The Final Cut

This feature first appeared in Hyper issue #224, in June 2012.

Written by Patrick Stafford

No other debate has divided gamers as much as the argument over cutscenes. At the heart of this dispute is control – we simply don’t want it taken away.

But as developers create more complicated stories and explore new and fascinating methods of gameplay, it’s becoming harder to impart narrative without sabotaging gameplay.

It’s a disappointing truth. But plenty of developers champion the idea these non-interactive moments bring a special element gameplay alone can’t provide.

We love control. Video games offer rules and structure unlike any other medium. When we pick up a controller or keyboard, the power balance is clear, and an entire world filled with possibilities is at your command.

Research conducted in 2006 at a Canadian university, “Video game play and lucid dreams” by psychologist Jayne Gackenbach, even suggests gamers are able to control their dreams after spending so much time controlling digital environments.

It’s no wonder all hell breaks loose when this control is eliminated.

As story-telling becomes more complex, interactivity is sabotaged. The Uncharted series is half-built on its acting, while Metal Gear Solid’s critics would say it’s as much a movie as it is a game.

This approach draws heavy criticism. THQ executive Danny Bilson said last year cutscenes are the “last resort” for story-telling, and film director/game producer Guillermo Del Toro also openly attacked cutscenes last year.

This debate is anything but simple. Non-interactive moments are a palette of many colours – quick-time events, short cinematics and take-downs are being used more to convey character, emotion and complex relationships.

These moments can be miniscule. Shooters are notorious for them, with the camera panning towards a crashing helicopter, or showing the player a pair of burned and bloodied hands after a crash.

They’re frustrating, no doubt. So what’s the point of using them?

“We try never to take control away,” says Visceral Games’ Steve Papoutsis, executive producer of the Dead Space franchise – a series of games that has made explicit design choices to emphasise control, even going so far as to make the player vulnerable to attack while viewing inventory.

“Our philosophy is we never want to show someone something and then not let them be able to do it. Even if we’re showing them something, they control the camera.”

Alex Hutchinson, the Australian creative director of the upcoming Assassin’s Creed III, takes a more moderate view.  

“I...absolutely believe that real player expression and story exists in the hands of the players and the actions they push their avatars to perform, but that doesn’t eliminate cut scenes.”

Ken Levine, who is putting the finishing touches on Irrational’s Bioshock Infinite, says being able to tell a story without sabotaging control is a “constant struggle”.

He’s criticised the over-use of cutscenes in the past, even admitting the opening cutscenes in BioShock are an example of a “failure of execution”.

“There are scenes where you find the right path between story and that interaction, but you keep thinking about how you can still do things differently.”

“It all depends on context.”

That context can be tricky to find. A quick cutscene to establish a story and then get back into the action can be justified as providing a narrative framework for the gameplay, but putting that cutscene in the middle of an action sequence is unbelievably frustrating.

Just like individual scenes in a film, non-interactive moments require careful pacing.

“We try and use story to justify that context in a number of ways,” Papoutsis says. “We try not to do it, but when we do, we justify that with story.”

“It doesn’t have to be a cutscene, either. It can be locking the doors in a room through a power shortage.”

For Papoutsis, this has been a complicated journey. Dead Space began with a philosophy to keep the player in control at all times. Reading text logs and audio logs occurs without pausing, leaving the player exposed and vulnerable.

But in the sequel, the game introduced more scenes where characters would engage in conversation, locked in place.

Some players felt cheated by the shift. But Papoutsis argues reasoning was simple – the developers had more of a story to tell.

“The specific moment I’m thinking of is where Isaac meets Elli,” he says. “We move him to a spot, and you can move the camera around, but we lock the player’s motion down because we think the introduction of that character is important.”

“From our perspective, we want to show you things that are important, and then have you live the action.”

This is also true for the Assassin’s Creed series, Hutchinson says, although he adds there’s a way to make these types of interactions a reward. The story provides a context for the player, and thus establishes the stakes.

Critics would argue these cinematics are attempting to emulate film, and in a way, that’s true. These cutscenes can design characters to show certain emotions through facial movements, can frame shots in a way that makes something grander, epic, or understated, and can establish the context for the real star – the gameplay.

