Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In Defence of the Cut-scene

A lot can (and has) been argued against the use of cut-scenes in games [1]. They are broadly seen as an archaic film mechanic that stumbled into gaming convention in an age when games were too young and naïve to put forward any other alternative. I agree wholeheartedly that instead of relying on the storytelling mechanics of a pre-existing, passive medium, game designers should focus on exploring the unique, interactive ways videogames can present stories spatially and dynamically. However, I feel that games have held on to cut-scenes for decades now for reasons other than a lack of knowing any other way to do things. In this piece, I do not want to defend the games that depend on filmic techniques to jam a linear story into independent gameplay, but rather defend the games that harness cut-scenes as one of many expressive tools unique to our medium.

These are some arguments commonly levelled at cut-scenes:
  1. Games are fundamentally participatory and active; films are fundamentally authored and passive. Taking away the player’s agency to tell them a story directly contradicts what a game is.
  2. Rewarding the player for completing an interactive challenge with a non-interactive scene makes no sense. It isn’t a reward, it is a punishment. As Eskelinen says, “If I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.”
  3. The world depicted in a game’s cut-scenes often contradicts the world depicted in a game’s gameplay, creating ludonarrative dissonance between the story and game. This should be avoided at all costs.
Again, I have to stress that I agree with all of these as issues in games that rely overtly on cut-scenes, and I could list plenty of games guilty of all three of these because they are too dependent on telling stories in preauthored fashions. However, I do not believe all cut-scenes should be frowned upon for these reasons. Allow me to counter the above arguments with the following justifications for when cut-scenes are viable:
  1. Cut-scenes pause player agency temporarily to allow the character to exert their own agency and to contribute to the player/character relationship.
  2. If a player’s emotive involvement in the game’s story has been sufficiently heightened during gameplay, a cut-scene can indeed be a reward by taking advantage of that emotive involvement in a way an entirely passive film never could.
  3. Ludonarrative dissonance, to an extent, does not matter. The game as played by the player does not have to be in perfect sync with the story as presented about the character.
Okay. Now that I have put that out there, allow me to clarify what I mean by each of these before I get flamed.

1. Cut-scenes allow a space for characters to exert their agency.

I am currently working on a paper about the relationship between the player and the character in adventure videogames where I argue that adventure videogames don’t exclusively rely on player agency so much as they rely upon a symbiotic agency contributed to by both player and character. Both the player and the character exert agency in unique ways and only through a cooperation between the two can the story be enacted. In Uncharted 2, for example, the player has agency over Drake’s aiming, jumping, and running; but Drake himself has agency over how skilled he is at these abilities as well as the decision to be a treasure hunter in the first place.

The cut-scene allows a space where the player steps back and lets the character have their agency. This is why, in extreme examples, some characters only ever speak in cut-scenes while remaining mute during gameplay (such as the playable character of Killzone 2). The games these characters belong to draw a clear (perhaps too clear) line between who is leading the player/character relationship and when.

Let’s look at Grand Theft Auto IV. The player has agency to decide how they navigate the city, which order they attempt missions, what crimes they partake in. But once the player begins a mission, the character takes the lead in conversation and their relationships with other, non-playable characters.

Of course, a bad game that is too reliant on cut-scenes will take this too far and will only be capable of progressing the story in cut-scenes when the gameplay is halted. A good game, though, does not draw such distinct lines but instead blends the player and character’s agency through the gameplay and the cut-scenes. This is seen in the long drives between missions in Grand Theft Auto IV (praised and slammed in equal measure across the internet and reviews for being “nothing but glorified cut-scenes”) where Nico converses with other characters, or in Drake’s constant chatter in Uncharted 2. Rather than splitting the player’s agency and the character’s agency, cut-scenes used well emphasise the player’s relationship and co-dependency with the character. We can play Niko Bellic as a sociopathic maniac in our gameplay if we desire, but it is in the cut-scenes that we learn to care about him and his relationships.

