Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Ignoring the fourth wall: The problem with video game cutscenes

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say almost all gamers regard gameplay over story. Sure, story is important - I've put down games because the plot has been so woefully executed I couldn't bring myself to go on, and I've struggled through mediocre gamplay because I've been invested in the story.

However, if I could only have one thing in a video game - good gameplay or a good story - I'd definitely lean towards the former.

It is a good thing, too, because the scripts of many (not all) video games still need a lot of work. The bar is set much lower than it is in film in a lot of cases, and so appalling dialogue and devices can often be gotten away with. Also, if I play another game with a character named "McGuffin", I swear to God...

Just as it took some time for television to mature in terms of storytelling, so it has taken video games. I say "has", because I honestly feel that we are at the cusp of the medium becoming much more meaningful as the industry opens up towards more artistic projects.

Of course, you could come back at me and ask me how I can say such a thing when plots like that of Duke Nukem Forever exist, and I'd say this just proves my analogy - for every Jersey Shore, there is a Breaking Bad.

So, if we are sitting so close to the edge - and perhaps have passed it before - what is holding a bulk of the industry back? It is an obsession with being "cinematic".

Cutscenes can be a great tool when used right. Sometimes, this is the best way to advance the story: giving the player a brief reprieve from action to sit back and watch something unfold in front of them. The familiarity with cinema makes it easy to digest, and overall it is a rather straight-forward, tried-and-true method of storytelling.

However, video games can offer a lot more. The interactive element (ya know, playing the game) isn't found in film or literature. So, why aren't more developers focusing on meaning-making and storytelling through gameplay?

That isn't to say there aren't games that are. The Elder Scolls series relies on the player exploring, reading documents and finding hidden areas to develop the game's rich backstory, and Metal Gear - while a very cutscene heavy series - hit the nail on the head with the codec system, allowing players the option of how much more of the story and characters they wanted. Hell, you can play Metal Gear Solid without saying a word to Nastasha Romanenko, and I've spoken to a number of people who never found out about a certain character's family history in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater because they didn't pursue the radio conversations.

But even Kojima dropped the ball. While Metal Gear Solid 1,2 and 3 featured a lot of cutscenes, I don't think anyone was prepared for MGS4's assault. On my last count, there is about 9 hours of cutscenes all up - generally poorly made, with boring shots, a plot-line that confuses itself more than a few times, and some pretty heinous dialogue.

Bottom line? If the player is putting down the controller for an hour and a half to watch cutscenes that move at the pace of a paralysed snail, that's bad game design. (I still love you Kojima).

The problem is, even a lot of fantastic games that are out currently are taking control away from the player in favour of more cinematic actions. As much as I loved Uncharted and The Last of Us, I couldn't help but sometimes feel control was taken away from me when I engaged in melee combat. Seeing a more detailed take-down is cool, but I don't feel like I'm doing it. The same goes for Deus Ex: Human Revolution's melee combat system which, to be honest, baffled me.

At the end of the day, it would be difficult and unnecessary, to completely escape the use of cutscenes or cinematic storytelling in video games, and I'm not saying designers should. Often times, I find the most rewarding experiences are those that tie in with the cinematic experience. I'm not talking about Quick time events (which should die a slow and painful death), but malleable conversations such as those in Mass Effect, where the player's actions here have real effects on the game's story and outcome. The series still makes great use of cutscenes and cinematic framing, but the player feels a lot more in control of Commander Shephard than one may Dante.

It's not really about spurring the influence of cinema or literature - I'd be a hypocrite for saying that, considering my favourite titles usually wear said influences on their sleeves - but video games offer a new dimension to the storytelling paradigm. As a game designer and storyteller, why wouldn't you want to explore it?

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