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Death to the non-interactive cutscene, say top game writers
Death to the non-interactive cutscene, say top game writers Exclusive
March 12, 2012 | By Staff

March 12, 2012 | By Staff
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    43 comments
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design



In Gamasutra's latest feature, several venerable game writers discuss the slow-but-steady erosion of passive, non-interactive cutscenes, and why game stories should be more like plays instead of musicals or films.

Examining how storytelling in games has evolved in recent years, Valve Software's Chet Faliszek, writer for the Half-Life and Portal series, says that today's gamers are less likely to sit through non-interactive cinematics: "I think players have less and less patience for sitting through a cutscene, waiting for the story to unfold."

Irrational Games president and BioShock writer Ken Levine agrees, and also says that developers should strive to remove as many jumps from one mode of interactive storytelling to another -- say, from a player-controlled sequence to a dialogue tree.

"Modal switches are strange in a narrative," says Levine. "I think the closest thing is probably Broadway musicals. They switch from acting out a scene to singing a song, and that's a bit of a leap to make because it's so different. It's a form that you have to get accustomed to, whereas stage plays take less acclimation because they're consistent."

He argues that games -- and their narratives -- should be a play and hardly, if ever, a musical.

Thomas Grip, head programmer for Frictional Games' acclaimed survival horror title Amnesia: The Dark Descent, believes game should never be films, either: "There is a big difference in our relationship to a protagonist when you are a passive observer compared to playing as that character."

"I think the jump to a cutscene removes much of the empathy that you might have in a movie," Grip adds. "Because of this, I believe games can never become as emotionally powerful as movies, even if the cutscenes are done exactly like film. This means that in order to improve the medium, other methods need to be used."

The full feature, which features more insight from some of the industry's leading writers about the generational shift in interactive storytelling, is live now on Gamasutra.


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Comments


[User Banned]
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Tiago Rodrigues
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I liked your "grownups are talking" analogy, but I don't believe the Half-Life series is the ideal of progressive game design, so I wouldn't worry. You also have to take in consideration that stripping the player character of all personality helps the player see himself in the scene, and not a character. With that in mind, the passivity of the player during the "free roam cutscenes" makes a lot of sense, for the player (just like Gordon Freeman) is just a choice-less pawn in a much bigger event.

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Steven An
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SPOILERS: The furnace scene in Portal 1 is still my #1 top gaming moment of all time. It could have been a cutscene...you can imagine the arguments that went on. "Players may not realize they can escape!! What if they don't get it??" It takes a lot of skill and faith to pull off something like that, but when it happens, it's magical.

I do agree with you about most other interactions though...but then again, it typically fits with the narrative of Valve's games: You usually are completely clueless compared to the other characters. Freeman has no clue what's going on, and Chell is basically a prisoner.

Kenneth Blaney
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Tiago, making the player a blank slate to project onto makes no sense when the Player Character is not a blank slate. In the case of Half Life, we have Gordon Freeman. He's a person. He went to MIT. He got a PhD. He has a real history in the story.

Steven, truth be told, I actually thought the furnace scene in Portal 1 was a cut scene. There they were lowering me into the pit thinking that the game just has a "bad" ending that tortures the player because it is an art game. In fact, it wasn't until I died and the game restarted me from an auto save instead of rolling the credits that I said, "Oh... maybe I could have done something about that." It is one of the few times I can say that dying actually increased my engagement in a game.

Brandon Kidwell
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The problem here is that a lot of players still like to watch cut-scenes. It gives them a sense of progression as they have made it to the next part of the story that unfolds before them and it gives them a break from the game for a few seconds. Most gamers will watch the scene the first time and then skip it there after which make sense.

I think that interactive cutscenes are not a bad thing, but they may not be the ideal choice for a game. There are times when developers go overboard with cutscenes, see Metal Gear Solid series, and while I don't believe in scenes being that long without the players involvement I do believe that the MGS series wouldn't have been as good as it is without the scenes.

Kyle Redd
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That's assuming the developers let you skip the cutscenes in the first place. I recently played a bit of Infamous: Festival of Blood, and very quickly got into a foul mood because of the many long-winded, unskippable cutscenes at the start of the game. I cannot think of any possible excuse developers have as to why they still force this on the player, except that their egos will not allow them to consider that they're not nearly as capable at moviemaking as they seem to think.

Christopher Engler
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When done well, cutscenes are a lot of fun. I loved Arkham Asylum's opening. The developers didn't let you do much so your forced to stare at the deranged Joker and the ominous world you were stepping into. It was perfect!

