Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The 13 cutscene tropes that are holding us back, and how to fix them

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"When coming up with a set piece, plot twist, character moment, etc, stop for a second. Ask your protagonist if they will remember that moment for the rest of their life. If their answer is yes, then that moment should be playable."
- some loser named Brian

Whenever I see a trope list or analysis of cutscenes, it usually centers around actual story related tropes and mishaps in writing. Now, criticizing the quality and content of game stories is a vital part of the medium's growth, and cutscenes are in fact getting better at what they do thanks to players craving improvement. But whenever the actual practice of utilizing cutscenes in an interactive medium is brought into question, the takeaway is almost always some variation of, we should use them less, or, they are fine in moderation. It gets redundant and, in my opinion, doesn't offer any real insight into how to make story-based games better.

With this picture-filled essay, I would like to offer a deeper, case-based look into not only the negative effects cutscenes have on game stories, but also the ways they can be improved by being converted into gameplay.

The first two points on this list are blanket issues that encompass whole games, and act as the bases which the other tropes spawn from. The further down the list we go, the more numerous and specific the examples will become. Tropes 4 and 5 are where we start getting into the nitty gritty of how certain types of cutscene events could be redesigned as gameplay.


Spoilers for: The Last of Us

1. Story On Display, Do Not Touch

Important, meaningful character/ plot moments happen mostly in cutscenes rather than during play.

An unfortunate thing about cinematic story-based games is that the actual stories they tell are not all that interactive. Most of these works split themselves into two layers, game and story, without combining the two. The story layer, where most of the real story content resides, ends up being comprised primarily of movie clips which tell a story, with the game layer being a collection of game levels that test the player's skill at game mechanics.

A game cannot be considered an exemplar of interactive storytelling if the meat of the player character is shown in cutscenes, where most of the choices they make and changes they go through happen with no player participation. These character arcs and other important plot points should be at the forefront of importance, side by side with Play, and not be relegated to skippable movie clips.

A downside shared by these kinds of games is how little variety there ends up being in gameplay compared to the cutscenes. Anything can happen in the story, but if it's not in the control scheme, the player is often left out. Writing and storytelling in these games is getting better, but gameplay is still stuck in a repetitive mechanical loop. Every year we see new kinds of story beats being applied to games that we hardly ever see in the medium, but they are still relegated to cutscenes most of the time.

When a meaningful and memorable story beat does get to be experienced through play, like The Last of Usintro and giraffe scenes, it usually excludes the main mechanics. Since the majority of the player's available actions (as governed by the control scheme) aren't usable in these scenes, the player is left with a small range of interactions, often limited to either passive observation or quick time events. These types of scenes, while amazing and refreshing, highlight the vast separation between the Game layer and Story layer, because the game actually has to put it's primary mechanics aside in order to facilitate compelling story-based play.

Despite the two aforementioned scenes, TLoU's s story, plot, and character arcs are still predominantly based in cutscenes and not gameplay.
Most of the meaningful scenarios and actions taken during cutscenes are simply more interesting and offer more variety than repetitive mechanics. Every time something compelling is happening in a cutscene, like in the collage above, I wish I was there. These games have many memorable story moments that I wish I could have experienced myself, and I believe most of these experiences would have been better had they been more in tune with the medium they're working with (more on this later).


2. No Controllers On The Feels Train

Emotional range is present only or predominantly in cutscenes, if at all.

Most story based games strictly adhere themselves to standard video game genres for their gameplay. This severely limits which parts of a story can become gameplay. A traditional mechanics-based control scheme leaves little room for the player to interact with the world in meaningful ways, and most verb variety is usually derived from all the different ways there are to hurt somebody.

Because of such rigid demands put onto storytellers by traditional modes of play, only a few types of stories are ever applied to games (the select few that can make at least some sense when viewed through the lens of classic gameplay). This keeps the pool of genres, settings, characters, and themes we have to choose from as players extremely small, inevitably causing the stories we do get to experience to be recycled year after year.

With these limitations at work, most meaningful content inevitably resides in cutscenes or on the story layer, and so the variety of emotions the player can feel directly through play is severely diminished.

Love is one such emotion that can be enforced through interactivity, as demonstrated in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and The Walking Dead, yet is usually viewed passively.


3. Bipolar

Characters are portrayed differently in cutscenes and gameplay.

Another effect of when gameplay has strict genre adherence, is the battle that rages between the writer's version of the player character and the designer's version. The designers create a specific type of gameplay regardless of how it may work with the character the writer created. Instead of melding the two to benefit the work as a whole, developers will just let the two opposing views duke it out within the game, with almost zero regard for how it affects the story.

And the battle is never subtle when heavy cutscene use is involved. Both versions of the character get spotlit individually. During gameplay, the designer's character is dominant, and during cutscenes, the writer's character is dominant. This creates a tug-of-war between the two versions of the character that results in a disjointed experience.

The most jarring outcome of this is when the two versions of the player character are at emotional and/or logical odds with each other. This is heavily apparent in shooters such as Tomb Raider, Max Payne 3, and Bioshock Infinite.

In Tomb Raider's cutscenes, Lara presents to us her story of self discovery and vulnerability, while the gameplay demonstrates how she is a practically invulnerable one-woman army with a kill count higher than Rambo's, making her cutscene troubles seem trivial.

