A Moratorium On Cutscenes

By Jim Rossignol on November 29th, 2007 at 9:19 am.

So I was having a chat with one of RPS’ chums on MSN. We were talking about cutscenes in games. I was moaning, then:

Quinns says:
Once upon a time cutscenes were fabulous things. I ached for the CG because it was so beautiful seeing those sprites being brought to life as full 3D models.

And was that where the games industry got hooked on cutscenes? I think it was. And I also think something needs to change. [May contain mild spoilers]

I was moaning, specifically, because I had just played watch a non-gaming friend play a bunch of games that had delivered cutscene after cutscene into his unsuspecting lap. He had looked bemused, then frustrated. “When is it going to be my turn?” Finally, eventually, he played Bioshock. But we’ll come back to that in a moment.

“Cutscenes are crappy” is such an obvious rant, but I simply hadn’t realised how bad it had become: the games industry needs a moratorium on cutscenes.

Actually, I think it needs a design principle along the lines of: “Can the information in this non-interactive sequence be conveyed during an /interactive sequence/, via a voice-over, scripted scene, or text prompt? If the answer is yes, then the cutscene must be abandoned.” The answer is almost always “yes”.

A great example: is what happens with the mountain towards the end of Crysis. There isn’t a cutscene that highlights this incredible scene, you simply hear the rumbling and look up. It’s astonishingly dramatic – cinematic, even. And it’s done by you.

One of the most powerful things about Bioshock was that it only explained what it needed to explain. My gaming friend was pleased because he could get on with understanding what this weird game thing was about without either extraneous exposition, or pointless scene-setting, bogging him down. Kieron and I chuckled about this: the major cutscene in Bioshock actually turns about to be the absolute crux of the game, and the reason so many people held it up as a paragon of cleverness. But the truth is much harder than that: cutscenes are a waste of time and resources. Everyone Anyone on the side of Righteousness wants to skip them, and most people will grumble about not being able to just get on with playing. And yet still they come: laborious scene after scene. The very antithesis of a “game” somehow parastically embedded in our otherwise interactive medium.

And I should be clear about this: I don’t regard dialogue-tree sequences as ban-worthy, but simply those bookend cutscenes, the ones that take over from you and show you “story” or attempt to justify the motivations of the mushroom people. Even those sequences in which you’re deliberately trapped and controlled in first person – see Crysis and HL: Episode Two – are at fault.

There’s no reason why gaming shouldn’t try to abandon its cutscenes. We don’t need them, and I don’t believe that they’re still a “reward” for success. All the reward we need can be delivered in gaming victories, in scripted events, in clever, funny voice-overs and dialogue. The sooner game designers realise that, the better.

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99 Comments »

  1. Jachap says:

    I don’t hate cutscenes. It all depends on how well they’re done. In Red Alert, they were basically the reward you got for completing a mission and, as such, I lapped them up. They made a nice change of pace from clicking on the build tank button 200 times.

    They seemed to be mainly there to fill in where the graphics fell down. “We can’t make stuff look this cool with the game engine, so here’s some pretty FMV.”

    At the end of the HL2 Episode 2 mime sequence I was really saddened. Not because of what happened -which you can see a mile off – or the crapness of the particular enemies responsible – they really do look rubbish – but because I genuinely felt like I was owed something better by a game which, to my mind, had not put a single step wrong up to that point.

    Why the event that takes place couldn’t have been better integrated into the final attack of the combine beats me. It begs the question – instead of all that poncing about with barrel throwing civil protection officers – why the fat little chaps didn’t just fly straight up to Freeman and well… you know.

    Assassin’s Creed is intolerable, though. Its not simply that there are so, so many compulsory cut scenes but the fact that they’re all utterly humour-less. The dialogue itself is just nowhere near as clever as it clearly believes it is. Talking to the scientists is just plain boring.

    Moreover, the way you view the conversations themselves is totally representative of the rest of the game, i.e. utterly confused about what to be. The glitching-close ups suggest Ubisoft wished them to be totally cinematic but the fact you can still walk about and face in the wrong direction and jump about like a loon during them suggests they wanted to go to the totally Half Life sort of approach. They should have settled on one or the other.

