In Hollywood there is conventional wisdom that says, “Narration is bad writing.” If you can’t explain it through intrinsic means, then just throw it to a narrator so that the audience gets spoon-fed what they need to know. Films often fall on the sword of narration when back stories and changes in a protagonist can’t seem to be shoehorned in to vibrant dialogue or through subtle means.
Modern games represent an endeavor of epic storytelling and a large sum of money invested in topnotch graphics and gameplay. These stories, entire worlds filled with lore that rival even a Star Wars narrative, span multiple titles in most cases and have a great deal to tell. It is an amazing time to be a gamer as technology and creativity reach new heights together.
The Hollywood wisdom can be applied to cutscenes in video games. In my two decades of gaming I have seen the rise of the cutscene. Sure, Super Mario Bros. had its cutscenes in 8-bit, but they never interrupted gameplay. I was never on level 3-2 and wandered up to a large gap, cutting to a shot of floating bars for me to navigate to get to the other side.
Too often I think the cutscene is becoming the voiceover of the gaming world. Instead of letting me infer the tension I should be feeling, or letting the music and atmosphere guide my pulse, I am treated to a cutscene as my character wanders in to a cavern or the climax of a particular chapter. As one moment of tension passes and leads into the next glorious firefight or twist in the story, my controls are switched to autopilot so that I might be clubbed over the head with some revelation or setup to the next climax in the action.
I am a fan of stories, don’t get me wrong, but leaving something to the player’s interpretation is a glorious part of great filmmaking that needs come over to the gaming medium. Great films don’t spell it out. They don’t have neat little endings, and they certainly never tell you what it is you should already know.
Games have taken it upon themselves to simplify and capsulate for the player. Never mind that we might be intelligent enough to draw our own conclusions, we need our story delivered in Flintstone chewable form. Often times, we can’t even skip a cutscene. Some go on for minutes as we wait to get back in to the game.
The serious problem with cutscenes is what it does that runs contrary to gaming: It takes us out of the game. Video games are a participatory medium where we are an integral part of the story unfolding. No game stars some peripheral character that dies 15 minutes in. It stars the mythical protagonist and we take on whole galaxies to save this or avert disaster from that. A cutscene takes the gamer from participant to viewer, and if all I am doing is watching a moment I should be playing, I might as well just surf over to Netflix.
I am not saying that cutscenes don’t have their place. Narration has its place. I can think of plenty of films where narration was a key part of what made a film good. It seems to be a great tool, but too often it gets abused by hack writers in cheap scripts.
A cutscene can be a valuable tool for pushing a story along, as long as it is used sparingly, and not as the sole mode of transportation for a story.
Take for instance the plight of COD: Anything. The story progresses exclusively through cutscenes. They’re not even cutscenes, they’re load screens disguised as cutscenes. Good, honest, cheap thrills akin to playing a Michael Bay film. Fine. You’re going to appeal to the avid action junky who doesn’t really care about the why as much as the action.
Then there are incredible narratives found in games like Mass Effect: Anything and the Elder Scrolls series of games whose most recent entry of Skyrim is one of the best universes out there in gaming. There are countless other including Bioshock and Fallout 3 who prided themselves on telling great stories through play. Hell, you started as a baby in Fallout and grew up. Now that’s a story. It wasn’t told through a myriad of cutscenes. You learned about the world by interacting and letting the story unfold as you lived in the world. This is the where the subtlety comes in to play. I feel like I am discovering the story, not being told a story.
I know what you’re saying. “Wes, those are RPGs while COD is a shooter. They’re different.” Well, how about the Gears of War trilogy–soon to become a quadralogy (?)–which as a shooter told an epic story. It used cutscenes well. One of those games that benefited from cutscenes.
An example of a game with too many cutscenes that take you out of the game and make you almost just a viewer? The Assassin’s Creed series. I am currently running through Brotherhood and I am inundated with cutscenes sometimes only seconds apart. I know that there is a lot going on, and a lot for me to know, but I want to play the game, not watch it. Is there no other way to tell this story than with 30-second clips every time I get to a marker? With such an inventive storyline filled with myth and legend, you’d think the creators would figure out a way to get the story across through interaction that doesn’t lead to watching me talk to Machiavelli ad nauseam.
I love gaming, and I love most of all a story told in a participatory fashion where I seek out the next climax, not have it handed to me. As narration can be cheap, so can cutscenes. I understand that there are good and bad examples for both, but I am seeing a trend to well-rendered graphics and cutscenes replacing in-game discovery. I picked up the controller to be a part of something–hence the “control” aspect–and I want to control the story as much as the character. Leave the cutscenes to games that get 5’s and 7’s and triple-A titles need to get back to the gaming part of things: Let me be a participant, not a viewer. I paid $60 to play, not watch. If I want to spend hours just watching, I’ll pay $8.50 and go watch Michael Bay ruin another toy from my childhood.