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The End of the Cutscene

/ Jul 26th, 2012 2 Comments

Femshep FTW

Femshep FTW

Good Ol’ Dialogue Choices

Video games are an interactive medium. While that statement may feel obvious to the point of banality, consider for a moment how often game developers have ignored that fact in the past. Xenosaga and its sequels often made the player sit through hour-long cutscenes. Expect to spend half of Metal Gear Solid 4 watching, albeit with some very limited and generally superfluous interactivity. As long as video games have had dialogue, they have had meaningless responses that fail to even change more than the next sentence of dialogue. However, the fact remains that no matter how well the designers write the story, a video game is not a movie, so it should not act like one. Luckily, we can already see a movement forming against these antiquated devices and methods of yesteryear. Video games will take the unparalleled interactivity inherent in the medium and develop into artistic experiences inimitable via other forms of art. In other words—pardon the trite cliché—video games will need to be themselves.

The universal domination of video game storytelling by the methods of film came as no surprise. Every art form begins imitating its predecessors while the creators, critics and general public try to figure out what exactly this new toy does. Early films amounted to little more than plays. Television shows mimicked vaudeville and theatre. The earliest literature imitated the forms of spoken poetry. Each of these mediums only thrived in an artistic sense once it took command of its unique capabilities. Until then, no one except for a few oddballs and diehard fans will take the medium’s artistic merit seriously.

As mentioned before, video gaming seems incredibly close to reaching that point. At the vanguard of this movement stands Mass Effect. This series created a new standard in interactivity via the unprecedented amount of customization and choice given to the player throughout the series. Perhaps because the players and industry realize how much they enjoy the greater interaction between them and the game, the gamer community has taken to lambasting any games that lack such player control (even the Mass Effect series itself when the ending left them feeling cheated). Even overall positive reviews of Final Fantasy XIII lambasted the lack of choice or interaction between game and audience. Because of this backlash, Square-Enix has begun to move away from the linear, movie-like stories of the past Final Fantasy games in the subsequent XIII-2 and promises even more in the long-awaited Versus XIII. Atlus’s recent Catherine and earlier Persona 3 and 4 further reinforced the importance of player choice in shaping the story of each game, showing that Japan can change with the times as well.

A game does not even need immense amounts of dialogue or complicated plots to tell a story interactively. Dark Souls stands out as an example of how to do so on a more subtle level. The entire environment and all of the characters create a feeling of isolation. The immense, empty ruins and forest surround you at all times. Everything–even plants–might try to kill you.  You can occasionally receive help from outside sources, but such assistance is fleeting and leaves you vulnerable to invasions from players far deadlier than any monster. The NPCs in the hub area will all either betray you or turn into mindless undead without warning. Players are trained to distrust everything and everyone and constantly worry about whatever terrible death lies around the corner. At no point does the game feel it necessary to explicitly say, “You are completely alone,” but it does not need to; the interactions between the player and game elicit the feeling.

Other methods we have started to see are interactive cutscenes, some of which have begun to blur the line between cutscene and gameplay. Heavy Rain made an entire game out of such quicktime events that combined with permanent deaths to give the events a sense of immediacy and draw the player emotionally into the action. The infamous knife fight in Resident Evil 4 had more in common with a mini-game than anything else, not to mention it realistically demonstrated the deadliness of such combat via the relentless stream of quick reactions, each one necessary to avoid death. The even more infamous microwave hallway in Metal Gear Solid 4 uses something as simple as button-mashing to make players feel at least a hint of the desperation Snake does. They start to want it as much as Snake does because nobody wants to have to redo that hallway AND the preceding cutscenes again. By the end of the hallway, the most intense button-mashing only allows Snake to weakly crawl just as the player’s fingers and thumbs start cramping up.

All these artistic methods will become the new standard in game design in coming years. Even games that strive for awesomeness instead storytelling will adopt them, much as how we find special camera techniques and effects in action blockbusters and stylistic, artsy dramas. Players demand the ability to play their games rather than watch them. Looking to the past of older art forms shows that this transition is inevitable. Looking to the present shows it has already begun.

Ethan Smith

Ethan Smith

A perpetual over-thinker, Ethan Smith spends all of his free time playing video games like an English professor reads books, writing a secret novel, and trying to actually finish a game of Medieval II: Total War.
Ethan Smith

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2 responses to “The End of the Cutscene”

  1. Jonathan Anson says:

    You did forget to mention one very important game that set the precedent for interactive cutscenes: Shenmue. That game’s unique feature of quick time events is one reason why so many games on the market like God of War, Dante’s Inferno and Dead Space included those scenes where you have to press buttons quickly or lose the game. They were all take pages from Shenmue where failure to complete such scenes didn’t just mean “game over” but could alter the way the story was told in some cases.

    • Ethan Smith says:

      Thank you for mentioning Shenmue, Jonathon. Shenmue’s groundbreaking development of quicktime deserves mention. While failing to mention Shenmue was certainly an oversight, I have not actually played the game myself, and writing about the gameplay of games I have not actually played myself feels dishonest.

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