    Also, literally everything with the scientists could have been conveyed better as a voice-in-your-head Deus Ex sort of thing. I mean, you’re spending all this time free running about with no-one to talk to. Do the exposition during that. Don’t stop the good stuff just so we can all sit around and basically listen to an audio tape of the back story.

    I did so love how they used that in Deus Ex. You’d forget that you were under constant surveillance then Alec Shepherd would be all like, “Woah, JC! Why did you kill all those NSF puppies? I think you just crossed the line!” or that little picture of Walton Simmons would pop up: “What an expensive mistake you turned out to be.”

    It didn’t hurt that JC had such a gravelly awesome voice too. Altair is just a whining anachronism.

    As another comparison, in NOLF there were extraordinarily long conversations between guards and the like that I would listen to all the way through, they were that awesome.

    Like Kieron says: games need more funny.

    This is pretty long. Sorry. I had loads more to say on the matter than I thought. I also slightly amended (i.e. changed completely) my opinion halfway through.

  2. EMPty=IRL= says:

    My personal opinion is that in game cut scenes are great in FPS and crap in most other game genres.
    Out of game cut scenes though are not well suited to FPS games and better in RTS games and suchlike.
    A lot of RTS developers seem think that just because their game engines are now getting very pretty up close they can use in game cut-scenes and I think this is a mistake.

    I do want to thank RPS though for bringing this up and also everyone for having a really good mature discussion about it. This is where RPS really shines above other game sites, mature discussion with the people who write the articles.
    3 cheers for RPS.
    – ex PCG uk reader.

  3. The_B says:

    I’ll be posting about that last US level in COD4 at some point. It’s a jawdropper. Have to give it a while for for OMG SPOILZORS! stuff to die down, though.

    Excellent, I am struggling to think of any other game in which something like /that/ happens, and I thought it was incredibly brave for IW to do that to you, even despite the fact you never really get to learn much about the characters you play as other than the situation they are in at that moment. Would it have had a greater impact if you did? I have no idea – it was shocking enough.

    Hope I haven’t been too spoilery there.

  4. phuzz says:

    For me the dividing line is between compulsory and ignorable cut-scenes .
    Did you need to watch the FMV in Red-Alert? Of course not, and you could click straight past if you wanted. On the other hand sometimes you have to sit and pay attention to what you’re being told so you can get through the next mission/level. Which sometimes is about as much fun as being in a lecture.
    The worst kind of course are the completely useless and unskippable cutscenes.
    Although thinking about it, the scene in HL2:Ep2 (in the screenshot above), is both pointless from a gameplay point of view, and unskippable, but I still enjoyed it. Just goes to show, you can get away with anything if you put a gman in it.

  5. vasagi says:

    final fantasy 7 had cut-scenes that convey more than the game engine can

  6. CrashT says:

    “Everyone wants to skip them…” So can we accept that statement is inaccurate now then?

  7. vasagi says:

    yes

    click my name(unrelated)

  8. Pidesco says:

    final fantasy 7 had cut-scenes that convey more than the game engine can

    They were also mostly useless, and badly directed. Like Cloud driving down stairs with a motorbike.

  9. Jim Rossignol says:

    “Everyone wants to skip them…” So can we accept that statement is inaccurate now then?

    Yeah. Amended.

  10. vasagi says:

    SOPILER that soley depends on your idea of cool and some geezer from square’s idea

    also id mainly like to point out areis death

  11. EMPty=IRL= says:

    They were also mostly useless, and badly directed. Like Cloud driving down stairs with a motorbike.

    But none the less cool. :-D
    Tried to replay FF7 the other day though and I just couldn’t do it…it seemed quite tedious…. *engages flame shield*

  12. CrashT says:

    Yeah. Amended.

    I suppose you think that’s funny… :-p

  13. Alec Meer says:

    AERIS DIES???????!!!!!!!

