A Moratorium On Cutscenes

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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