character's face that we usually don't get to see. Maybe to hear someone attempt to say something clever. Maybe to see something dramatic happen to one or more of these characters, in ways that couldn't be done with gameplay.

Ways like body-language. There's only so far you can go with canned animations.

This wouldn't bother me so much if the general reaction I came across on forums, and major websites and blogs, wasn't one of complete rejection of the idea of cutscenes. It's like there's no middle-ground, no exceptions. Nope, they all suck forever TEH EDN. When they're asked for an alternative, it's usually the same kind of hippy, give-peace-a-chance wish-fulfillment instead of something practical.  

"All games should be first-person and everything should happen to you, the player and because like dude, the Grateful Dead are fucking awesome, bro."

...Okay, I think I messed that one up. That's gotta be like, eight different stereotypes. But that honestly is an approximation of what it sounds like. People who are bad at having opinions and bad at expressing those opinions will tell you that "GAMES =/= MOVIES, GET OVER IT", as if that means anything. Air is also not cheese. How the fuck does this help the situation? What is the ideal solution? Is there even a solution?

The most common(read: only) example of this vague unicorn of an ideal game presentation anyone has ever mentioned to me was that thoroughly pulverized horse-corpse: Half-Life 2. Which is one of many games that mistakes obscuring the solutions to geometry puzzles with actually having geometry puzzles. Seriously, it's a good game, but not the first time you play it. Not by any stretch. And this is the one example people hold up time and again as how ALL VIDEO GAMES MUST BE.

(And don't say Portal. Don't even. Yes, Portal was good, and clever at times. But it was not a "Game". It was a tech-demo. It is not some fine artistic statement, the Companion Cube is an inanimate object and it's silly to delude ourselves into thinking it was this grand opus by which all other titles must be judged.)

Aside from that, I don't get a lot of other examples of games that tell a great story purely through the gameplay. Usually because story bits either never happen(Left 4 Dead), or make interesting story-bits happen in places when the player is still in "attack-mode" and looking for items and ends up missing important details(Halo). But oh, putting in a cutscene, that would make it all trite?

For an example of why trusting the player to not miss-the-point is a mistake, here's a video of the best part of the game "Bioshock", ruined by the player's inability to stop bunny-hopping and demanding the lady to give him more fetch-quest.

Could it be that maybe the only video games that can hold up without a narrative interjection are the retro(or retro-inspired) arcadey titles that were only meant to be toys in the first place?

Let me offer a few reasons why cutscenes in games are better than everyone wants to give them credit for:



They tell me when to relax for a little bit, while still engaging me with developments in the game's narrative. Maybe I want to be able to put the controller down for a little bit, in a way where simply Pausing would be inadequate.

It's also just good for pacing. If you make a game where you can never stop for any reason, where it's all climax all of the time and nothing in-between, you end up with Left 4 Dead. Or a film by Michael Bay.

I'd rather end up with syphilis.


We get to actually see, with our own two eyes, the main character and his comrades, his enemies and his surroundings, and this gives us some dramatic pacing that helps space out the gameplay sections(which these days are mostly just long episodes of holding down the right trigger).They point out someone or something important in a way that is easily missed when he or she can still move and look around in the corners for hidden enemies or collectible doodads.

I can't tell you how many times I have had to look for some mystical, magical object to unlock some Plot Door, that the game though was in plain sight and so easy to find that only an idiot would have trouble with it, and come up empty. This is infuriating. Modern games without cutscenes essentially punish the player for not having a psychic connection into the developer's minds, when it comes to how they're -supposed- to progress through a given stage.  Failure should be due to player error, not because the game was built to be needlessly vague. Cutscenes circumvent this problem entirely.


This is not always a bad thing. This has led to some of the more nail-biting moments in recent video games. Yes, even the mediocre stuff is improved by this.

Even terrible games can be improved with the right cutscene!

Before that cutscene, I was Sgt. Badass, blowing up bad guys with some sort of rocket-launcher/cat-firing weapon of some sort(as I call it: "The Catling Gun"). A cutscene reminds us that while WE may be invincible, while we, the human interacting with the plastic buttons my have read GameFAQS and know all of the best moves and cheat codes, that the character is still vulnerable. And that with all of the power at our disposal, there's only so much we can do to protect him or her.

And then I stop thinking that the main character, who I'm supposed to sympathize with, is invincible all of the time. I start to think maybe he could get killed in the next cutscene. That makes the game more exciting than just making me fight TWO Dick-Monsters at the same time.

"Emile" here laughs in response to a traumatized civilian in "Halo:Reach". This is the best part of the game. For months I tried to figure out what that laugh could have meant. Recently I remembered hearing about how some people laugh as a defense mechanism against traumatic or troubling situations. You don't get that kind of insight into a character when they're shouting: "RELOADING!"