  14. EMPty=IRL= says:

    Everyone Anyone on the side of Righteousness wants to skip them,…

    Nicely put….

  15. The_B says:

    Aeris is not dead, she just went home.

    Or was that Elvis, I forget…

  16. Jim Rossignol says:

    Jachap:

    Assassin’s Creed is intolerable, though. Its not simply that there are so, so many compulsory cut scenes but the fact that they’re all utterly humour-less. The dialogue itself is just nowhere near as clever as it clearly believes it is. Talking to the scientists is just plain boring.

    Indeed. One of the major reasons why I posted this piece.

    Also, it’s been pointed out to me that I could have posted “good cutscenes are quite good, you know” instead of the belligerent attack on them as a videogame institution, but that wouldn’t have been very interesting.

  17. EMPty=IRL= says:

    I named her Elvis as well…damm I am sooo original. ;-)

  18. CrashT says:

    Dear god Assassin’s Creed was just tedious. Not happy with the same basic, and not particularly appealing, game mechanic over and over again, they felt it best to include utterly dire “We’ll pretend these are interactive” scenes of people who can’t act talking about stuff nobody cares about, just to make everybody total sure that yes they had wasted their money and yes suicide was starting to look like a good option about now.

  19. Jocho says:

    I think of cut-scenes as the chocklate pudding of games. Some people love them and some people doesn’t, of course, but my thought on chocklate pudding is that it’s really good if it’s seldom and not so much, but becomes truly awful when it’s much or often. And it’s just the same with cut-scenes.

    While I played Metroid Prime 3, I had just played HL2 quite a lot, and began to think about cut-scenes, so I noticed that about half of the small cut-scenes in MP3 could’ve been cut altogether or changed to a first-person interactive scene. Some scenes, though, marked an important point to the story, and I wouldn’t have wanted to play them interactivly by any cost.

    Cut-scenes are the chocklate pudding of games.

  20. Will Tomas says:

    I like the Half-Life 2 Ep 2 cutscene, since it wouldn’t really have worked as anything else, and I think it needed the G-man after the relatively G-man free Ep 1 to reintegrate him into the narrative. Since they didn’t want you to meet him face-to-face properly, a cutscene was the only real option.

    But on principle I do rather think they’re lazy, and if it can be done outside of a cutscene it should be.

    I think Square and other Japanese developers (Koijima, I’m looking at you) tend to use cutscenes because they traditionally aren’t as interested in immersion. I get the feeling that Japanese developers feel that games are games, not virtual worlds or POV storytelling, and so don’t care about pulling the player out of the immersiveness of a game, since they aren’t too interested in putting them in there in the first place. I think that shows in the fact that some Japanese games (especially Nintendo’s) have very old-fashioned gaming conventions at the heart of them, rather than trying to give the player an illusion of actually-being-in-the-game.

  21. Will Tomas says:

    The irony of my above comment when related to what the Wii’s controls can represent for immersion is obvious, but it’s also worth pointing out that being old-fashioned in conventions doesn’t mean necessarily bad games – Mario Galaxy is wonderful it isn’t trying to make you ‘be’ Mario. Indeed, the fact you can use the pointer as well in-game keeps the player firmly outside the game world. I’d just rather they tried for more immersive Wii games as well. But this is a PC gaming site, so we can more-or-less skim over that.

  22. Dracko says:

    CrashT: Last episode of season two of House was entirely from his perspective, as I recall.

  23. Phil says:

    Anyone remember the first person perspective bit from the end of the Doom movie?

    Proof that if games possibly shouldn’t do movies, movies definitely shouldn’t do games.

    (Though I’ll admit the 1st person chainsaw vs dog demon bit was perhaps the best idea the film had).

  24. BrokenSymmetry says:

    What about cutscenes as resting points? Generally, I get tired of non-stop action pretty soon, and any cutscene is mostly welcome.

    As mentioned before in these comments, what absolutely needs to die is the unskippable cutscene before a tough boss fight.

