In Defense of the Videogame Cutscene
Recently, THQ’s Danny Bilson criticized videogame cutscenes in no uncertain terms, implying — with very little room for interpretation — that developers who fall back on them simply aren’t talented enough to tell a videogame story in an interactive way.
“Doing a cinematic is the failure state, that is the last resort of game storytelling,” said the Core Games VP. “Someone at EA once said to me: ‘I want to watch a movie while I’m playing a game about as much as I want to play a game while I’m watching a movie.’ It’s really not what the artform is about. As soon as you put a controller in someone’s hand they want to interact.”
Harsh words indeed for what has become an industry staple since videogames were able to display graphics with more than one color. In fact, Danny’s own stable of games — including the critically acclaimed Saints Row and Darksiders — have made heavy use of cutscenes, and will likely continue to do so. Nevertheless, what Danny says is not a new concept. Quantic Dream’s David Cage openly mocks cutscenes (while pretending that Heavy Rain isn’t full of them) and even film director Steven Spielberg has written them off as intrusive and damaging to a story’s flow. Developers and critics alike look to Half-Life as the ultimate example of what videogames need to be doing — using scripted sequences within the game itself to keep players immersed while telling a story.
While I appreciate a game without cutscenes, and count Half-Life 2 among my favorite games, I do feel that the backlash against videogame cinematics is both misguided and wholly unnecessary. In my opinion, cutscenes aren’t to be shunned and loathed like a medieval leper. Rather they should be treated like any other tool in the box — a helpful option that is not entirely needed, but may be useful when implemented in the right circumstance.
Let’s examine some games that have been thoroughly praised for their storytelling content. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater has a compelling, if slightly convoluted, tale about betrayal, patriotism and respect. It is one of the most engrossing videogames ever made, with an ending that many count among the saddest they’ve ever experienced. The Metal Gear Solid series is notorious for its frequent — and often lengthy — cutscenes, but those scenes often do things that simply aren’t possible within the scope of the game itself. Controlled camera angles and the need to make Snake do certain things at certain moments are what make some of Snake Eater’s most famous sequences effective. If players had control over the first meeting between Snake and Major Ocelot, for example, would Snake’s surprising ability to defend himself against his forces or the budding respect between them come across as successfully? Something tells me that the close-up shots, the tight direction, and the very fact that Snake was allowed to be Snake truly helped form the characters and foreshadow important events that affected the entire series.
On the reverse side, however, there is evidence in Snake Eater (spoilers incoming) that cinematics actually make gameplay more compelling. At the conclusion of the game’s final boss fight, there is a lengthy cutscene in which Snake’s mentor — The Boss — lies dying in a field, recounting her life and revealing her motivations to Snake. As the camera pans away, and we contemplate the story’s last big twist, the cinematic bars fade away and we suddenly find ourselves thrust back into the game, charged with the personal task of putting the finishing bullet into a person who just revealed that she doesn’t deserve to die. It was the wresting of control away from the player that made the return of control not only jarring, but shockingly disarming. Without cinematics, I don’t think we would have had one of the most poignant moments that gaming narrative has ever had to offer.
The Uncharted series is praised for its stunning visuals and slick “Hollywood” style approach to storytelling. Once again, without cutscenes, I don’t think that narrative would have been quite so charming. Just think of the opening to Uncharted 2, in which Nathan Drake awakens in an empty train, covered in blood, only to discover that the train is hanging vertically over the edge of a cliff. The sequence starts with a close-shot of Drake’s face as he regains consciousness. We can tell that something about the surroundings is wrong, but we can’t quite place it yet. Drake notices he’s bloody and hurting, and then gets a sense of his whereabouts. He looks out of the window to see mountains, and we can tell that the train is a wreck. Then, suddenly, some debris flies horizontally at Nathan, before the camera swings around to reveal that it wasn’t flying horizontally at all — it was falling through a carriage that is precariously dangled over a cliff.
It’s a masterfully crafted scene and an incredibly strong videogame opener. It was, again, entirely scripted and controlled by the game. Whether or not it is possible to replicate such a shocking introduction interactively, nobody can really say, but I believe it was the lack of interactivity, the fact that Naughty Dog knew what it wanted you to see and directly controlled how you saw it, that made the scene so effective.
Sometimes, a storyteller has an express vision that they want to communicate, and cutscenes are highly effective methods of doing so. There is a reason why movies require directors and cinematographers — it’s not because film making is an archaic medium that’s wasting its time with obsolete trickery. It’s because direction and cinematography are sometimes crucial in order to get the audience to focus. Sometimes you want to make your audience pay attention to a particular thing, be it a character’s subtle facial expressions or a key item within a scene. There are methods in which a player can be guided to see these things themselves, but that is not a foolproof plan, and it doesn’t guarantee that what you want to tell the player will be told in the right way.
Obviously, games without cutscenes — when done right — can be pretty evocative in their own right. Dead Space has seamlessly blended non-interactive moments into its gameplay to create a captivating exposition. More and more first-person-shooter games are using scripted moments without breaking away to keep a player involved while transmitting salient information. Games that have done away with cutscenes certainly represent terrific achievements and often succeed in providing an unrivaled measure of immersion for the player, but sometimes it is simply more beneficial — and even more practical — to utilize cinematics, particularly in genres that don’t lend themselves well to the alternative, like stealth, roleplaying and sidescrolling games.
It’s all down to what kind of game you want to be. There are some where cinematics feel like a reward for the gameplay. A cinematic can feel particularly gratifying after a stressful and difficult interactive sequence, a chance to “calm down” after a brutal play session, or a display of passive eye candy to provide “free” entertainment in payment for your hard work. Just because a developer chooses to use a cutscene, that does not represent a “failure” by any stretch of the imagination. More than likely, it just fits the style of the game better than trying to do something interactively.
This industry, seemingly more than any other, has a habit of dumping on its own past. In a world where new technology becomes rapidly obsolete, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see developers who laugh at “archaic” game design and do their best to distance themselves from tried and tested mechanics. It is often the ones who attempt to look innovative and open minded who ironically make themselves look myopic and ignorant, so quick as they are to pronounce a thing dead and failed without thinking about how “dated” game design could still be relevant in the modern arena. Danny Bilson is one of my favorite industry personalities — he has a commitment to “core” games that few other executives can boast, and THQ has had some amazing output since he took the helm. In this instance, however, I feel he did not give due credit to something that still has many and varied uses within the realm of game design.
Cutscenes aren’t the last resort of the talentless developer. In the right hands they are powerful and highly capable tools. They are just that, though — tools. You don’t have to use them, but I don’t feel anybody should be ashamed if they do. They’re just another way to tell a story, and I don’t think we should be limiting the scope of videogame narrative by automatically dismissing anything that we feel we’ve outgrown. You may think you’re broadening the scope of what a game can do when you dismiss cinematics, but when you say something cannot be done, you’re only restricting your potential choices.
It’s good to be open to new ideas, just don’t close the door on old ones.