They're the best way of telling me that I have cleared a room of all hostile presence. No, having the angry battle music fade out is not enough sometimes. And there is such a thing as having too many cutscenes, I will admit. But it's a hell of a lot better than when I'm supposed to be paying attention to something the game wants me to look at and be all moved by, but because there are still enemies in the area, and possibly more that I can't see, I'm still in Attack Mode. I'm too distracted trying to make sure I don't have to start at the last checkpoint to care if that civilian ship blows up to my left. A cutscene ensures that never happens, and that my focus is always on where the developer intended it to be.


In-game circumstantial storytelling, like cryptic clues and audio files tell a story... but not the story. It fleshes out the background, but leaves the foreground looking pale and 1-dimensional in comparison. And isn't the foreground supposed to be the most important part?

(The reason Bioshock worked as an exception is because you slowly became intimately involved with what was going on in the background, which then became the foreground.)

And honestly? Non-invasive, circumstantial storytelling has just as much of a hit-or-miss ratio as cutscenes. The reason the audio tapes in Halo 3 ODST worked("Sadie's Story"), as opposed to the "Hey, we know big words!" easter eggs in Reach is because Reach's collectible side-story didn't tell the story I came to see. Environmental storytelling only tells the story of the environment. I came to hear the story of the people who occupy that space. Those verbose, perplexing secret communications didn't tell the story of the main characters, or anything that I have to concern myself with. In ODST, I was emotionally invested in Sadie's Story because eventually your character DOES play a small part in it. The Rookie becomes involved, and because it now means something to him, it means something to me.

(This is also why the writing on the walls in Left 4 Dead never worked for me. Maybe if throughout the campaign you tracked the progress of the same guy writing updated messages, only to find he suffered a grisly fate before you got there. Or maybe if you met him, and it didn't turn out so well for him. Think of how awesome the Church Guy encounter would have been if you met him at the end, and if you'd kind of known him from his graffiti messages leading up to that.)

And the most important thing to consider:



I hear too often that the game itself should be the reward. I disagree. The gameplay should be one of several rewards. I think a cutscene at the end of a long and arduous battle can be something to look forward to. Maybe something cool or interesting happens, maybe a new development in the story can occur.


People say cutscenes are bad for video games because the ones they've seen were badly acted, or badly written. This is snapping Occam's Razor clean in half. A bad vehicle segment in one game does not mean Racing Games are an inherently terrible concept. A few bad apples do not spoil every bunch that has been or ever will be. Yes, annoying cutscenes deserve the flak they get. Their existence alone does not invalidate the worth of every other non-interactive cinematic in every game, until the end of time.

People say cutscenes need to go, because you can't skip some of them, in certain games under specific circumstances. Everyone hates those, no one is going to argue that we should have to hear Nathan Drake display the personality of wet cardboard every single time, even if they're just plowing through the game, maybe trying to get uh... whatever the Playstation equivalent of Achievements are.

But let's be honest here: Is having to press a button to skip a cutscene really some unforgivable, fun-destroying sin? I understand. Sometimes I just want to get right into the action too. Maybe I've seen that cutscene a bunch of times before and I don't want to have to sit through it again. But if the simple act of pressing the A button is too much for you, how the heck are you going to handle the fight against the Rocket Whores of Planet Hooge'bahwlz once the game part has loaded up?

Did we all suddenly forget what this medium is called? Just in case any of you forgot, they're called:


As in, moving pictures + interactive entertainment. Basically, a 'Movie Toy'. As in, a compromise between a flat-out feature film, and a Ninja Turtles playset. And I'm supposed to believe that removing half of what makes this hobby interesting is supposed to make them better? If you are that determined to enjoy only the game aspect, without any of that pesky video, try a board-game. Monopoly's nice. Or maybe Clue. Or Battleship. No cutscenes there(although you do have to wait your turn. Those bastards are Parker Bros. are like that. They should really change it so that all you have to do is bang your dick against the board until one of the game pieces is launched into your opponent's eye.)

Do you want to hear what my biggest complaint about modern games is? There aren't ENOUGH cutscenes. I'm being completely serious here. Those are the only parts where game developers want to tell any story these days. Halo: Reach would have been a decent, sci-fi adventure romp if it had only devoted more of its cutscenes to its characters and their interactions instead of explosions. The best part of the original Left 4 Dead was the opening cinematic. You can see developers flirt with the idea of a plot that focuses on the main cast in these mini-movies, and for what it's worth I think it could work. But they don't give you enough of them, and so we don't get to see or hear from the cast as much as we should, and so their in-game events have very little emotional impact because hey, I barely knew these guys.

And it's the same with more and more games these days. It's like it's a taboo to use cutscenes these days. This is bullshit. Developers are often inspired by movies. Why would they be unafraid to take influence from movies and then be visibly ashamed if they used a few tricks from those things they love? I say, in for a penny...

Are there better ways to tell a story in a video game? Perhaps. But how far does your head have to be lodged up your lower intestine to think that a game mechanic that makes the plot clearer to the player is always a tawdry indulgence? Or that spending more time and money developing more levels is a more practical application of storytelling?

Can anyone reading this seriously think of a way that games that used cutscenes effectively would be better off without them?



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