  25. solios says:

    While I for one am sick to death of cut scenes, I’m also sick of the “scripted events” that have started to replace them. If well executed, they’re great the first time through, but if the game is solid enough, and the gameplay is fun enough, then I’ll play the game again…. and I’ll be waiting, and waiting, and stabbing buttons, and generally wanting the cut scenes and scripted events to GO AWAY, as they’re mucking up the gameplay. I’ve already “read” the story, dammit – don’t force me to “read” it again!

    Hell, I’d be happy if games started to include an unlockable “skip cut scenes” option, or – even better, especially for Square titles – a “terse” mode that cuts the exposition down to an absolute minimum so those of us who want to play games instead of “experience” interactive novels can actually play the damned game.

  26. Dracko says:

    BrokenSymmetry: Most games of quality have downtime to allow players to relax. Silence before the storm, usually.

    solios: So what you’re saying is, you don’t like badly written stories?

  27. Phil H says:

    Will Tomas – Metroid Prime 3 wasn’t immersive enough for you? And they even disguised an awesome interactive cutscene early on versus everyone’s favorite recurring boss.

    As a story whore, I lean towards liking them, even the incredibly long Metal Gear Solid ones. My only real complaint comes when I don’t have the choice to skip them, such as when I’m gaming on the go or dealing with the aforementioned cutscene of doom followed by impossible boss fight that takes too many attempts to beat.

  28. malkav11 says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to skip a cutscene the first time through (unless the only thing I was doing with the game at that particular moment was seeing if it worked.). I love them, and with a few exceptions (mostly in shooters, as previously mentioned), I’d much rather have a noninteractive cutscene than an “interactive” cutscene whose primary differences from the noninteractive variety are a) being completely unskippable, and b) allowing me to miss the cool shit because I was looking the wrong way at the time.

    Of course, a genuinely interactive scripted sequence is still neat stuff and I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible there.

    Also, pre-rendered cutscenes are still capable of looking much better than in-engine cutscenes. Even for games like Crysis. Though games that opt to go with pre-rendered in-engine cutscenes (RE4, I’m looking at you) need to be shot.

  29. Caiman says:

    Valve always does excellent and intriguing cutscenes, and furthermore knows how to pace its games (for the most part). Once I’ve gone through a stressful, adrenaline-fueled firefight, I appreciate being able to sit back for a few moments and gather my thoughts, bask in the glory, etc. I can never understand people who just want to clickclickclick past every piece of exposition so they can get on with “da shootin’”. Why not just play the entire game in a blank space with enemies coming from all around then – no needless exposition or setting to distract from the visceral gameplay! Games can be more than just shooting stuff, they can even approach art, and cutscenes done correctly can be a way of achieving this. Of course, it helps if they’re done well and it helps enormously if the writing is of a high enough standard that you care to watch. Perhaps that’s the problem.

  30. solios says:

    I can never understand people who just want to clickclickclick past every piece of exposition so they can get on with “da shootin’”.

    Second, third, fourth, etc. playthrough. It would be nice, for example, to replay Quake 4 as Just An FPS as opposed to the game thrusting cutscene after scripted scene after cut scene in my face. When all you’re in it for is to blow sh*t up, “plot” doesn’t just get in the way, it begins to undermine gameplay.

  31. Will Tomas says:

    Phil H, Metroid Prime 3, as far as the controls went, was great for immersion, but my point really was more about the mechanics that Nintendo use for game design. I’m not talking about the control system, but more things like the save system, or the immediately respawning enemies. Metroid Prime 3 gets away with outdated mechanics more than others because it’s the final game in a trilogy, but the problem is that at present there are no other game designers even attempting that kind of immersive game on that system, which would arguably be very suited to it if they could cope with the data size issues. The issue with Nintendo is more that they aren’t willing to move game mechanics (‘lives’ in Mario, Metroid’s save points, etc) on whilst doing great things in design terms on other fronts.