2. Cut-scenes can harness the player’s emotive investment

A cut-scene in a game, viewed by a player who has just spent two hours of active involvement with the world and characters, will be more emotively powerful than an identical scene viewed as part of two hours of passively watched film. Several cut-scenes exist throughout the Halo series that I found particularly memorable—more so that the same scenes would have in a movie. For instance, the conclusion of Halo 2 where the rings almost fire, and the activation of the forerunner artefact beneath New Mombasa in Halo 3 to name a couple. These scenes, while dramatic in their own right, would not have had nearly the same effect on me if I had not been involved in the world and its events for the preceding hours. The rings activating would not just affect the characters, it would affect me and my stake in the game’s world.

Cut-scenes, then, should not be used as a prescriptive film mechanic forced onto the game, but as a tool wholly reliant on the game’s interactive nature and the player’s consequential engagement in order to invoke the desired response. As a movie, Halo would be dumb and cliché; but as a game it is able to take advantage of my connection to the fictional world to extract illicit and specific emotional responses.

If I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to stop and tell me a story. But if you caught it like this, I would expect you to revel in the feat you just achieved before throwing it back to me.

3. Ludonarrative dissonance does not matter… not all the time, at least.

A dissonance between the world of the game and the world of the cut-scene can jar the player’s experience when the dissonance is an inconsistency in the fiction. Why should a grenade critically injure a character in a cut-scene when we have seen countless grenades explode futilely at their feet during gameplay? If Solid Snake is holding a silenced pistol in a cut-scene, it is fair to assume he will have one when the cut-scene is over. This dissonance that does jar is due to a contradiction of the character’s abilities during gameplay and the character’s abilities during a cut-scene, and it is certainly a bad kind of ludonarrative dissonance that should be avoided at all costs.

However, the dissonance between how the player plays the character during gameplay and how the character behaves during cut-scenes, I would argue, is not jarring. Or rather, if the player does find it jarring, it is partially the player’s own fault. If the player wishes to actively engage in a game’s story, the player has a responsibility to engage in a certain way. If you feel Grand Theft Auto IV’s story makes no sense because Nico acts like a sociopath between missions, then don’t act like a sociopath between missions! Player’s cannot expect to have an active role in a game’s story without also taking some responsibility for that story.

Though, the player may certainly play the game however they desire and ignore the story completely, in which case the dissonance between gameplay and cut-scenes is insignificant because the player is not playing for the story’s sake. The player should be able to cause ludonarrative dissonance because they should be free to play the game however they want. This is true even of games that do not have cut-scenes, such as any player of Half-life who gunned down every scientist and security guard they stumbled across during their escape from Black Mesa.

If the dissonance is internal to the character, that is bad and a sure case of a game depending on cut-scenes to tell a story. If the dissonance is caused by the player’s behaviour, it does not matter because it is the player that is choosing to cause it and at the end of the day, the player is free to do whatever they desire… as long as they take responsibility for the consequences. The cut-scenes of Grand Theft Auto IV do not jar my experience of the game, but rather hint at how I should enact my role as Niko Bellic if I wish to contribute to a meaningful story.

  *    *    *
Some of the best games I have ever played have no cut-scenes and would not be made any better with cut-scenes. But at the same time, some of my most memorable gaming moments were not interactive but were memorable solely because of the interactive context they were situated in (Bioshock and Heavy Rain being key examples, for me at least). At the end of the day, videogames are interactive and need to develop their own unique, interactive way of present stories for the player to enact independent of pre-existing linear mediums. However, just as videogames are able to use written text without prescribing to a purely novelist mode of storytelling, videogames are also able to use linearly acted cinematic cut-scenes without prescribing to a purely filmic mode of storytelling. Has any cut-scene in any Halo game been as memorable as my mad dash to the Longbow with only twelve seconds before the ring self-destructed? Certainly not! But that does not mean the cut-scenes did not contribute to my overall Halo experience.

