Wednesday, 7 December 2011

"Do Games Need to Tell A Story?" Week 3 - Showing vs. Playing

 Cutscenes are probably the most popular current way to deliver story or other things deemed necessary. The thing is though, isn't too much of a good thing no longer good?

Cutscenes. If you're a gamer you've probably seen at least one in your lifetime. Hell, even if you're not a gamer you've probably still seen one in your lifetime. They're those parts of the games where you can kick back, relax (or not, but we'll get to that later), and enjoy a little narrative reward for your efforts in getting to a certain area, clearing a level, beating a boss, and so on. At least, that's what they're supposed to be. These days though, sometimes cutscenes can feel like little more than intrusive nuisances that deprive you of valuable playtime, especially if they're unskippable.

Cutscenes haven't always been used this way of course. Back in the SNES days what I would consider cutscenes made games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger all the more enticing and playable. It's hard to forget moments like the epic half hour long cinematic ending to VI, or when Chrono dies at the hands of Lavos in the Ocean Palace. Those were moments that will live with me forever, and for good reason: they are peppered into the overall story and gameplay in a way that they aren't overly abundant or intrusive. These days though, cutscenes are often found at the start of levels, the end of levels, and even sometimes peppered throughout. There can be various reasons for this: perhaps a cutscene is necessary because a player needs to overhear information without being able to disrupt the scene or wander away. Perhaps there is a case where, like Chrono dying in Chrono Trigger, the control should be wrest from the player lest they think that they can do something about it and eventually give up in frustration over trying to achieve the unachievable too many times (more on this point later).

Those can be legitimate reasons, but there are also pretty stupid and underwhelming ones to, like the game taking away control to point out the obtrusively large chest in the center of the room that you should probably open. Gee, thanks, I would have never known otherwise. Cutscenes just generally don't feel all that special or grand anymore, because they are bound not to when overused such as they are.

I'm in no way saying that a game shouldn't have cutscenes. I'm just saying that they are a tool and as such, should be used properly, not as a catch all for solving problems that you'd need to actually think about otherwise. For example, some cutscenes these days still demand player input: these Quick Time Events, or QTE's were at one point lauded as a way to keep the player in the game and make longer cutscenes more bearable. However, it seems to me that they've become so overused that people are more likely to groan than cheer when they learn that a game has them included. This is for many reasons: first of all is the fact that in general failing a QTE results in death or some drastically negative outcome like a huge chunk of life lost. Forcing players to sit through cutscenes again and again for failing to keep up with the timed inputs is the exact opposite of what most people want: they want to get back in full control of the character and carry on. Also like more traditional cutscenes, QTEs can be overimplemented, and when they are they become a burden rather than a positive.

So, how does one address this? Well, you might have noticed earlier that I said that Chrono's death was something that was deliberately out of the player's control? The thing is that's not quite strictly speaking true. The battle with Lavos before the cutscene is trigger is amazingly difficult -- so much so that a party doing it on the first playthrough would find it nearly impossible -- but Lavos can be beaten that that juncture, which yields a different ending than the one you'd get if you finished Lavos off at the very end of the narrative of the story. Giving the player some measure of control beyond simply being able to move and look around means a great deal, although in some cases moving and looking around are all that's truly necessary. That's why tomorrow I'll be talking about moments that have had great impacts on players because they actually had some control over them, rather than witnessing them in cutscenes. You can consider that the sister article and wrap up to the cutscene dilemma as well.

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