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From my perspective, there seems to be a rising sentiment in the video game community that, as a general rule, cutscenes in story-heavy linear games should be lessened as we move forward in this medium. This claim is definitely not unfounded; gaming, by its very nature, is interactive, and the player should essentially be playing instead of watching. Too numerous are examples of action-heavy cutscenes that really should have been playable in-game moments. Too many times have players finished one cutscene only to take a few more steps and enter another. In the large amount of cases, cutscenes should be replaced with clever gameplay that tells the same tale. In most situations, the cutscene should rightfully be phased out -- the operative word being "most".
Despite what some heavy opponents of cutscenes may say, there are certainly situations where a cutscene is the best course of action in terms of storytelling. These situations are where interactivity in itself would actually ruin the moment. I will explain via examples from Metal Gear Solid 2, Final Fantasy VII, and Assassin's Creed 2. (Spoilers definitely lie ahead; you have been warned.)
The first example I wish to use is the scene in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in which Emma Emmerich dies. This takes place in the latter portions of the game.
The player, Raiden, was escorting computer programmer Emma to a computer room in the game's environment -- an oil cleanup facility known as the Big Shell -- so that she could upload a virus of hers to interfere with the plans of terrorists who had overtaken Arsenal Gear -- a top-secret and immense battleship that was being covered up by the Big Shell. Along the way, she is stabbed by a boss character and is mortally wounded. Raiden witnesses this, but due to the nature of the scene, is too far away to help. His ally, Solid Snake, takes Emma the rest of the way to the computer room instead. Raiden soon makes his way there, and witnesses Hal "Otacon" Emmerich -- Emma's estranged step-brother and a close personal ally to Snake -- cradling the dying Emma in his arms. Snake tells Raiden that her wounds are too deep, but she's still managed to set everything up for the virus. Raiden, who had been carrying the actual disc containing said virus, begins the upload. It is soon realized that there's been sabotage afoot; the virus stops at 90%. Unable to fully realize their next course of action, all they can do is watch as Otacon has his final moments with his sister. It isn't long before "E.E." -- Otacon's childhood nickname for her -- passes away. Otacon then has a few monologues in relation to her passing and takes her pet parrot -- who was in a cage nearby -- before things move on.
Video of the scene in question (it is in 2 parts) (I warn that my above synopsis doesn't cover everything, so some confusion with plot events is to be expected):
Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7jOuDbFE9o
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iroFnnBvezg
Now I have to admit up front that I am a huge admirer of Metal Gear Solid 2, so I am somewhat biased toward it, but I realize that the acting/writing/direction may seem poor to some. The game definitely has a multitude of problems. I think that this scene, however, illustrates quite well the fact that player interactivity would have detracted from the experience. The player in MGS2 is Raiden, but this scene is not expressly about him. Rather, it is primarily about his allies, and due to the circumstances, there is nothing that can be done presently. Even if the player was allowed the freedom of movement, there would be no place to go, and as such, no point to it. Additionally, any dialogue choices would be of poor taste; Emma is in her dying breaths. In a situation like this -- where it is not really the player character's place to interfere -- I think a cutscene is the best option.
My next example is similar to the above: Aeris's death in Final Fantasy VII.
Due to the infamy of the scene, I do not feel the need to summarize (especially since I haven't actually played FFVII up to that point), but I will provide video of it:
Unlike the above example, the player's character is directly attached to the events at hand; Cloud is the most wracked by Aeris's murder at the hands of Sephiroth. He is the one who cradles her body in his arms before letting her drift away in the water. And yet again I feel that interaction at this point would be detrimental. Even if the player was allowed to choose from a selection of parting words, I think it would make the scenario feel cheaper. This isn't a game where the player character is a blank slate; by this point, we know Cloud. At such a scene, he wouldn't react in a way unbecoming of him. In a situation like this -- where there really is only one outcome -- I think a cutscene is again the best option.
My final example is actually a counter-example of sorts. It is a scene in Assassin's Creed 2 where, instead of a full-fledged cutscene, there is an element of interaction, and I think the scene greatly suffers for it. The scene in question is when the player, Ezio Auditore di Firenze, talks to his friend Leonardo da Vinci and finally learns what his sworn enemy, Rodrigo Borgia, has been truly after all along: a powerful artifact known as a Piece of Eden. The attainment of this artifact is the reason why Rodrigo had commited atrocities -- including the murder of Ezio's father and brothers -- and Ezio now has even more reason to stop him.
A video of the scene (I start at 2:30 and include a small cutscene just before the scene in question for the sake of context. The scene itself ends at 5:28):
In the scene, the conversation's audio is handled by the game, but the player has the freedom to walk around with Leonardo. As such, the player must actively maneuver through the crowds and is limited to the walking animations. This becomes especially troublesome when the realization stirs emotions in Ezio; the acting swells as you would expect it to in this situation, but the player's body is only capable of walking, and thus lessens the impact of Ezio's words. If the scene was entirely non-interactive, the character could have been animated in accordance to the voice acting, and thus deliver a more emotionally engaging moment. What could have been a memorable scene is instead a dull bout of exposition due to the interactivity. In a situation like this -- where it is a scene of pure dialogue and the game itself is not about interacting with said dialogue -- I once again think a cutscene would have been the best option.
So to conclude my long rant, while I agree with many that quite a few cutscenes in story-heavy linear games should be replaced with meaningful gameplay, I also think that not all cutscenes should be stricken from existence. As shown above, there are cases where player interaction is actually at odds with the quality of the scene itself. What would be gained by allowing player control in these situations? Like in life, there are some times where you just have to be on the sidelines due to the circumstances. I think that's a lesson that some gamers tend to forget.
(This post can also be found here on my multi-purpose blog, Mulling Over The Multiverse.)