Cut-scenes should not be used to jam a story into gameplay that does not need it, nor should the duration of a game’s cut-scenes ever outnumber the hours of actual gameplay. But as one of many tools available to the interactive story-creator, the cut-scene should not be thrown away just yet. 


1. Most recently I read the slides for Trent Polack's talk titled "The Cut Scene Crunch" and I think they put forward a very simple, very concise argument. Strongly recommend everyone checking them out.

2. This post has since been republished on Kotaku and has received a lot of interesting comments both agreeing and disagreeing with it. 


Adrian Forest said...

I think you're on the right track about ludonarrative dissonance not always mattering, but I think the issue is one of degrees. The extent which it matters depends on the degree to which the character is seen to act in ways inconsistent with the player's actions when out of the player's control.

But what also matters is the extent to which the narrative pushed in the cutscenes diverges from the gameplay. This is, in a sense, the narrative elemen tof the 'contradiction of the character’s abilities during gameplay' that you mention. When there is contradiction between the character's narrative agency in cutscenes and in gameplay, this is where ludonarrative dissonance can become a problem. Rockstar has a history of presenting characters looking for redemption and a quiet life, and then giving the player gameplay which encourages destructive mayhem. The character's narrative agency contradicts the player's gameplay agency.

However, this isn't necessarily, strictly speaking, a problem with cutscenes. The same ludonarrative dissonance can be presented without cutscenes. But it is another issue that needs to be accounted for in judging the appropriateness of the use of a cutscene.

Junch said...

Your point about ludonarrative dissonance is interesting in that it is the one thing game developers need to be wary of when implementing cutscenes.

Take Assassin's Creed 2: in one level, I fight with a boss character and beat him within an inch of his life. But the cutscene straight after shows me getting knocked down by that same guy I were just owning a second a go.

That's bad storytelling; my reward of beating the boss in-game is to have him beat me a second later?

Brendan Keogh said...

Hi dalziel_86.

Thanks for the comment :). You are certainly right about it being a matter degrees.

I think if the way the character acts in cut-scenes is drastically different to how the player has to enact the character during gameplay, then the dissonance is certainly going to be jarring.

I guess, if we are going to keep poking fingers at poor old Grand Theft Auto IV, this is most blatant in The Ballad of Gay Tony where the extravagant missions are at odds with Luis's calm persona during cut-scenes (however, I am of the opinion that The Ballad of Gay Tony is indeed only a "ballad" and intentionally extravagant, but that is another post).

For Niko, though, I personally felt like the dissonance was less an issue. The way I had to enact Niko during missions generally matched up with how his character was potrayed--the times he had to do something crazy, he often exclaimed it as such. Though, the option to go crazy between missions if I wanted to was still available, and I feel that this kind of dissonance is not a bad things, because I could also continue to enact Niko's character between missions, if I so desire (and I often did).

So I guess being forced to enact the character in a way that conflicts with the character potrayed in cut-scenes (and out of cut-scenes) is jarring and bad, but being able to choose to either enact the character in a way consistent or conflicting with the chracater potrayed is not bad, because it is the player's choice.

Brendan Keogh said...

Hi Junch.

Absolutely. There is little more frustrating than when a cut-scene pretty mech negates your hard work, or a character makes an utterly stupid mistake in a cut-scene that you never would have made while playing.

I haven't played Assassin's Creed 2 yet, but it sounds like the cut-scene could have been done better if the enemy you were fighting got a cheap shot in (thus being consistent with the fact that you were winning moments before).

Thanks for reading and commenting :)

Trent Polack said...

It seems that what you are suggesting is that in all games with a defined agent in the world (protagonist, character, whatever), then the player violating that character's code of conduct or the laws established by that world is at fault for the inconsistencies therein. This would imply that you feel that story-driven games are inherently prescriptive experiences, despite whatever form the gameplay may take. If I play Niko Bellic as a sociopath, which doesn't jive with the story's idea of Niko Bellic, then it is my behavior as a player which is at fault.

