TL;DR: Are Cutscenes Counterintuitive to Games?

Posted By: In: Blog On: 23 Jan

TL;DR: Are Cutscenes Counterintuitive to Games?

(Disclaimer: The following is an editorial based solely on my own experiences and feelings, and does not represent the opinions of anyone other than myself.)

Once activities are repeated enough and find their way into the routine of life, they become customs.  Customs agreed upon by communities are then passed down through generations and become traditions.  Traditions in turn find their way into the present day and are unquestionably grandfathered in simply because “that’s just the way it is.”  Buying a freshly cut Christmas tree.  The Lambeau Leap.  The expression that “boys will be boys.”  All of these are examples of things that need to change as society evolves.  (Seriously, people, it IS excessive celebration.)  Another time-honored tradition that seems well in tact is the in-game cinematic, or cutscene.  Granted, it is a much more recent example than any of the previous ones, but technology evolves much faster than anything else so it stands to reason it belongs in the same category.

While cutscenes did, for a time, serve an important purpose; whether it was to further the narrative, introduce players to a new environment, or simply show off impressive CG cinematics, they have since outlived their usefulness.  With the advanced AI and graphics this and future generations of consoles provide, the cutscene now feels unnecessary by literally pulling gamers out of the action.  Such an abrupt detachment from our sense of immersion during gameplay disrupts the flow of action.  Also, as most gamers know, most action-oriented games require a certain rhythm, a feel for the controls that one must acquire.  The last thing a player wants is to be taken out of the action while they’re right in the zone, watch a cutscene featuring a powerful new foe/boss, then be thrust right back into combat having to deal with a more difficult challenge.

As previously mentioned, graphics and AI have improved greatly as video games surged through the 90’s and into today’s next-gen market.  Where cutscenes were once needed to showcase amazing technological feats and animations, most games can now accomplish such things using the in-game engine.  While it’s certainly not easy to build a blockbuster franchise like Uncharted or God of War, as technology improves it will become more affordable for companies to create giant set pieces that shift and evolve as stages progress.  So, if a game can already handle such impressive spectacles during gameplay segments, why take the controller out of the player’s hands?  Yes, these games referenced have cutscenes, but with some clever transitions combined with the epic-in-scope levels they already provide there is no longer a need for them.

Hopefully God of War: Ascension relies on it's in-game engine to tell the story

Hopefully God of War: Ascension relies on it’s in-game engine to tell the story

Game companies are clearly struggling with this issue as well.  Look at the introduction of Quick Time Events (QTEs) into many modern games.  What started out as an attempt to keep the player immersed in the experience has become something of a large annoyance to many gamers.  Overlooking the fact that QTEs are often frustrating and poorly implemented, it’s more imperative to focus on the fact that they make little sense from a gameplay standpoint.  If you’re going to stop the action to show a cutscene, a gamer will automatically assume that means it’s time to break focus and subconsciously switch to a more passive level of concentration.  Why then would anyone want to see button prompts flash across the screen, taking their eyes off of the actual action, while the character performs an amazing finisher or acrobatic stunt?  If the point was to show the player something cool that they themselves can’t perform during gameplay, why direct their focus to the sides of the screen or even worse, down at their controller? It’s disruptive to the experience, especially for new players unfamiliar with their console.  This design choice both undermines the entire point of a cutscene while simultaneously giving credibility to the idea that such events should take place within the flow of gameplay, leaving only a singular reason remaining for the inclusion of cutscenes: Focusing the narrative.

If a game needs a cutscene to convey story or drive the narrative in a certain direction, here’s a newsflash: They’re doing something wrong.  For proof, just turn to some Game of The Year winners and all around fantastic franchises such as BioShock and The Elder Scrolls.  These games have no need for cutscenes because the story is in-game, suurounding the player. It’s found in dialogue and character interactions, in books and audio tapes, as well as in interactive cinematics that leave the player in control of the character.  No one would dispute that these games offer amazing, fleshed out stories and the real beauty here is that the entire thing unfolds in-game.  This type of design and storytelling is also perfect because it allows the player to consume as much story and immerse themselves in as much of the experience as they choose to, but that’s a topic for another day.

It’s a safe bet to assume some will contest or outright protest the destruction of such a longstanding (in tech years) tradition, so perhaps there’s a fair compromise to be had.  Instead of outright dropping the use of cutscenes entirely, they could be better utilized by being placed as bookends at the beginning and end of a game.  This in effect eases the player into the game and gives him a proper setup to the story the way a developer intends and then serves to give the game a finite conclusion, again, as intended.  However, everything in between should be as interactive and immersive as possible.  After all, interaction is the one thing that separates this medium from all other popular forms of entertainment.