Nat Loh
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Theatre is such a better narrative form to emulate than film. It is interactive entertainment. I recall reading a story where on some nights, a normally dramatic play would be turned into a farcical comedy just because of the read the actors got from the audience. And speaking to Levine's comment about musicals; they do take some getting used to but in a good musical, you can anticipate approach of a song by the way the scene builds. So too can games naturally build to modal switches. And then there are musicals like Les Mis where the people pretty much sing the entire time so the musical component is entirely natural but he obviously meant the Rogers and Hammerstein type. Still that blend of narrative and gameplay at varying degrees would be our goal.

Chris Hendricks
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"they do take some getting used to but in a good musical, you can anticipate approach of a song by the way the scene builds"

Now that's a good concept to consider... in what way can we build the scene so that a cutscene seems like a more natural transition?

When I'm playing a game like Megaman or Zelda, and a boss battle is coming up, I know it every single time. The game prepares me for it naturally. Is that kind of thing possible for certain cutscenes? Or, more importantly, have certain games already been doing it properly, and we just need to learn from it?

Megan Swaine
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"There is a big difference in our relationship to a protagonist when you are a passive observer compared to playing as that character."

I don't agree with this at all- in film, it's often about how the audience identifies with the protagonist. That's generally how they connect with the film. The same is true for video games- and simply playing the protagonist in a video game is not necessarily going to make you "care" about that character or identify with them.

That said, I'm fine with cut-scenes, so long as their short and drive the plot forward. It probably depends on the type game though, really.

Eric Geer
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As much as I love game developers and publishers for the products they create....Sometimes I think they have NO IDEA what the hell they are talking about. We've come to this division point in gaming history where there is better ways to reach gamers and better know what they want in a game, and....

yet have reached a point in gaming history which could be the least gamer friendly generation over the last 20 some years.

I don't understand what the is going on. I love cutscenes---please don't get rid of them or make them QTE events. If it can be done in a user friendly manner..than do it...if not...just leave cutscenes in their proper place--they make sense and help progress story/character development in ways that QTE and actual gaming cannot. I love you devs but please don't try to fix something that isn't broken.

Joel S
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Kill it! Kill it dead!

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I think sometimes cutscenes are critical to pacing. Make the player sit back, relax his fingers, absorb what's happening. Plus its the only way to completely control the realization.

What if Aeris had died out-camera?

Or take the short cutscenes before each fight in Shadow of the Collossus: They totally set the tone for the rest of the fight, shows critical hints the player might have missed otherwise, and increase the anticipation. If there were no pause in the gameplay, there would have been far less excitement at the beginning of each fight.

Its a tool. Use it when appriopriate, and then use it well.

Kenneth Blaney
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Here is a better question. What if Aeris died in a battle as a result of some attack that resisted Phoenix Downs. You get attacked by Sephiroth in a battle that forces Aeris into your party and she is scripted to be hit by Sephiroth using "Omni-Slice" or some such when Sephiroth is down to a certain percentage of hit points. You try to bring her back, but the Phoenix Downs and Life magic just "Miss". You think something is up, but you forge through the battle and win, only to find Aeris on the ground dead after the fight.

Works in 2 ways: First, you get this great moment not just for the characters, but for the player too. (Maybe she'd still be alive if the player did the right thing.) Second, Cloud killing Sephiroth with "Omni-Slash" at the end feels that much more poetic and final.

That said, I agree with you about Shadow of the Colossus.

[User Banned]
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Daniel Gooding
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I always figured Cutscenes were best used for objectives, and forshadowing, or drawing the players attention to something they might not have thought of.

Get rid of a cutscene, and you are forced to add a waypoint navigation system, because someone might have missed the conversation while they were stabbing around at the air, or zooming in a pixelated pair of breasts.

Evan Combs
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It all depends on the individual game. In a game like Mass Effect I want Shepard to say as little as possible without me telling him to say something. In Halo though I don't mind not be involved in the cutscene one bit. It all comes down to what is best for the game, there is no blanket this is right and that is wrong.

Andrew Hopper
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"Modal switches are strange in a narrative," says Levine. "I think the closest thing is probably Broadway musicals. They switch from acting out a scene to singing a song, and that's a bit of a leap to make because it's so different. It's a form that you have to get accustomed to, whereas stage plays take less acclimation because they're consistent."
"He argues that games -- and their narratives -- should be a play and hardly, if ever, a musical."

As someone who enjoys Musicals more than Plays, why shouldn't both forms of interactivity be equally valid, if done well? Gameplay is tension, sometimes tension needs to be relaxed with minimized interactivity.

Hayden Dawson
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'If it won't work in the game I want to make, it doesn't work' seems to be a common Gamasutra thread topic as of late. Whether we want this industry to follow the path of plays, musicals, books, movies, or something of its own, why shouldn't we strive for as broad an industry we can achieve.