This seems like a generally flawed theory unless there is the desire for video games to be a character-driven, role-playing activity which tasks the player with not only gameplay goals, but the (vaguely unwilling) submission of player intent. This method seems to have the aim of converging games with the goals of films: the "right" experience is one in which the player neglects his own desires for the purpose of a narrative. Which is an ideology that makes the character the powerful entity in the player/character relationship -- something that I think works against the very goals and successes of interactive entertainment. The story of Grand Theft Auto 4 is, generally, going to be at odds with the actions of the players; the actual completion of missions, sometimes, demands that players violate the codes that the narrative Niko supposedly adheres to, so why, then, is there a push to curb player deviation from sociopathy rather than a push for the game to take a more reactionary role in its relationship with the player?

I also think it's worth noting that the Bioshock cut scenes are explicitly tied to the gameplay. There is a fundamental, high-level issue with the game's message and its gameplay (narrative ignorance of the ludic interpretation of its objectivist thrust) but I'm putting that aside for the moment. A cut scene in Bioshock means that the player character has actively lost control of himself in the world. The designers aren't wrenching controls from the player to do this cut scene and tell their story, the designers of the story integrated the cut scene into the player interactivity model to enhance the power of the delivery. I think this is one of the only examples where a cut scene actually served a gameplay purpose and, as a result, its use was legitimately powerful.

Brendan Keogh said...

Hi mittens.

Thanks for the insightful and challenging comment.

I suppose, yes, I am saying that the player violating the character's code of conduct or the laws established by the world is at fault for the inconsistencies within that world; however, I would not go so far to say that fault is always the player's. If the game forces the player to play in a way that violates the character's code of conduct, then that is certainly a fault in the game's design. An example of that would be the way either Nathan Drake or Solid Snake seem to have pacifist values in cut-scenes... after the player had no choice but to slaughter a hundred guards; or having to act out-of-character to complete missions in Grand Theft Auto IV, certainly.

I do feel that story-driven games are inherently prescriptive experiences in the sense that the character and the circumstances they initially find themself in is prescribed before the player begins playing. The player does not get to decide if Master Chief is a super-enhanced soldier that happened to be on the ship that stumbled across the first Halo ring; the player does not get to decide if Niko Bellic lived a life of crime and boarded a ship for Liberty City on a quest for revenge. However, that certainly does not mean that Master Chief's or Niko's action through the story presented by the game are pre-determined. The player's own, unique narrative does not emerge from story-driven games; it is enacted. By this I do not mean that the player should do specifically what the character should do, like reading a script; rather, the player should use their own values and desires to interpret for themselves how the character should be enacted--like two different actors adding their own flare to the same character in different renditions of a play. I certainly do not think all games must be like this, and certainly there are plenty of games that allow unique player-narratives to emerge from gameplay, but I do think that in games that are story-driven and that are centred on a pre-defined character, then it is indeed inevitable for them to be "character-driven, role-playing activities."

But of course, games are also games, and the player should player the game however they damn well please. I think the fact that Grand Theft Auto IV lets you act like a complete sociopath without affecting the story makes it a better story-driven videogame, not a worse one. I think this because Grand Theft Auto IV is story-driven, not story-reliant. It is my belief that games enhance stories, not the other way round. If the player wishes to ignore Niko's desires (the story) and just cause destruction across Liberty City (one interpretation of the game), they should be allowed to do so. However, the player may also choose to play the game other ways that enhance Niko's story and to make it a more meaningful experience than it would be as a film. I would not go so far to say that this is the "right" way to play GTAIV, but it is in this spectrum of play that most coherently advances the game's story.

I don't like saying it is the player's 'fault' when their actions and the narrative presented at are odds. However, I also feel that the player of a story-drive, character-driven game who does want to engage in a meaningful narrative does have some responsibility for that narrative. The player cannot just sit back and do whatever the hell they want and then complain when the game can't craft a coherent narrative around that. However, the player who does not care for the narrative presented should still be able to ignore the story completely and do whatever the hell they want because, ultimately, the player is playing a game with a story, not a story with a game. That is a very rash, black-and-white simplification of my feelings on player responsibility, at least.