Agree? Disagree? Feel the sudden urge to punch a wall or pull out your hair?  Before doing something destructive, share your comments below.  The best way to make a difference is by opening up a dialogue and sharing your thoughts.  Also, please note I’m simply trying to open up a discussion, and am not in any way intending to attack those who may enjoy cutscenes.  I’m simply looking to hear your thoughts while simultaneously sharing a few of my own.

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  1. Cutscenes in-game are most useful in drawing players’ attention to something specific or important. In that respect, I’d like to see them preserved; not, however, in the form of a mid-game movie every time you enter a new area. It’s also important, to me at least, that the cutscene segways into whatever point of view the game is played from. Respect for those two guidelines, and what you’ve mentioned here, could keep them tasteful and continue to enrich the experience.

    Comment by Jay McCallum / 23 Jan / 12:13 pm
  2. Nothing is more annoying than a cutscene. if im playing a game, its because i want interactivity, if i wanted to watch something, thats what youtube and tv are there for.

    Comment by Kael Hernandez / 23 Jan / 12:18 pm
  3. Cutscenes, to me, are really great for pushing the narrative forward. There are many RPG’s that often after several hours of grinding or puzzles, putting the controller down to watch the cinematic is nice. In this time you’re still progressing the game forward without having to do anything for a few minutes, and have new facts thrown at you. Personally, in games such as the Final Fantasy series, these cinematics have always seemed important, though sometimes long winded. The Elder scroll and Bioshock games, do give you this seamless gameplay moments, but during these times you cannot perform many actions, you’re given a cutscene without the stereotypical break.

    Comment by FuskerQQ / 23 Jan / 12:40 pm
  4. Some pretty diverse opinions with the comments so far, which is admittedly exactly what I was hoping for in order to have a solid discussion. I would personally like to see more games adopt the approach of running any mid-game cutscenes with the in-game engine, allowing the player to move around and manipulate objects during whatever is happening outside the player’s control.

    Perhaps an interesting game to develop would be one that focuses on the dynamic of strategizing a plan of attack or escape route during long-winded dialogues or even antagonist monologues. I could see the next game in the Arkham series taking a cue from the various Batman TV series’ where he keeps the villain talking while he worms his way out of whatever trap they’ve caught him in. If the game can keep me interacting with the experience in even a small way, it would be an improvement over the traditional “drop the controller and watch this” mentality of cutscenes.

    Comment by Vinny Parisi / 24 Jan / 12:06 pm
  5. I think cutscenes are what makes a character what they are. Sure enough their in-game dialogue lets you get to know a little about them; but a good cutscene really allows the game developer to portray emotion through body language, facial expressions etc. Allow me to give a couple of examples: Skyrim for a start. Great game, very fun to play, but the dragonborn has close to no personality whatsoever (probably also owing to the fact they have no real dialogue). Another one being Left 4 Dead; this is an interesting case because if you dig deep enough you can see that valve really has characterized them very well. But you don’t get all this lovely information through the game itself. I believe if you want to make the story of a game truly engrossing, you need cutscenes.

    Comment by Blob / 24 Jan / 11:02 pm
  6. You have some good thoughts here, but allow me to play devil’s advocate. You say that cutscenes are where we learn the most about our characters and really tap into their emotional core. So far, I must agree simply because that’s always been the case. You also believe a game “needs” cutscenes to make for a truly engrossing and immersive experience.

    But doesn’t the fact that you feel a game needs cutscenes simply mean the developers are doing a poor job of communicating these things during the actual gameplay? You cite Skyrim and Left 4 Dead as examples of games where the central characters offer little personality outside of the narrative-focused cutscenes. I say this is exactly the problem. Why should we need to rely on cutscenes when games should be able to tell us everything we need to know about character personalities and push the narrative forward through in-game interactions. BioShock gives us audio files to listen to while we explore Rapture, Arkham City has “patient interviews”, and Skyrim uses books to flesh out lore and backstory, but I think we can push things further. In this generation, and especially looking ahead to the next one, games are powerful enough to render things like body language and facial expressions in-game.

    I fear developers may be getting complacent and using cutscenes as an excuse to not have to tell any sort of story or provide any names to the generic faces of our protagonists while we’re simply “shooting things from point A to point B.” Games have the unique ability to really engage their audience, and I think if we want people outside the gaming world to really appreciate the beauty of this industry, we need to do a better job of blending emotionally engaging experiences into the game itself. If the only time we care about our characters or narrative is during non-interactive cutscenes, than we’re really no better than a movie or TV show.

    Comment by Vinny Parisi / 25 Jan / 11:39 am

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