Thoughts on Cutscenes

Written by Joe Martin

May 12, 2010 | 12:40

Tags: #cutscenes #game-design #narrative #no-one-lives-forever #our-thoughts #story #thief #thoughts-on

I’m playing No One Lives Forever at the moment and, while it’s an undeniably great game and one that I’ve played many times, I’ve found myself getting increasingly infuriated with it for one simple reason. The cutscenes are far too long. They break up the flow of the game far too much and the mission briefings are often so padded out with needless dialog that it’s impossible not to get distracted.

What makes it all so much worse is the fact that much of the information you’re being bombarded with is repetitive, as well as flabby. You spend ten minutes listening to Cate Archer being berated for being an incompetent woman in the male dominated spy industry of the 1960s before the supposed mission briefing even tells you what you’ll be doing in the next mission. Then, when the cutscene is all over, it’s all summed up for you in a objectives and story screen anyway. It’s a massive flaw in an otherwise striking and superb title.

Length isn’t the only issue with NOLF’s cutscenes though – they are also rendered dull by how static they are with just three characters standing and talking, unmoving. Monolith obviously tried to liven things up by throwing in some interactive bits where you can choose how Cate responds to her superiors, but it’s too little and too late.

What really bothers me though is that No One Lives Forever isn’t by any means an exception. Almost every game imaginable has problems with cutscenes – it’s a well documented theory that Valve shot itself in the foot by deciding to always have Half-Life told from a silent first person perspective. In the short term it definitely increases the immersion, but with the story that Valve is telling it’s unbelievable that Gordon should be so stoic and static.

No One Lives Forever's opening cutscene is 9 minutes long

The problem that games have with cutscenes isn’t a surprising one. There’s an obvious disconnect that occurs when you try to meld a medium which is inherently interactive with a form of story-telling that requires you to do more than sit back and watch. Nor is it surprising that cutscenes breed wider problems within games too, with developers often showing in cutscenes actions that the players can’t actually do in the game. To me, that’s a cardinal rule – never show me the player character doing something that I can’t make him do in gameplay.

Cutscenes, like so much else, exist on a sliding scale though. There are some approaches which are definitely better than others. Half-Life’s silent and first-person approach is better than nearly any cutscene that uses pre-rendered video or which contains quicktimes, for example. On the other hand, if the writing is decent then a vocal, first-person style can be better than that – one of the things I liked about the original Condemned and Mirror’s Edge despite their other faults.

Too often though the primary problem with cutscenes isn’t that they break an otherwise consistent viewpoint – No One Lives Forever, for example, switches to a third-person view for cutscenes and it’s never a problem there. Instead, the usual issue is that cutscenes mark a departure from the established tone of the rest of the game. That was one of the problems I had with Max Payne – in gameplay Max was an unstoppable killing machine who glided through the air gracefully, but in the cutscenes he was embittered and whiny and annoying. What I took from the gameplay was that Max was Death incarnate, but what I took from the cutscenes was that he was a grumpy old man who’d probably spend most of his life shouting at his TV and reading the Daily Mail.

Thief: The Dark Age's intro is much shorter and focused

Is maintaining the focus and tone of a game really that important? Should developers really not show us things we can’t do in gameplay? Yes, definitely and the exceptions that prove the rule are the first two Thief games.

If you’d never played it before then you might at first glance that the Thief games have some of the worst cutscenes imaginable. They are pre-rendered video, for starters and they don’t even ever actually show anything of note – images and wisps of concept art drifting across the screen for the most part. When we do clearly see an actual character doing something then Thief isn’t even consistent with the presentation, so sometimes we see characters as highly detailed, hand-drawn animations and sometimes they are actual actors who’ve been veiled in darkness and merged with the painterly landscapes. So, Thief must have awful cutscenes, right?

Wrong. Thief salvages an otherwise abstract approach to cutscenes thanks to some absolutely faultless and pitch-perfect writing. Garret, the master thief you play as, is always kept as the centre of attention as he spews out disdain and reluctance in his mission summaries. The weird images and sigils are clearly a montage of his thoughts as he carefully appraises his target – but never once does the game waver. Garret is always a reluctant anti-hero with disdain and sarcasm dripping from his mouth like venom.

There are a few other exceptions and a few specific game moments I can point to as being awesome, but when it comes to having consistently brilliant cutscenes Thief is definitely one of the best purely because the writers adhered to one of the most basic rules of creative writing; omit needless words.
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