Brendan Keogh said...

[from above]

So that all got a bit meta and looks at my views on player/character agency more so than cut-scenes specifically, but it shows how my feelings towards cut-scenes are informed. I still stress, though, that games certainly should not rely on cut-scenes as the sole mechanic to progress the game's narrative. But in story-driven games that ask the player to enact a role within a narrative, they can be useful to prompt the player's understanding of the role they are enacting.

Sorry for the long-winded reply!

Trent Polack said...

Right, a story-driven game is story-driven for a reason. There is such a proliferation of games which have their root in traditionally adhered-to story structures and delivery methods, though, that my real question is: why continue on this path? How is it beneficial to video games?

My personal belief is that narratives and stories in games are there to provide context to the player's actions and endeavors. That doesn't mean it necessarily has to be limited to those constraints alone and follow them to the letter, but I think it'd be a hell of a good starting point. We've had enough games that project some very well-defined personality onto the player's in-game persona, essentially making every story-driven game (of which there are many), largely, a role-playing game. I reference this game all the goddamned time, but the story of Far Cry 2 is "just enough" to provide a player with context for his actions while making so much else in the world a reaction to the things he/she chooses to do. It's one of those games where having a voiceless player-character actually worked because of how important non-player character's reactions were to the world. And things like the journal, which provides a very subjectively-written description for everything the player does, somehow works despite the player character having no aural voice. It just serves to enhance the player's view of the game world without limiting him to his character's prescribed motivations.

Trent Polack said...

And for some reason my profile updates didn't apply retroactively to my 'mittens' post (which I have no idea how that name got associated to my goggle account) but did to that last one. So that's a thing.

Brendan Keogh said...

Ha! I was going to do a witty "Trent Polack, I assume?" in my last comment, as I assumed it was you from the name (is it creepy to admit I'm already following you on twitter for some reason I can't recall?).

I am personally of the opinion that Far Cry 2 can never be talked about too much. It is definetly an excellent example of giving the player "just enough" context for their own meaningful choices and actions. And I do love and admire games that do that very much.

I guess what I am saying is that while that is great, over here we have these other games with seperate (though, certainly still overlapping) storytelling goals of immersing the player in a story that, for a large part, is pre-authored. I don't mean the piles of shovelware that pause gameplay everytime they want to tell a story; I mean the games that allow me to participate and have an investment in what is essentially still a linear narrative. Games I really enjoyed like Uncharted 2 and Call of Duty 4.

And, I think, that is great too, because these are two different types of story-driven games working in two different ways towards different ambitions and I really enjoy both of them. The former (games like Far Cry 2) I really enjoy because, as you put it, they provide context for my actions and make my act of playing more meaningful. The latter, I enjoy because they allow me to take part in and have a meaningful investment in what is essentially (or at least should be) a carefully crafted story.

I guess it all depends if you are looking at using story to craft better games, or game to craft better stories. I think both are entirely valid endeavors and I have greatly enjoyed games from each camp.

I guess I am a ludonarrative fence-sitter, of sorts.

Ferguson said...

I must say, you've made me think twice about ludonarrative dissonance. Formerly, I was of the opinion that it was a sign of lazy game design--which I believe it is 99% of the time--but you've convinced me that it's not necessarily the case.

The idea that conforming your in-game behavior to the avatar's character in cutscenes is an interesting one, though the basic question to my mind is, "To what end?"

It's something that always bothered me with games like some of the Final Fantasy games where you could rename all the characters. Why give someone the option to name all the characters variations on the word "ass"? In the same vein, why give players the opportunity to make your story look ridiculous, as they contradict it as soon as they're given free agency?

I'll give GTAIV a pass on this one, because it's clearly a comedic game and the ludonarrative dissonance can be seen to add to the humor. I love it in San Andreas when Ryder wonders aloud why CJ is always chosen to drive when he's "always runnin' into shit." However, how can this technique be useful in games with a more serious tone?

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