Dusty Cartridge Debates: Are Cutscenes Outdated?

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There was a time when cut-scenes were deployed to reward the dedicated gamer, offering a glance into graphics of the future while providing the contextualization needed to tell a story. For some its survival has continued to be a source of reward and relaxation, while others complain it’s one of the mediums most outdated traditions. We brought in two of DC’s finest to tackle the issue – is it finally time to let the cut-scene wither into oblivion?

Team Yes – Martin Gladstone

Cut-scenes in gaming are the film equivalent of spurting minutes of narrative contextualisation at your audience. If movies are about showing your audience a story (as opposed to telling it), then games should be about playing through an experience, not watching it. For me cut-scenes are a cop-out for developers who don’t have the resources or experience to tell their narrative through gameplay. The moment they begin is the moment all the effort gone into immersing a gamer into a world is reset. The game is thieving control of your character and deciding where you will be heading next with no consideration for what you want. It’s a strange contradiction in a medium supposedly defined for having control.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think movies are less immersive than video games but that the contrast between the two is physically and interactively obvious. When a cut-scene begins all the tangible elements of the game that the player has grown accustomed to become obsolete. Then when you consider the majority of cut-scenes are unnecessary to the story surrounding it, all it really achieves is some cool CGI at the cost of stunting the gameplay.

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The Last of Us prologue, cutscenes done right.

So what could replace the job of the cutscene? We want the exposition that it provides minus the disruption of gameplay flow and lack of player control. We want to be able to control the character during that pre-recorded scene, not have some random button prompt pop up conducive to the destruction of my 46″ widescreen tv.

Some video games have replaced the gameplay stagnater well. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent the game begins with Daniel, the protagonist, briefly stumbling around a castle while mumbling to himself who he is and what he is trying to do. While the player is in control of Daniel’s stumbles the game is able to contextualize the game’s plot without creating a barrier between the narrative and the gameplay. Because Daniel’s stumbles occur in real time they feel more real, atmosphere is maintained and the connection between story and game remains seamless. Another great example is the prologue in The Last of Us. Most game developers would have seen fit to relay those opening 15 minutes to a cut-scene, but Naughty Dog instead opted to throw control in the player’s hands via Sarah. The effect this has is it builds a tangible connection between the narrative and the gamer. It’s not just a recording of events that took place years ago but one that you play an active role in.

How do you project emotion in your hero then if the game is told without any cut-scenes? The answer, to some unfortunately, is you don’t. A video game while cinematic, is not a movie, and should not rely on film techniques to connect with its audience. The advantages of this medium is it allows players to sink themselves into the skin of their protagonists, drawing forth emotions much deeper than those achieved in the cinema. Gone Home is a perfect example of this. We never see Kaitlin’s reaction to her sister’s situation because it would create an instant disconnect between player and protagonist. When I felt joy for the game’s ending it was because I was allowed to experience my protagonist’s plight in my own way, not have it shoved in front of my face like a movie.

Play, don’t show, is the key message here.

Team No – Justin Reynolds

Cut-scenes have always been a crucial part of storytelling in games. In previous generations the mechanic was implemented to present the player with knowledge and experience that were made impossible by hardware limitations during gameplay. Regardless of their logistical function, most cut-scenes have served a unified purpose: story.

Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds and developers are now able to do a lot more during gameplay than ever before. Why pull the player out of the experience if you don’t have to? And I agree. Nothing is worse than having gameplay chopped up with dialogue that could have been easily presented while the player had control of the game. However cut-scenes have the opportunity to convey emotions that would otherwise be disregarded if the player was still in complete control of their character – and in many instances only able to see them from behind. Developers can now present emotion through complex facial expressions and body language. If the player forgets to hold up on the analog stick for just one second, recognizing how the protagonist responds to a cry for help or the loss of a comrade, it would be no less than a tragedy.

The cut-scenes of today present less of a roadblock in the gaming experience than they used to. With the near abolishment of loading screens, players can now experience the surprise and pleasure of a cut-scene by shifting in a camera angle to seamlessly pop them into gameplay. That being said, if we are to do away with cut-scenes all together, we are stripping away something that is not only an effective technique in storytelling, but also a device that has shaped the very way we as gamers play games.

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*Puts down controller for 45 minutes.*

In today’s game market the player rarely has a chance to sit back. Quick-time-events and other interactive features have been added to our modern cut-scenes, and it’s rare for the player to be able to put the controller down and take it all in. Even franchises once known for including lengthy cut-scenes, like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy, have now added interactive elements to their previously passive story telling devices. Gone are the days of successfully conquering a boss and dropping the controller to raise your hands, wiping the palm sweat on your pants, then downing a glass of water. Now you have to keep hold of the controller just in case there’s one last quick time event or one more timed dialogue decision. You can’t kick your feet up anymore, and even some credit sequences have opportunities to interact with the game.

This interaction isn’t bad, but I frequently find myself missing the days when I could just put down the controller and take a bite of pizza. Every time I start a new game I’m left wondering if the game has passive cut-scenes or if I’ll need to keep the controller glued to my hands. I miss knowing that certain cut-scenes would require no effort on my part aside from watching and listening, and I don’t want to give up what little fraction of that experience we have left.

Let's Hear From You!

So where do you stand on cutscenes? Think they’re still relevant in the world of gaming or are they just a prehistoric narrative device of the past? Drop down in the comments below and let us know!
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