But it’s that motivation for play that is the “extra” something that developers are trying to put into their games. Hutchinson says you know they’re working when the player is being pushed forward through the action to each story moment.

“In some game types, and I think Assassin’s Creed is one of these, story information or twists or reveals are reward moments for the player. It’s a moment when you can sit back and enjoy your prize without needing to worry about interruptions or challenges.”

Of course, not everyone feels that way. For many players, cutscenes are like being given rules by a parent when you want to just play in the street.

Knowing this, developers have tried to merge the cinematic aspect of a cutscene with the interactivity of pure gameplay, reducing these “story” moments into tinier fragments.

Think of when the player is forced to look at their hands for a split second in BioShock when they first inject a new plasmid.

There’s an argument to be made that games rely on the relationship between the player and the character they control. Cutscenes and non-interactive moments allow the character some breathing room, giving them the space to show off exactly who they are, and why you should care.

Levine says these are important tools in the interactive story-teller’s arsenal, as combining them with gameplay can make the narrative feel much more believable.

“Dead Space 2 is a great example,” Levine says. “The moment where the crazy guy holds a knife to your neck. That loss of control is jarring, but they’ve put that into the structure of the game.”

“That can be the same for making you look at a helicopter crash, or your hands, or anything else, if the context is right.”

But context doesn’t always justify the loss of control. Plenty of gamers expressed their frustration with the system in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which sparked a take-down animation when the player crept up behind an enemy. The protagonist, Adam Jensen, does all the work - the player just sits back and watches.

Call of Duty is another apt example, even when performing stunts the gamer usually does themselves, such as sliding down a hill.

“I think it all comes down to how much it’s breaking your immersion or concentration,” Papoutsis says.

“If it’s overused or if it feels forced or inappropriate, you can get a bad reaction,” Hutchinson adds, nothing that you don’t want to intrude on the player’s “ownership” of the character.

“It can be dangerous if you use it to express an opinion, as it may contradict the player’s expectations and lead to a disconnect with what they think their character would do in that situation.”

Yet this argument goes deeper still. All these non-interactive moments become more essential in a medium still coming to terms with story, so the overall skeleton of the game needs to focus on “immersion” as much as possible.

Control isn’t just about movement, it’s about the entire way the character is built. When a player picks up the controller, they are assuming that character’s personality. There is a connection there – and that connection is broken when the developer attempts to tell a story.

“Even innocuous things can be risky,” Hutchinson says. “If your player is walking through a market and you have the character automatically say, ‘ugh, I hate fruit’ then although you’re getting a little bit of character expressivity and a little bit of colour, your player might have the opposite opinion and like their avatar less.”

Papoutsis suggests the way to get around this is by making cutscenes focus on relationships as much as possible, excluding action, pointing out that cinematics are often required to keep the player focused on subtext.

“I love the Uncharted cutscenes,” Papoutsis says. “But they’re all about close-ups of conversations.”

 “If you’re trying to tell me something important, and I’m running over in the corner, looking through your wallet, that breaks your immersion. So it requires some locking down of control.”

These developers point out this debate isn’t going to change. Games will always use cutscenes, and they’ll always take control away to tell a story. Managing the player’s control then becomes an issue of structure.

 “If you stay alive in Dead Space 2, you won’t see a loading screen for a significant period of time,” says Papoutsis. “We worked extremely hard on that, to make sure that never interrupts the player.”

“That’s an example we’ve tried to use to keep the player in control, without using cutscenes. It’s the whole flow of the game. I’ve played games where you have gameplay for a couple of minutes and then a cutscene, then a loading screen, then there’s another cutscene, and it just feels very forced.”

Non-interactive moments can be incredibly powerful, such as the iconic nuclear bomb detonating in the first Modern Warfare title, or the Andrew Ryan sequence in BioShock.

But as Levine says, the best games will be those that strike a balance. 

“How do you give the player the maximum flexibility while addressing a narrative and its choices? It’s a constant struggle - the hardest challenge I have.”