Organic Gameplay: Working Through the Cut Scene

How can the cut scene work for us or against us in the world of games?

Over the next few features I will examine elements that can make or break an immersive gaming experience. I want to focus on how these elements can fit into gameplay organically, and also how they don’t. In this first installment, I want to focus on the cut scene.

Full disclosure, I personally don’t mind the traditional cut scene. I remember growing up during the PlayStation era playing games like Final Fantasy VII every day after school. I treated the pre-rendered cut scenes as rewards after finishing a difficult part of the game. One of my favorite games of all time is Metal Gear Solid, which is very cut scene heavy. With that said, the traditional cut scene has some problems and can pull a player out of the experience.

To put this very bluntly, cut scenes are asking us to stop playing the game so we can watch a short movie. Aside from some cut scenes that require our input commands (more on that later), we can actually put the controller down and fold our arms while watching the cut scene. For these brief – or, in Metal Gear’s case, not so brief – instances, the player can feel like they’re not playing a game at all. This is immersion breaking, and can be detrimental to the story telling experience as a whole. The player is not an active participant in the story at these points, which may lead some to wonder: why am I even here?

Ludonarrative Dissonance was a big buzz word for gamers and critics not too long ago. These are instances where the story and gameplay don’t create a cohesive, logical whole. In some of Final Fantasy XIII’s cut scenes, for example, the characters are seen performing feats that the player can’t do when they’re in control. This creates a disconnect between the game and the player. When I see Snow tearing ass through the scenery on a motorbike, I suddenly wish there was a mini game of some type where I can do that too; I don’t feel like I’m controlling a character anymore, just merely giving them suggestions while they do all the cool things by themselves. Final Fantasy XIII-2 remedied that somewhat by letting you play the cut scenes and increase the effectiveness of an attack by completing quick time events.

ffxiii_snow_bike cut scene

With that said, how can cut scenes work to make the player more immersed in the story? When I think about how exposition is weaved into game play effectively, I usually think of games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. There are traditional cut scenes, of course, but there are instances where story is being delivered to you while you’re still in control of your character. Many times, before a major mission in Red Dead Redemption, the NPC you’re working with talks at you for a while. Instead of wresting control away from the player, the game allows you to control John Marston as he rides along next to the NPC. You can even run for the hills if you wish, but they wouldn’t appreciate it. I realize it’s a small touch, but I feel it goes a long way toward transforming a cut scene, and making the whole experience more organic.

The Last of Us developed its main characters in a similar way. While exploring, Ellie and Joel engage in idle chat appropriate to the environment. This effectively reveals character in a causal, realistic way without stopping gameplay.

Our next example: Half-Life. For the vast majority of the game, we never leave the point of view of the silent protagonist Gordon Freeman. People talk at him and you’re free to move around or even shoot them in the face, if you’re a cynical misanthrope. However, there are some people you need for unlocking doors, so you have to wait for them to complete their task before shooting them in the face. Either way, in Half-Life, Gordon Freeman doesn’t have a set character type, or even a personality. He’s exactly what the players want him to be. He can stand there, politely making eye contact with a scientist while they talk to him, or he can wander off and ignore them. Or, he can just shoot everything that moves like some sociopath taking advantage of a apocalyptic scenario to indulge in some almost consequence-free killing.

The above games contained examples of interactive cut scenes, but those are not the only ways cut scenes have become more interactive and integrated into game play. Whatever they’re merits or lack thereof, quick time events have made their way into cut scenes in an attempt to make them less static. Even though they appeared in Shenmue before, I first remember these types of prompts in Resident Evil 4. I was watching a cut scene, leaning back in my chair, controller on my lap when a button prompt popped up on screen. I missed the prompt and Leon died. I quickly learned that you can never relax while playing the game, which is a very effective mechanic. Not only are the gameplay moments hectic, but so are the story moments. Even though the cut scenes did resemble their traditional counterparts, it still made the player an active part of the experience.

While Resident Evil 4 combined the quick time cut scene with traditional run-and-gun gameplay, David Cage games like Heavy Rain are almost all cut scene and quick time events. Compared to the previous examples, Heavy Ran sits on the far end of the spectrum. The games, usually dubbed Interactive Stories, have been criticized for their lack of traditional gameplay. Instead of being more interactive, it seems like we’re playing a movie. However, the fact that these types of games are being created speaks to developer’s desires to change how narrative plays a role in video games. It also let’s us consider the importance of narrative in a game. Capcom’s Asura’s Wrath presents a similar experience with quick time event heavy fighting scenes.

Dark Souls has very few story driven cut scenes and if you don’t explore the world, you could quite possibly miss the story altogether. Dark Soul’s story is buried in subtle environmental details and item descriptions. Players have said this type of story telling creates a more immersive, living, breathing world to explore; it’s almost as if it’s slipped back into the NES days of storytelling, where environment and actions are the only ways to move the story forward. The game leaves it up to the player see how much they’d like to be involved in the story or not.

The purpose of looking at this – very small – list of examples is to see and think about how narrative has evolved in video games. We started out with very few, scant text boxes in retro era games, to almost full on movies today. Narrative and context are more important that ever, and a lot of games try to build a world for us to play in. However, there isn’t a perfect way to tell a story, and each innovative way has drawbacks, but the watching the cut scene transform is fascinating, and we can also see the transformation of the video game narrative within it. It almost seems like video games were trying to create a movie you can control, and then turning into something else altogether that only video games can be.


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