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I Enjoy Good Cutscenes, Keep'em Coming


Relax, ye impatient gamers! Thy gameplay shall start soon, after 13 minutes!

[Spoilers for MGS4 and an early scene from Silent Hill 2. Also, this is highly opinionated and based on personal enjoyment of mentioned games.]

Recently I watched a strongly-told argument on the merit of cutscenes in videogames, linked to me by dannaz on his/her blog. TotalBiscuit informs his audience that cutscenes fundamentally disengage players from the game and turn them into spectators, something he assumes players don't want to be. He does make strong points on the stance. I've heard the "interactivity is the #1 priority in game storytelling" argument before. It's championing the signature ability of videogames as a means to do it all. In many places I actually do agree with TotalBiscuit. I understand the sentiment, but I don't consider it law.

When he says "The player expects to be the hero, that is kind of the point, that's the point of gaming in general....it was all about me being the hero, me me me" he's only drawing from his own expectations of gaming. Anything that goes against those expectations runs the risk of derailing "the point of gaming" on his terms. And most of all, he seems to be basing this on the traditional structure of action-adventures or shooters. I can say right now that I've played too many games that eschew this seemingly 90% interactive-action-threshold, yet STILL turn out compelling. 

It's true that there was a "disconnect" when Silent Hill 2's James tried to hide from Pyramid Head with his flashlight on and gun blazing, but that was the result of a moronic action and would cause disconnect in a horror movie format too. If James had done something smarter, I would've been all for it. With Bioshock Infinite, I was in full control of the protagonist the whole time, but that didn't help my connection because he was unlikeable, unsympathetic, and cutscenes wouldn't have really mattered. Final Fantasy VI, conversely, had me taking control of several characters, often switching around them. Yet they were all so endearing and sympathetic that I couldn't help but cheer them on no matter if their actions/dialogue were up to me or linearly set in a well-directed cutscene. If a game has the confidence that it'll lead me along one of the best stories ever, in a linear manner, then by all means! That doesn't mean it shows laziness or incompetence, especially in a gameplay engine designed to focus on walking and slashing evil things.

Goddammit James....

"I want different things from shooters than I want from RPGs". This is genre expectation, and classifying game genres is already mega-subjective, what with hybrid titles experimenting all over the place now. He even acknowledges this as a curious case with Mass Effect. But by this logic, hypothetically what happens to the girl who buys ME expecting it to fit the 3rd person shooter genre she loves? She's going to flip out at all the hours of pace-breaking dialogue and cutscenes that she didn't expect out of the game. What happens to the boy who buys ME expecting it to be an RPG, and ends up with "WTF I didn't ask for Gears of War in my dramatic role-playing game!"
The man who buys ME not expecting anything genre-wise will get the most satisfaction for what it is as a whole. It executes its downtime "cutscenes" with smart writing & finesse (even though the paragon/renegade system could be better) and its shooting isn't bad either.

"You will enjoy this entire game without dual-analog, because we make it work" -Retro

Pidgeonholing genres into what they can/can't be made out of limits the industry's creative range, especially since genres aren't and shouldn't written in stone anyways. When developers have the balls to break these imaginary chains and gamers decide to open their arms wider, we get stuff like Metroid Prime: a genre-bending 1st-person game with shooting that doesn't control like an FPS and is not 95% about shooting. Hence the never-ending debate on its official (ha!) classification. But nearly everything it does, it does excellent...unless you come into it from a strict FPS perspective in which case you ruin it for yourself on those terms.

Likewise, pidgeonholing videogames into what they can/can't tell their stories with limits the industry's creative range. And likewise, when developers have the balls to break this imaginary priority, and gamers open their arms, we get stuff like Metal Gear Solid: a medium-bending title that doesn't give a damn about prioritizing cinematics or interactivity. Hence the love-it or hate-it status especially with ludology-purist gamers. I'd argue it does nearly everything excellent...unless you come into it from a strict Interactivity perspective in which case the game butchers itself on those terms.

You either hated this sequence for being a meaningless show, or you loved it because it was just plain awesome.

He also says "We seem to be losing what makes a good story in a videogame versus a good story in a TV series or movie, it is not the same. Principles are being applied from movies that are not actually relevant in videogames." I can't agree on that in absolution. There are fundamental storytelling techniques and tools that totally have the ability to carry over to different mediums and still have impact, provided they're handled well. The use of theater actors for fiction plays has been carried over to fiction films, the 3-act structure you learn in theater class can work in a book or film's story, the 1st-person narration of some literature has been utilized in noir film. And of course, film's signature camera work can and has effectively been used to enhanced many games.

When film was introduced, it was all about the "motion picture", and the communication of things through a purely visual means in the frame with time passing. Fast-forward to movies like The Jazz Singer featuring audible synchronized talking, and the realm of possibilities in film opened up considerably. Some people were naturally nervous about films losing their perceived identity as "motion pictures", because pictures don't talk. If a picture is worth a thousand words, why do we need them to fall back on actual words?  "Grrrr we don't need no audible dialogue! Now they just be copying plays, they don't know how it's supposed to be done!"