If Levine or Levine's customer base is saying get the cutscenes away from my fragging, by all means do it. I wouldn't expect everyone to want the story and character-centric visual novels I play, or expect the mechanics of such games to show up in the next Half-Life. By the same token, putting a bullet in a romantic target in a VN would usually lead to an immediate 'bad end'.

Cordero W
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Any good game developer knows that pacing is needed in both gameplay and story telling. Cutscenes allow this. They even had this back in the olden days, such as the break screen after beating so and so levels on pac man, watching as pac man and the ghosts do a little playful comedy act of chasing one another; and this also occurs in games like Zelda. Simply showing the player achieving an item, that one brief scene of Link holding up an item, is a basis of cutscenes. It would be so boring if Link just got the item, a pop up appeared saying he got said item, and he was still able to move around. No presentation or emphasis on that achievement. Sad.

Cutscenes are a tool. Some games may want them and some may not. It shouldn't be "get rid of them." And interactive cutscenes aren't always pretty. Cause all you are doing is moving after someone while the dialogue or action is going on. But beyond that, you're better off taking control from the player and just letting the game do it for them. It would have been extraneous if in Metal Gear Solid, you had to spend ten minutes as Snake on the helicopter on his way of Shadow Moses hearing Colonel brief to you, looking around at the passing landscape, or in FF 7, having to sit through a cutscene of the train making its way to the reactor to prepare to blow it up. There are just some things cutscenes that aren't interactive do better, such as create an actual scene that uses different camera viewpoints and other effects to emphasize what's happening.

Film methods still have very much a place in video games. That's why I hate when writers have a say in things, especially ones who don't really play video games. There's more to it than that.

[User Banned]
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Keith Patch
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Interactive scenes aren't always preferable to cutscenes. In Metroid: Other M, there were a number of events that I had wished were just automated into some sort of cutscene just to save me the trouble of dealing with it (like scanning, or forced walking). Granted, there are ways the interactive experience could have been enhanced.

Overall, I think cutscenes are suited to some games and not others. In Skyrim or Fallout I don't need/want cutscenes (except maybe for an ending), but in something like a Final Fantasy title I prefer to have them.

Joshua Darlington
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With art, execution is very important. Just because you don't see how a path can lead to great art, doesn't mean that it can't be done.

Re: modal changes in narrative, one might consider the use of curtains and intermission (in classic 5-act theatrical structures) or TV commercials (in 4 act TV dramas) to be jarring modal changes.

People are cool with jumps in linear progress because brains are made up of parallell structures that jump in and out of sequantial priority/order.

The reason why I'm down with cut scene's 1000% is Montage. Cut scenes open the door to montage, one of the most powerful tools to come out of film/sound technology craft. I think montage is under used in game design. Any counter-examples would be appreciated.

P.S. the modal change in cut scenes remind me of the modal change of special narrative/thematic cards one draws in the board game Monopoly. Or the special spaces in Shoots and Ladders.

Jeremy Reaban
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I think game designers are taking the Skinner box idea way too far. Let that stay on Facebook.

People want to play games, they don't want to simply be rewarded by cool stuff happening just by pressing a button.

Duong Nguyen
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Really? Would interactive cut-scenes really work in strong narratives where there is no branching plot? Take GTA or RDR2 or any one of those strong story driven games, would it be better if u had QTEs? For games like Mass Effect, Fallout, etc.. where choice is a core gameplay component it does make sense but making a blanket statement like that isn't really helpful and actually shows a shallow understanding of game design..

[User Banned]
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Paul Laroquod
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*sigh* Purists.

There is nothing wrong with a cut scene. There is also nothing wrong with multi-modal media or play. A film is actually multi-modal from a 19th century point of view, because until people grew accustomed to it, every cut was jarring and considered a violation of the dramatic 'three unities' of time, place, and character. (A film violates the unities of both time and place.) So essentially, some early 20th century purists (just as annoying and wrongheaded as the modern variety) felt that a film with edits in it is nothing but a great big continuity error.

What we need is not to abolish cut scenes, or authorial intention, nor emergent narrative, nor procedural meaning. We don't need to abolish a damn thing. All art forms are a mixture of elements, an oddball combination that audiences get used to. Take the stage play that serves as the exemplar of this new, fourth 'unity of mode' (unity of interface, if you will). The stage play is a completely ungainly beast that makes no sense until you are trained to overlook the incongruities. We are sitting in chairs watching people on a platform talking to each other. Why do those people not acknowledge our presence. Why do they only ever seem to talk toward an 180 degree arc and never talk in the other direction? Why do they live in odd three-wall houses with no roofs? Et cetera, et cetera.

