Games are an interactive medium. It's a medium defined by how you interact with it, and still games regularly employ periods of non-interactive entertainment akin to movies, commonly referred to as "cutscenes" or "cinematics". Many games feature cinematic cutscenes on par with most Hollywood movies. Of course, games aren't movies, right? Well, games are a lot like movies, and borrow heavily from them, so it's not entirely correct to say "games aren't movies". Rather, they branch off from movies whilst adding another dimension to its structure, and we should understand that distinction.
Many reject games like The Walking Dead
and Metal Gear Solid 4
as games, because they are seen as "interactive movies" or "experiences", but not games. I believe video games can be both however, and shunning such titles narrows the scope of the medium, weakening it as a whole. If a game takes control from the player too often, this can and should be criticised, but it isn't grounds to revoke a title's status as a "video game". Titles like Max Payne 3
and Metal Gear Solid 4
take control out of the player's hands a little too often, and that can be jarring. Still, I'm hesitant to say these aren't games, I just think they fail to capitalise on what makes a game such a fantastic experience over a movie. That distinction is important to make. These are still video games, they're just flawed.
Even though games are meant to be interactive, "cinematic" is still a selling point for a lot of games, especially the triple 'A' titles. Is "cinematic" a bad thing? Well, if Webster-Merriam is to be believed, the word "cinematic" means "of, relating to, suggestive of, or suitable for motion pictures or the filming of motion pictures" or simply "filmed and presented as a motion picture". Since games aren't movies, could this be seen as a bad thing? That depends on context and execution. Let's use the big dumb chase from act two of Metal Gear Solid 4
as an example. Here, the player is involved in a motorcycle chase through the streets of a nondescript Eastern European city. When the player isn't aiming, the camera reverts to a flashy cinematic angle, which is fun to watch as a viewer, but jarring as a player. This scene is oversimplified, and doesn't require a lot of skill to complete. It feels dumbed-down all for the sake of flashy presentation, and I'm not entirely sure you have to sacrifice one for the other.
Set-pieces don't all have to be interactive cutscenes. It's important to remember that danger of failure and death raises the stakes and ultimately makes the experience more satisfying. Knowing I narrowly avoided a grisly demise by own skill is far more satisfying than having my hand held through a narrow corridor of flashy explosions and close calls. During the famous train-chase in Uncharted 2
, a helicopter comes in to ruin your day. Along the way, it blows up the train cars you're riding, forcing you to move fast. There are short cinematic moments in which the camera pans and Drake does something cool, like stick a landing, but they're there to enhance the overall presentation, and never really get in the way. In general, this could be applied to the entire Uncharted
series. Basically, the rule of thumb with these moments is to make them short and sweet.
Earlier, I mentioned "interactive cutscenes". These are unlike regular cinematics in that the player is involved in some way. However, these are often very simple, and usually not a lot effort it required; so long as the player puts in minimal participation, they will progress. These are often labelled as "cutscenes in disguise" due to their lack of interactivity, but I think that, if handled properly, they can be an effective way of engaging players. There's nothing inherently wrong with simplicity. In fact, having simpler or easier portions of your game can come as a relief, and help to properly pace the experience.
The simple act of pressing a button is enough to engage the player, because in the end, they still initiated the action, no matter how simple it is. Without going too deep into spoiler territory, I'll refer to the end of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
and the emotional climax of the third episode of The Walking Dead: The Game
, season one. In both instances, the player is forced to mercy kill someone. However, instead of watching this unfold, the game forces the player to do it, driving home that final dimension of storytelling: gameplay. Though simple, this is an effective means of making the player feel like they are truly a a part of the experience.
Interactive cutscenes can be used to emotionally engage the player moreso than a simple cutscene. Despite its over-reliance on cutscenes, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
really nails it with its famous microwave corridor sequence. During this interactive segment, Snake must crawl through a corridor radiating deadly microwaves, obviously. This challenge pushes Old Snake to the limits of his mental and physical capacity. Of course, we don't just watch this happen. In order to push themselves through, the player must mash the "triangle" button to progress. Doing so can wear out one's fingers, which helps get across Solid Snake's struggle, in a very small and subtle way.
"Quick Time Events" or "Power Struggles" are the distant, dynamic cousin of interactive cutscenes. I know QTEs get a bad rap, but they aren't all bad. In fact, they can actually be used to good effective. Overusing them, or sticking them where they don't belong, can cause them to become a crutch, and one that will frustrate the player more than anything else.