  32. Dracko says:

    solios, I just don’t get it for the same reason why I don’t get people who only ever want to watch their favourite scene from a movie or skip pages in a book. I don’t know if that speaks poorly about them or the chosen piece of medium.

    And most games now are divided in chapters anyway.

  33. Phil H says:

    Will – Though those didn’t break immersion for me(as both of those are consistently throughout the Metroid series), I can see your point there. And unfortunately I haven’t played nearly enough Wii games to come up with another good counter example :|

    Outside of Metroid though, I can’t really point to anything else on the Wii that strikes me as completely immersive. Part of that is that immersive and first person are strongly linked for me and anything in other perspectives cannot reach the same level of immersion.

    Out of time here though, got completely caught up in reading about something even more retarded as I was trying to come up with other Wii games.

  34. solios says:

    Dracko – if I want a story, I’ll read a book, watch a movie, go to the theater, etceteras. When I load up a game, I don’t want an interactive novel. I want a game. Which to me involves doing things other than sitting around waiting to play.

  35. Cruz says:

    Solios, I take it you lean towards multiplayer shooters then? If you want no exposition whatsoever, I can see games games such as the Battlefield series fitting your idea to the T, at least until this balance is struck.
    I doubt it ever will. No matter which way you go, someone is going to complain. I for one am a fan of such narrative devices. I’m not going to spew venom about any method, but I am very much into the idea of an interactive story. In fact, those are the games I tend to finish.

  36. solios says:

    Actually, I lean more towards gameboy/nintendo DS strategy games. My workstation (a quad G5 with four gigs of ram) plays Quake 3 and Wolfenstein : Enemy Territory well enough, but games like Doom 3, Quake 4, the various Unreals etc. perform far too clunkishly for my liking (intolerably long load times, too many cut scenes or other things that slow down gameplay, no support for my 1680×1050 display at its native rez, etc).

    I ran WET for awhile, but punkbuster doesn’t seem to get along with the mac client I was using, which severely limited server options. Nothing I’ve tried since has performed well enough to stick with, which is the main reason I bought a handheld – no load times, no patches, and there’s only so much FMV you can bog down a wee little cart with.

    Yeah, “mac gamer” may be an oxymoron… but if the single player “games” everyone’s going on about are actually FPS Novels, then it doesn’t sound like I’m missing much. Though I would love to try TF2 one of these days. No money in my budget for an Intel mac, though. :/

  37. Mr Pink says:

    A cutscene memory which is still quite fresh for me was playing Just Cause. Having completed a mission which essentially involved setting a building on top of a mountain to explode, I was fleeing the scene with it about to go up. As I reached the edge of the cliff, to jump off and parachute to safety… CUTSCENE to me jumping off with the building exploding behind me. WHY? The game has all the required mechanics for me to do the parachute jump myself. Why rob me of the glory?

  38. Ed says:

    I like some cut scenes – if they’re well done and have a point. For example, C&C’s cut scenes I’ve always liked, but they’re FMV so a bit different… I didn’t really see the point in the HL2:EP2 cutscene – I loved the game, but I didn’t really see what it added, beside some ominousness. They could have achieved the same thing by having the gman wondering around like he did in HL1…

  39. Crispy says:

    I have to say I do enjoy a good cutscene, and I don’t think they should be replaced by ‘fully interactive cutscenes’. I prefer ‘in-game custscenes’, where you don’t need to input any commands or keypresses but which still take place from the default view.

    To me a cutscene is a number of things. It’s a respite from the action, a short break where you can sit back in your chair and take it all in. It’s also an opportunity for some artistry. Camera movements, how the scene is framed, the flow of dialogue, what elements in-frame are drawing your attention; this is all an art that I appreciate when done well.

    On the subject of dialogue flow, I absolutely hate when the flow of conversation is dependant on the timing of your own keypresses. Having lines follow either too quickly after one another or with too great a pause between them makes the whole process seem very mechanical. I don’t see it as a rewarding process, having to anticipate how long an NPC-turned-PC should deliberate over his response, I actually think this detracts from the storytelling experience I came to enjoy. I do agree, however, that where pure text is concerned it should be at the user’s discression, and text that scrolls too slowly is a sin indeed.