Every medium is multi-modal. We have simply been trained to ignore the modalities. A single-modal universe is a boring universe. A single-modal gaming experience can be good as an individual experience, but a community full of single-modal gaming experiences would greatly resemble what would happen if you took an exponential growth curve and flattened it into a linear growth curve.

Network effects are the direct result of a mixture of orthogonal modalities. The purists are wrong -- just as they have always been, throughout the history of art.

Paul.

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Sean Kiley
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I was just going to say that!

Jonathan Jennings
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I just want to say I love the discussion going on here , I personally love cutscenes but sometimes certain games ( MGS IV) show the danger of over-reliance of cutscenes and even with that said MGS IV is an EXTREME case and even then it would have gotten away with it if they had been cut down just a tad. just like we can point to MGS IV as an example of too many cutscenes I think MGS 1 is a perfect example of a game that mastered cutscenes in relation to game pacing and outlining the crucial details of a plot narrative.

anyhow great discussion everyone I am enjoying the read.

Bruno Xavier
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I love cutscenes.

Snake.... Snaaaaaaaaaakeee!

Joe McGinn
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Great article, couldn't agree more. Non-interactive cutscenes are the game industry's equivalent of the early movie days where the first thing they did was film a stage play. Which of course was boring as hell.

Nothing could be duller or lazier than putting a couple cut-scenes on the end of your level and calling that a game story. It's especially nasty when it's supposed to be a game about interactive story - like Dues Ex Human Revolution. Liked the game but actually felt insulted every time they threw up yet another FMV.

Paul Laroquod
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It depends on whether the cut scenes contain alterations that reflect your previous actions in the game. Just because a cut scene is 'non-interactive' in present time, that doesn't mean it has to be linear — that is a false dichotomy. A cut scene could change based on your previous actions rather than your present actions. This is the future of the so-called 'non-interactive' cut scene: a shift in historical determinism rather than everything being only a consequence of your most recent action. That would give games a great deal of added maturity, so far from ruining games, cut scenes are destined to evolve into an important, form of 'delayed effect' interaction.

Also I feel it's important to note that theatrical staging was never abolished or done away with in film. It still goes on all the time. What happened was that filmmakers stopped thinking of it as de rigeur and started thinkiing about the long master shot (i.e. stage play like camera placement) as just one tool in a toolbox among many. This is exactly the way game devs should think of the cut scene: neither to be mandatory nor to be abolished.

Paul.

Joe McGinn
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That's a good point Paul, I would also consider what you describe as a kind of interactivity ... it may not be immediate feedback but you describe the story reacting to player actions.

I think what is ultimately doomed, what these writers are saying is inherently bad in a game, is the pre-canned FMV (which is still I think the dominant story telling form in AAA game development).

Jakub Majewski
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Yaaaaaawn. Cutscenes are dead, cutscenes are dead, we've been hearing this mantra for years and years. Not gonna happen.

David Navarro
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Interactive cutscenes: like cutscenes, but unskippable and generally annoying. This is what we get when designers are less interested in making a good game than they are in showing they are smarter than you.

Terry Matthes
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I don't think cuts scenes are a bad thing at all. It really just depends on whether or not they are worth watching. David Miller mentioned Blizzard a few comments up. People watch those cuts scenes on you tube they are so good.In the end they are just a tool.

If you don't use that tool properly it's not going to enhance your experience the way you intended it to.

Ujn Hunter
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I have ZERO problem with Cut-scenes as long as they are able to be 1. Paused 2. Skipped & 3. Replayed there is nothing worse than missing a cut-scene because the phone or doorbell rang or not being able to skip cut-scenes you've already seen.

Micah Wright
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Yeah, the audience definitely believes like Ken Levine... which is why those horrible Uncharted games never sell a single copy.

Yeesh. I love it when people mistake THEIR preference for the way things SHOULD BE for everyone, and then throw around rules like "Cutscenes must end." Tell you what, you go your way, and I'll go mine and I'm betting we all make money.

Bob Johnson
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Make cutscenes DLC or a separate digital purchase so those that don't want them aren't paying for them.

Never saw the point of them. They never feel like the game I am playing. I would rather just pause my game and watch 10 minutes of my favorite movie.

Patrick Davis
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I really don't see an issue with cut scenes. I don't even care if they are skippable as long as I don't have to watch it right after a damn checkpoint every time I die. The only issue is that some games over do it and have cutscenes for every little thing.

Raymond Grier
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Like a lot of other things in gaming, some people love cut-scenes, some people tolerate them and some people absolutely hate them. Pick your audience, know what they do and don't like and go for it.


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