Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Gamus Interuptus, or "What's With All the Cut Scenes?"

**SPOILER WARNING: I talk about several recent game releases in the latter half of this post, so if you've not played Uncharted 2, the Modern Warfare games, or the God of War series, (but plan to eventually) you'll want to avoid the area between the asterisks.

I just don't understand why people have such a problem with cut scenes in video games.

The advent of the cut scene (or "game cinematic" as it is commonly called these days) was huge way back when. The ability to see your favorite video game characters fleshed out in a well-defined way, as opposed to those heavily pixelated renderings offered to us in-game, was nothing short of mind-blowing. Even before sound effects and voice overs were prevalent, these cinematics offered an additional way to relay story elements to the player and to drive the story along.

These days, the argument has been made that cut scenes are no longer needed. Some say these cinematics are the hallmark of the last console generation (or three) and they should be abandoned so that game design can evolve further. "They break the flow of the gameplay," some cry. "They take scenes that would be fun to play through and relegates the player to the backseat," shout others.

Me? I think people are looking at this issue from the wrong angle.

Look. Games are not the only place where "flow" is broken for any number of reasons. Every time I'm forced to put down a novel I'm reading to take a phone call or go to sleep, the flow of the story is broken. Every time I have to pause a movie or TV show on DVD to tend to a pot of pasta boiling over or let the dog out, the flow is broken. Every time I'm about to hand someone their ass in a game of Clue, and someone accidentally spills a glass of Dr. Pepper across the table. . .well, you get the idea.

Video games are no different. Every time you pause a game to visit the little space marine's room or grab another can of Red Bull, you're breaking the flow of gameplay. Why should cut scenes get all the blame? (Boring, repetitive, or ridiculous game mechanics, on the other hand, should get more flak, but that's another rant for another time.)

I LOVE cut scenes. Want to know why?

I may be showing my age, here, but I love cut scenes because my hands get tired and having a reason to let go of the controller or mouse (BioWare games not withstanding, obviously) for a moment or two without having to stop the game is a HUGE comfort to me.

What? Your hands have never gotten tired while playing a game? I'll believe that when I see a porcupine book a first-class flight on Jet Blue.

The main reason I love game cinematics, though, is that some parts of a story are best told through images and sound alone. Just as in theatre there are some stories best conveyed through music and lyric,and some stories that should stay away from the Broadway musical format like a diabetic should avoid the Hershey factory, (I'm looking at you, Titanic and Saturday Night Fever), some things are best experienced when watched instead of played.


There's a moment toward the conclusion of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves where the survival of a much-beloved character is in question at the end of a particular battle. The protagonist is shaking her frantically, screaming her name, urging her to wake the hell up. . .and the screen fades to black, without giving you any clue whatsoever whether that character lived or died.

At the beginning of the next scene, our plucky hero is standing in front of a shrine with a trinket in his hand, looking pensive and chatting quietly with a friend. The fate of the missing character is still hanging there, like a shroud. The moments tick by, much is said, and still no mention of the missing party member. He places the medallion on the shrine, quietly says his farewell, and continues talking to the person standing next to him.

The seconds tick by, and you begin to fear the worst. This determined young woman whom you've become quite attached to throughout the telling of this grand adventure may be gone forever. Just as you start to rage and sob and scream in disbelief, there's the sound of an argument out of frame. Our hero turns around. . .lo and behold, there's our girl, battered and bleeding, but alive, and refusing to be coddled just because she took shrapnel from a grenade at extremely short range.

And the player lets out the breath she didn't know she was holding.


I once asked David Jaffe, the creator of the God of War franchise, why he took camera control away from the player. His answer? "We wanted to keep the pacing steady, and the best way to do that was to control where the player's eyes roamed when he entered a new area. I didn't want that frantic adrenaline rush we were building to be broken by giving the player the ability to look in every nook and cranny in a room."

I'm paraphrasing, of course, but you get the idea. As much as I hate, hate, HATE (did I mention 'hate'?) fixed cameras in games, I understood what Jaffe was going for with that decision. In other interviews, he's stated that he wanted the players to feel some of the rage and frustration Kratos was experiencing. As a storytelling device, lack of camera control definitely got the job done in that regard, because I have never, EVER screamed in absolute rage while playing a game the way I did while playing God of War.


By contrast, sometimes giving the player limited control during a scene is much more evocative than wresting control from her entirely. Two-thirds of the way through the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, you and your British SAS counterpart are betrayed by the general in charge of your operation. He offers you his hand in congratulations, and instead of a handshake, you get a high-caliber bullet at point-blank range.

You hit the ground, eyes still seeing, your vision slightly blurry. In disbelief, the player starts frantically pushing buttons, desperately hoping that there's something that can be done. The general's goons pick you up, and toss you into a hole in the ground you didn't notice before.

Then you see the cans of gasoline.

Again, the player starts slamming buttons and pulling triggers, even though you know all you can do is move your head a little bit to look into the face of the monster who is ordering his people to douse you and your teammates in flammable liquid. The same man who recruited you for this operation, the man who assured you that your work would save thousands of lives, sets your body ablaze after lighting up (yet another) cigar.

And all you can do is move your head around a bit, desperately seeking the help that will never, ever come.

Unlike that scenario in Uncharted 2 I mentioned, I all but sobbed during this scene, because I felt completely and utterly helpless. Having just that little bit of control during that sequence was enough to convey to me the hopelessness of the situation. The only way they could have driven the point home further is if the controller had the ability to heat up.


There are many ways to tell a story. No one method is necessarily better than the other, and no single method works 100% of the time. The major problem is that some franchises use cinematics as a crutch to support lackluster story and/or gameplay. (I don't really have to mentoin Metal Gear Solid 4, do I?) Just because cut scenes get overused, though, doesn't mean that cut scenes are inherently bad. The goal shouldn't be to eliminate this storytelling technique altogether; we should, instead, strive to achieve better balance between gameplay and cinematics.


Danielle said...

You know, I read this when you posted it but I never commented because... Erm. I'm not sure. But I was here anyway and thought I'd say something.

"Every time I'm forced to put down a novel I'm reading to take a phone call or go to sleep, the flow of the story is broken. Every time I have to pause a movie or TV show on DVD to tend to a pot of pasta boiling over or let the dog out, the flow is broken."

This is true, however, these are entirely out of the game developer's/novel writer's control. They add convenient chapter breaks and auto-saves so that you can choose to break the flow if you have to, but that breakage is entirely in the player's/reader's control. Cut scene-heavy games take control away from the player. It's especially bad when exciting things happen in the cut scenes, things you could very well do yourself.

I like cutscenes, for the most part, I just think there's a time and a place for them.

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