A game that practically champions the idea of emotion through interactivity, still uses emotional noninteractive cutscenes.

As you can guess, I think audible synched dialogue is pretty freakin' relevant in movies now. Nobody loses their cool when we hear live actors yell, sing, whine, beg, and flirt in front of the camera. Nobody says "go back to theater where you're actually relevant." People are still impressed when you can visually show/communicate something of course, but nobody I know by now wants synched sound discouraged across the whole medium.

"Games do not look better than movies...why on Earth would you try to draw that comparison...a cutscene will never look as good as it would in a movie" is once again a point well-established within the context of Max Payne 3, but doesn't account for all games. A Naughty Dog PS3 game may look better to some than a grainy 1940s movie for example. And yet, this means nothing when it comes to overall impact of a technically inferior scene. A 1940s movie may pack more punch than a modern film with similar themes. Snake and friends have had plenty of cutscenes that absolutely destroy comparable action films in emotional weight, yet the MGS games as they are can only have existed on a gaming platform.

They could've made any of these non-dialogue scenes interactive even within Brawl's sidescrolling engine. That doesn't mean they'd be as well-animated, stylish, humorous, or charming though, especially with said engine.

Sometimes works of art are "forced" into the gaming realm by virtue of containing ANY bit of interactivity that a DVD remote can't provide. That doesn't mean that a title with 90% cinematic or novel-like sections is automatically a bad game. It all hinges on the effectiveness and uniqueness of the final product. Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations is my favorite DS game ever and has a very low interaction rate relative to its manga/anime-like scenes. Games like these feature good writing and cutscenes presented mostly in a linear manner, and use the tools of interactivity to put a twist on the tale. Just because a title feels like a book/movie much of the time doesn't mean it actually CAN be a book/movie. The minute you place interactive elements as part of the structure of your visual piece, you probably will have to call it a game. But you shouldn't be obligated by the almighty Videogame gods to use interactive elements any more than you should.

I think the final battle of MGS4 exemplifies what the Metal Gear Solid series has done for cinematic games, and why its fans have loved it for what TotalBiscuit may dismiss. From a cynical view, it is an unnecessary choreographed cutscene fight immediately preceding the interactive fight, and only the latter should be relevant in a game space. It's true that the cinematic first half could've been completely deleted and affected nothing of the plot, but personally I wouldn't have traded it for anything....not even paltry quicktime prompts for the sake of interactivity. The way the blows gradually synch up, the sweeping pace of the camera shots, the pain and determination on their faces, and the perfect timing of the music are just some of the feels that interactive sequences (as of now) cannot provide. And yet, MGS4 lets you have your cake AND ice cream, because the cutscene fight beautifully concludes with the growth of health bars and transitions into a nostalgia-fueled interactive duel. It's Kojima saying "This series is tied down by neither movies nor games; this uses both indiscriminately and you loved every minute of it." The cutscene fight may not have affected the plotline, but it affected the mood and by extension the entire battle.

TotalBiscuit claims "if a game has solid enough mechanics, I'm gonna enjoy it regardless of the story" (Doom)..... yet I can also claim that if a game has a solid enough story, I'm gonna enjoy it regardless of the mechanics (Silent Hill 2). TotalBiscuit neglects to mention the latter and goes so far as to say that Max Payne 3 is straight-up "not a good videogame" as a result of failing to let you "experience the story at your own pace, on your own terms as the player - not as the viewer". Maybe the game just plain sucks.

This has been quite a long-winded counterpoint in order to essentially say "do whatever works", but the important thing to take away is that we should learn to accept the presence of established narrative techniques that cross medial boundaries, because our favorite mediums are blending together anyways through technology. A ludology-purist may not consider the Ace Attorney series to be his cup of tea, but he cannot deny that the franchise has a loving fanbase and simply wouldn't be the same in old-fashioned anime format.

You could give me 10 more minutes of this guy and I wouldn't be complaining.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the release of Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid. Both of these titles were lauded for their narrative, yet on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. The Half-Life games accomplished their storytelling in TotalBiscuit's ideal way, so why is it even possible that I became more attached to the Metal Gear storyline despite its insistence that I put the controller down 40% of the time? I think it has more to do with the fundamental content of the narratives than the origin of their techniques. It could be that my fingers aren't itching to control my character (or simply press something) at all times. If I can passively watch AND enjoy the content of a disc spinning in my DVD player, then I can do the same for a disc spinning in my Playstation. As long as it's good.

It's great to encourage the unique abilities of gaming's signature contribution to the world of art, but we mustn't get so caught up in the advocacy that we discourage or even condemn the mere usage of older, proven techniques.
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About kingsharkboione of us since 3:29 AM on 07.06.2011

I like action-adventures, RPGs, fighters, and platformers most of all. All genres are open to me as long as the game is good.