So we took a bit of a hiatus last week, but this week we’ve got the follow up article as promised. However, I’ve decided to take a slightly different approach this week, if you don’t mind. Last week, at the end of the article, I asked for comments, questions, and opinions. Well, I got them, and they were well thought out. In part because they addressed some things I felt I missed in my original post, and in part because they had some good insights all their own. So I’d like to address those points and expand a bit on my points with this post. We’ll finish up this series in our next posting, but for now, let’s dive a bit deeper.
Lead By Example
One of the things I did intend to do in the previous article but was unable to, was to show specific examples to demonstrate where I felt cinematics were done incorrectly. So I thought I’d include them in this follow up piece. This portion will focus specifically on the technical or logistic issues involved with the use of cinematics. We’ll look into the storytelling portions in the next section.
There were a few issues I brought up in the previous article – One being the lack of consistency in several regards when transitioning between cutscenes and gameplay. Mass Effect is a great example of this in one regard, elements being changed in custscenes that are not consistent with the game world. One of the most common examples being, the weapon you’re using in game, is not the one you have equipped in cutscenes. This sounds like a minor thing, but can be jarring when you’re transition from having a large rifle one second, to a small pistol the next. This is especially true when your character doesn’t even carry a pistol in the first place.
Another example can be things in cutscenes that are otherwise unrealistic in game. In cutscenes, in the Mass Effect games, biotics are consistently seen using abilities in ways that are completely unrealistic within the confines of the game. Abilities and powers that make them nigh invincible, and yet when you transition to gameplay with the same characters, they are severely limited in the actual use of biotics. This is a common element in games, where your character is an all-conquering warrior in a cinematics, and in actual gameplay, not so much. Like Jack who is so invincible in the game when not under your control, and yet killed so easily when she is.
Then, the complete reverse can be true. Your character so powerful and invincible in gameplay, succumbs to something so simple in a cutscene. Jack is another good example of this, since she can die so easily in a Mass Effect 2, and in very simple ways you’d never thought possible, until the writers decided it was necessary. Then suddenly all her biotics won’t save her from a small explosion.
Or how about setting the bar too high? CGI in cutscenes and then a sudden transition to gameplay makes for a huge visual difference. This is often seen in games like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, or MMO’s like The Old Republic. This can be disorienting, and at times difficult to swallow. Gamers have to accept that in many games, the story looks one way, but the game looks another way. However, this creates a disconnect for a lot of people, between the “game” and the “story”. However, they should not be divisible components; they should be one and the same.
Then there is one of the most basic issues I spoke of last week in regards to the use of cinematics, which is the lack of player agency. I bring this up first because this is probably the most obvious point I made. Cutscenes tend to not be interactive, you passively watch as the story unfolds without you. We are all aware of this, since it is a staple of storytelling in games. However, sometimes, developers try to infuse cutscenes with some level of interactivity, to help the player feel involved in their own story – Mostly, with limited success.
There are a few examples of this. The most basic tends to be the ability to control the camera in some games during the cutscenes, such as Assassin’s Creed. Or allowing your player to move around and do things while you’re being spoken to, like Fable or Skyrim. However, this often just leads to a sense of aimlessness in the storytelling and can be a distraction from what should be a key component of story progression and immersion.
Another elements commonly attempted, is the quick time event as seen in Shenmue and The Force Unleashed. This allows you to interact with combat cutscenes, but in the end, are you truly affecting anything? It’s basically no different than if a movie you watched paused every couple seconds and required you to push play to keep it moving forward. Besides, what could possibly me more of an immersion breaker than giant buttons appearing on screen during key plot points?
Stay A While And Listen
However, there were some story concerns I wanted to address as well. The first being that games are truly the only interactive medium. I stand by that statement. However, I think I did not clarify what I meant by that. It is true that in every form of artistic medium, there is an audience, and the audience can interpret the work as they will. The emotions generated by the work vary from person to person, as to interpretations. However, this is not the same as video games. In video games, the creator and the audience are both artists. You see, in a novel, or a film, or painting the director/painter/writer creates the work for your consumption. However, the act of creation ends when the creator completes the work. You as the audience have no say and no direction in the fulfillment of the work.
This is not the same with games. When a game is done development, it is only half done. It is a canvas, and a vision, but the story is yet untold. It is up to the player to create his own story, to finish the work, by playing through the game. The sum total of a game is not what is developed by the people who coded and designed it. That is part, but the story a game tells is dependent largely on the story you create when you play it, and is unique to you. Games are the only truly interactive art form, because they are the only art form where story and works completion is begun by the artist, but where the audience is also the artist that finishes the work.
Please be aware though, that I do not feel the use of cutscenes is improper. I feel that their implementation is the issue. They are implemented currently in such manners that detract from complete immersion in gameplay, and rob players of the agency that is the defining characteristic of videogames. That is not to say that linearity is an issue in storytelling, but it is not a form of storytelling that is intuitive in an artistic medium in which you give so much control to so many people. A game that is completely linear would be much better off as a film, for there is no reason the story needed to be told through a game.
However, I think part of the confusion here stems from how you define linear. You see, the vast majority of games are non-linear. A non-linear plot does not mean a lack of an overarching plot. There’s a key difference there. Portal 2 is regarded as a linear, game, but is it really? There is an overarching story, with fixed plot points. However, the journey is largely unique for each player, and many players will see and hear story elements that many others never will. These are most often dictated by how a player chooses to play, such as dialogue from GLaDOS and Wheatley that wouldn’t be heard outside of certain unique scenarios. It is not a completely linear game or story, despite having a clearly defined and heavily controlled plot. A truly linear game is a rare thing.
The same cannot be said for paintings or film novels. When two, three, or a million people see a film, they all see that same film, read the same words, and perceive the same image. The emotions it evokes, and the interpretations that result can vary, but the work itself is objectively and quantifiably the same for everyone. Games are different in this regard, for the most part. Those that aren’t, would perhaps be better off as film
Thanks For The Input
I want to thank you for your input the last time around. I don’t intend to turn this into a weekly Q&A however. Still, keep posting your comments, and I’ll keep reading them. I think things will come together a lot better in the third installment of this series. Next time, I will go through some ideas that I think would help the industry properly implement storytelling in games. This will not be the end of things either. Cinematics are but one part of games as art, and I intend to keep exploring more and more components beyond this. So keep on stopping by as we explore this great and unique art form that is gaming.