If it's crap ... We'll tell you
quadrilogy consists of overly dramatic short films making one wonder if Hideo Kojima actually wanted to be a Spielberg instead of a Miyamoto. Recently, however, there has been a trend of bashing games with cutscenes in the video game industry, even to the point of calling cutscenes as a total crutch for a video game. Simply put, many practitioners in playing games have decried any usage of cutscenes.
Take a game like Portal where you play a silent protagonist (one of my major peeves, but more on that on another article) trapped inside a scientific research center with a psychopathic artificial intelligence. Portal contains no cutscenes since most of the information is conveyed through the audio with the artificial intelligence narrating with pitch-perfect hilarious dialogue. Sure, additional information such as ruined security phones and abandoned slide shows hint at more of the story, but it’s not necessary to the mainstay of the plot. You do not need a cutscene within this game since the necessary information needed to enjoy the game is given through the audio. Now, let’s look at a game that uses cutscenes frequently: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (a great game, by the way). In Enslaved, you play as Monkey who must deliver fellow companion, Trip, back to her home safely. In the story, the majority of the game centers on the development of these two characters. Even though a large part of the characters’ dialogue is in-game, the game often engages in cutscenes. These are used to highlight emotions, build tension, or reveal information.
Cutscenes are a movie-inspired way of telling information effectively that total control wouldn’t allow. Conversely, movies incorporate things such as text to help story such as stating “six months later” (When Harry Met Sally) or giving a prologue that allows the audience quick and succinct information to understand the back-story (such as in the Star Wars films). Using another medium’s method of conveying information isn’t a crutch; it’s merely giving the audience a more focused method of conveying story information. If a moment in the narrative relied on a facial movement from a character or a shot of a book of matches on the table, its impact would be dramatically stripped away if a player were too busy focusing the camera on the rack of a busty waitress. In short, you can’t always trust the player with looking at the important set pieces – cutscenes allow focus.
And what exactly does the term ‘cutscene’ cover? What about the dialogue system in the Mass Effect series? Do the interactive quick-time events in Heavy Rain count, as well? By some, those mentioned games have been labeled as proprietors of ‘cutscene misuse.’ It seems like the word is just thrown about carelessly in parts where players can’t control as much as they’re used to in earlier parts of the game – and that, to this writer, seems like a backwards way of thinking. While some games rely too much on cutscenes to relay information (aforementioned Metal Gear Solid franchise) or place the most unobtainable awesome parts of the experience in cutscene form (Devil May Cry 3, recent Final Fantasy games, and, hell, let’s say it, a lot of Japanese games, etc.), cutscenes can allow a variety of abilities including, perhaps most importantly of all, focused narrative direction.
So, fellow video game enthusiasts, just remember, when you have control taken away from you for just a moment, it’s not always a bad thing.