Compare Resident Evil 4
to Resident Evil 6
. In the case of the former, the player must waggle the analogue stick and mash certain buttons in situations that require Leon to exert a lot of force. Doing this so suddenly creates a great deal of tension, as players try to physically overcome their opponent or their environment. Using this sparingly can stimulate the struggles of the player character. The latter example, Resident Evil 6
, fails in this regard, asking the player to preform these simplistic, menial button-presses far too often. The difference here is that, with the former, "Quick Time Events" were used to complement the gameplay. In the case of the latter, they served as a substitute for it.
Many are quick to brush QTEs aside, but they have their place. In God of War, this is done to complement the combat. After defeating say, a Minotaur, the player gets the simple joy of ripping off their horns, with the mashing simulating a sense of struggle and triumph. In episode two of The Walking Dead, the player can overcome an enemy and end up on top of them, where they are allowed to deal a flurry of blows to their opponent. By making the player press a button for every punch, they feel more in control of these actions, and they gain a greater sense of agency in the game world, which makes this all the more cathartic.
The Last of Us
is a game manages to execute all of these reasonably well. There is a slow crawl in which an injured Joel must struggle to escape a ruined building under pursuit, which is analogous to the aforementioned microwave corridor sequence. There are also plenty of power struggles, all of which are very simple, but actually make the game more tense despite their simplicity. In addition, there are also interactive cutscenes, though these aren't used often. The first time this technique is used, Joel is being drowned by a Hunter. This cutscene is unwinnable, and Joel is ultimately saved by Ellie. Though that might sound pointless, it actually goes a long way to convey Joel's feeling of helplessness and struggle to the player. This is how an interactive cutscene should be done, to immerse and engage the player in a meaningful way that cannot be done through simply watching.
These things are all cinematic by nature. As gaming is a relatively young medium, some may be self-conscious about the use of anything that resembles a different form of art. In this respect, they will claim that cutscenes are a bad thing, because that makes them more like movies. However, consider this: is it wrong for text to appear on-screen in a movie? No, though it shouldn't be overused. Having a couple of sentences appear on-screen at a certain points can be utilised for dramatic effect (take the end of Paranormal Activity
for example), and all of the Star Wars
movies start out with a text crawl. These things are borrowed from written mediums, but that doesn't make these movies "interactive books". By that same token, whilst some might complain that a game relies on cutscenes, they probably don't have any problem with written notes and files in their game. Games combine the effectiveness of various artistic media to great affect. There's a time for all of these things, provided the developer knows how to balance them all. The player can find time to read a short story and watch a movie in between epic battles and grand adventures.
Games like The Walking Dead
and Mass Effect
donít have this same problem, since their "cutscenes" are still very much interactive. Though you may not be as involved or as in control in the game, you are still interacting with it in a meaningful way. People who say "The Walking Dead
isn't a game because "itís just a bunch of cutscenes" are really kind of missing the point. Not every part of a game has to be interactive in every facet of its existence, and every game has highs and lows in terms of interactivity. These games do not have a rigid narrative, so they let the player direct the direction of the story. Games like Uncharted 2
, The Last of Us
, and InFamous 2
, let the player handle the action, whilst most of the character and plot development (mostly handled through cut scenes in which the characters simply engage in dialogue and little else) is done through non-interactive cutscenes. Since a rigid narrative doesn't allow the player to alter the story in any way, displaying these dialogue exchanges in a more cinematic format makes the overall experience more entertaining. Either way, both methods are equally valid methods of giving the player a sense of agency.
If youíre going for a rigid narrative, a cutscene can be the most effective way to progress the plot. Forcing the player to slow down to a crawl and listen to dialogue can feel restrictive, so it may be best to do these things in a completely non-interactive way. At first, you might think that telling the player to put their controller down and simply watch something might seem even worse, but if these scenes are well-directed, and you donít go overboard, the player will view it as a reward, and a moment of rest. Here, itís perfectly fine to borrow from movies. Despite what people say, itís okay to have cinematic qualities in a video game. A game isnít a movie, true, but parts of it can be.
Interaction is ultimately what defines this medium. However, itís not the only defining characteristic. Games can deliver a wide range of interactive experiences, with highs and lows in terms of player input. Itís important to vary the experience, since games are so multi-faceted by their nature. Are cutscenes a crutch? They can be, but they arenít an inherent evil. All video games are interactive, some more than others, and carefully deciding when player input is or isnít required can make any game a much richer experience.