Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Cutscenes Redux

Even if railroading is a must, surely there are better ways?

If you've been following this blog for a long time or been doing some archive binging then you'll know that I've talked about cutscenes before as part of story and presentation. One of the examples I gave about how things could be made better was giving the player some measure of control rather than just forcing something down their throat. A game that I thought did this well was Chrono Trigger, which had you battle Lavos at the Ocean Palace -- a difficult fight, if not downright impossible on your first playthrough, but winnable -- and if you lost the battle then Lavos kills Chrono as it attempts to annihilate the party. The reason that this is more acceptable than say, beating a boss senseless only to have the cutscene trigger and your character get blown away by a now somehow miraculously undamaged boss, is because you were given a chance to fight back.

This article, from Pikimal, got me thinking more about the latter type of cutscene, the bad, obtuse, and frankly outdated kind.

Frankly, these days thanks to a lot of the technology there isn't much that can't be done in real-time gameplay anymore; from epic set piece battles like fighting the Hydra in God of War, to games that are almost completely narrative driven and incorporate QTE's like Heavy Rain. Cutscenes used to be a way to make sure that a pivotal scene got conveyed when it might not have been feasible to have it done within the confines of playable sections. However, since there are less and less limitations these days cutscenes are more often then not used to foist control out of the player's hands in order to ensure the outcome of a given scenario.

Now, I'm not suggesting that there should be programming in place to accommodate everything that players are bound to try; it might be amusing to say, pull a shotgun and blasting a nice hole through the final bad guy the first time he shows up to gloat, but after a while it could (and will) get old. No, what I'm saying is that there can still be restraints placed (the bad guy has a forcefield, the event is only triggered when your weapons are out of ammo, so on and so forth), but that we should still have the experience of being in control of the situation whenever possible.

Speaking from personal experience, I can understand why sometimes the designers choose to force the situation beyond the realms of your control. In Devil May Cry 3 for example I always found it funny that when you fight Vergil for the first time that the cutscene that plays after you beat him shows a close fight where he actually had the upper-hand over Dante, even if I had soundly thrashed him without taking a hit. The cutscene is kind of jarring, but doing something like just having Vergil get up again and again until he beats you down wouldn't work because the game is tracking how much damage and time you're taking in the mission and giving you a grade accordingly (the highest of which of course requires no damage and a fast time).

The thing is though, that there are other solutions besides forcing a cutscene. The game could just stop tracking damage and time from the first time you defeat Vergil (or any other boss for that matter) and then just give the boss more damaging moves or greater speed or something. It might still feel forced, but at least the player is still in control.

Basically, what I'm getting at is that a cutscene should really only be used in a couple of circumstances: the most obvious being when the player character isn't present. Cutscenes that focus on other characters that aren't under your control help flesh out the story and explain motivations. Cutscenes that tend to be extra showy but at the same time not having the character do something stupid are also feasible (again, the Devil May Cry series is full of those) as long as they're used somewhat sparingly. But if you have cutscenes that only seem to inspire either "well why the hell did x do that? that's not what I'd have done" or "oh wow, that's so cool, I wish I could do that", maybe you should consider actually giving control to the players, to see what they would do, or let them actually enjoy that cool scenario. It might take more work, but it leads to an overall greater experience.


  1. This kind of reminds me of the trope Cutscene Power to the Max. Where a character is all powerful in a cutscene but totally stupid useless in actual gameplay. And that shit needs to go. Because it ruins the immersion of the player. I've always encountered these situations and gone "Why the hell can't -I- do that?"

  2. You know what strikes me as weird? How in Japanese games, seeing an anime cutscene was a reward for a job well done in the past...and now, suddenly, they're just kind of there.

    Why did Street Fighter 4 need anime cutscenes, for example? A lot of complaints were leveraged against them, saying that they were cheaply-animated and insubstantial, and Capcom could have just used the in-game engine. (They did that for the rival scenes, so it's definitely possible.) And in the Tales series, sometimes they're understandable -- like a scene in Symphonia where the giant tree goes berserk. But with graphics getting so powerful, they almost feel out of place; I always felt like in-game Yuri looked better than cutscene Yuri, when the reverse would have been true once upon a time.


    Anyway, good points. There's always going to be some level of linearity (stupid narrative consistency), but there's no need to make them quite so contradictory to player knowledge/actions.

    Still, I wonder what cutscenes will be like come next console generation. Maybe we'll be able to see individual cells?


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