    Coming back to what I was talking about with regards to framing, I hate being expected to stand still in a cut scene. I actually prefer being made to stand still so I can relax and take it all in, because in games like Half-Life 2 you can often miss nuances in the animation and facial expressions when you’re jumping round Kleiner’s lab like a looney playing with stuff. I prefer being sat still when something important is happening instead of missing things because I was looking thr wrong way. Some people’s argument seems to be that you are forced to slow to the game’s pace, my argument is that I can miss elements I might enjoy because I’m not facing the right way. When I am given free reign I can’t help not use it. For me it’s the equivalent of having a jungle gym instead of a seating area in a cinema. Why would you not fool around a little given the option?

    The question for me is not ‘why are cutscenes still used’, but ‘when should they be used’. For everything non-incidental I would prefer a cutscene, because being able to throw buckets at a protagonist’s head while she explains how she lost her mother to heartless, oppressive forces of darkness tends to dull the senses somewhat. I simply don’t want to be given the power to abuse someone else’s creation, that’s what Garry’s mod is for! :P

  40. Radiant says:

    I think this debate can be divided into:
    People who have played Assassin Creed and People who have not.

    Seriously; play it and see how long it takes for you to gauge out your eyes and ears in frustration.

    But that’s a good point about MGS and cutscenes.
    Take out all the cutscenes from MGS and you have a game totally devoid of character.

  41. Dracko says:

    solios: Then why don’t you play one with no pretence to a story? There are excellent ones out there. That’s certainly no reason that others with the ambition of involving the player within a plot should botch it up. Portal, for instance, had a story in service of its gameplay, which was pure puzzle-fare. Games can and should, when they claim to have a plot, make sure that they work cohesively.

    And what do you have against IF anyway?

  42. solios says:

    What do I have against IF? That developers continue to market IF as “games” as opposed to IF, and that various franchises (Final Fantasy, Quake) that used to be games have gotten progressively more and more story heavy. Sometimes it works (you can bet that the gameplay isn’t the thing people flash back on when you ask them about FF7), and more often, in my experience, it doesn’t (Quake 4 tries really hard to be a Michael Bay movie and comes off like Dave Matthews trying to make a Gwar video).

    Ultimately I agree with the thesis/opinion that cut scenes remove interaction/immersion/control, and that too much in the way of scripted scenes makes a game feel like it’s on very tight rails. Eventually the medium will figure itself out and find a balance…. maybe by then we’ll get games that claim to have “choice” and offer more than Yes or No.

  43. malkav11 says:

    Radiant – all that says to me is that Assassin’s Creed uses cutscenes poorly. A fair number of games do that, and it sucks. But that’s like saying games should do away with shooting guns because Mortyr did it poorly. (Er, not saying those two games are equivalent, that’s just a game that does shooting poorly that I can think of off the top of my head.)

  44. Cruz says:

    Gabe from PA:

    I don’t need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls “new art”. I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don’t play games to beat them I play games to see them.

    I love PA. Between Gabe and Tycho, I find that as my gaming tastes fluctuate, I can always feel some uncanny sense of empathy with either of them. This particular quote just happens to reflect my recent shift toward games with oft-linear narrative leanings.

    In any case, I thought this could apply here, as a cutscene might be that cool animation to reward the player and serve as motivation to keep going. Surely you remember going through Blizzard games just to see those beautifully rendered cutscenes, which are totally not integrated into the actual game, or interactive by any stretch.

  45. DigitalSignalX says:

    “The better the game, the less frustrating the cutscene,” Agreed. A quality game is usually a quality story, and any element that helps tell the story effectively, be it interactive or not, adds entertainment value. I’m reminded of Max Payne and how all the load screens were taken from story boards foreshadowing events and the cutscenes were voice-over graphic novel noir icing on the immersion cake.

  46. Russ says:

    Elevators are cutscenes.

    Actually they’re usually disguised loading screens.

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