Max Payne is a barely-functioning drunk in cutscenes who can immediately start flipping around with dual pistols and pinpoint accuracy once gameplay starts.

Booker DeWitt is supposedly guilt-ridden about killing native Americans, yet he won't hesitate to slay an entire impoverished black population over a misunderstanding, all while eating cake out of the trash.

Another outcome has to do with physical or personality traits that are important to the character only being relevant in cutscenes.

In The Last of Us, the Joel of the story and the Joel of the gameplay are like two dads with wildly different parenting methods. On the story layer, Joel sees Ellie as a liability, someone to babysit, yet in gameplay the player never has to deal with her, and she actually helps out in combat. Joel also becomes protective of Ellie, yet the player never has to worry about her or be protective because she is invisible and inaudible to enemies. Joel continually denies Ellie a gun because he doesn't think she is ready for such responsibility, yet he gladly lets her run around on her own across dangerous battlefields populated with gun-wielding goons. Story-Joel and Game-Joel are opposites; One seeks to look after Ellie and provide authorial guidance, and the other doesn't think twice about her well-being and uses her as a combat tool.

In Metal Gear Solid 4, Snake deals with crippling episodes of nanomachine shenanigans and cigarette-induced coughing fits in cutscenes. His FOXDIE sickness is a liability that is finally having a tangible affect on his performance on the field. His smoking makes him almost unable to have a conversation without coughing a lung every few minutes. He can't even land on his feet from small heights. Snake is portrayed as a dying old man in cutscenes, but plays the same as his younger self from past games. Despite the syringe being a usable item, the player never gets to experience Snakes reliance on nanomachines, and never feels the effects of his age and respiratory health. I think long time fans would've appreciated being able to experience the difference between Solid Snake and Old Snake first hand, at least sparingly or in scenes like Liquid's speech in the middle east, so we can empathize with him on an even more personal level.


4. That's My Job

The Player Character uses the game's mechanics in cutscenes.

There isn't much to say about this one. It's quite simple, and widespread. This is when the player character performs actions in cutscenes that are normal gameplay routines. The player could have been playing these parts, but instead we see our character do it for us, often in a much cooler fashion than we ever get to. Let's look at some examples:

In Uncharted 3, on Ramses' ship we see Nate grabbing a guy (circle), hitting him while grappling (square), grabbing his grenade and shoving him away (variation of a grapple finisher in which Nate pulls the pin and shoves the guy), throwing the grenade (L2), then aiming and shooting (L1+R1).

This could have easily been live play and benefited greatly. There aren't that many variables either; Hitting or missing Ramses wouldn't make much difference in what could happen later, and the player doesn't have to use the grenade at that moment. If the player got to throw the grenade themselves, they would feel responsible for the ship capsizing, thus being more connected to the game's events.

In God of War, the tragic event that causes the whole trilogy to happen is shown in a cutscene, and would have benefited immensely had the player been responsible for the actions taken in it:

As Kratos, Ares commands you to slay a village that worships Athena, and you must comply. In a smoke filled building, you wail the blades around, killing indiscriminately. You experience first hand the evil that Ares' slaves must commit, and you understand why later on Kratos wants revenge on his former master. But it gets worse when the smoke clears, as we see Kratos' wife, Lysandra, and his daughter, Calliope, are among the dead. The player gets to feel the guilt and manipulation that Kratos does, having performed the deed themselves. This would also make the dream sequence at the end feel more personal; When you literally, and willingly, give Lysandra and Calliope your own life bar, you are giving them the very thing you took away.

Shepard and Garrus' little moment atop the Citadel in Mass Effect 3 is an instance where the guns were actually used for character. Unfortunately, our only way of interacting with the scene was with the dialogue wheel instead of getting to use the established shooting mechanic for a fresh, meaningful purpose (see: the water guns in The Last of Us: Left Behind). Like with the other examples, this should have been gameplay because it's all about being physically in the moment, and experiencing the scene first hand. Instead of merely choosing what cutscene to watch, you could just aim at an easy target using the actual shooting controls. The choice to hit or miss the target would come about naturally (like the father-son sword fight in Heavy Rain), and the player, by not watching the action but doing it, would feel more connected to the scene.

In Fight Night Champion, Andre gets into a scuffle with dirty cops. In a game about punching people, you see him in a cutscene punch his way out until he gets overpowered. If this was gameplay, which it coulda shoulda been (see: game about punching people), the player would have felt the pain of defeat themselves. The odds being unfairly stack against Andre (they had weapons) is a recurring theme of his career as well. Andre's plight would feel more personal, and we would hate McQueen even more, adding fuel to the revenge fire. Something as important as the turning point of the story shouldn't be presented in a skippable movie clip (see: trope 1).

In Red Dead Redemption, upon entering Chuparosa for the first time, a cutscene starts where John gets harassed by three tools looking for trouble. Say it was during gameplay, and the tools were yelling at you as you walked by. You may do something about it or not. If the player instigates the murder, like John does in the actual game, they are actively participating in his current mental state of being sick and tired of people trying to get under his skin. If you ignore them, the head tool can pull a classic don't you ignore me, gringo!, and draw on you, prompting a Dead Eye sequence. Either way, the player is responsible for shooting them, and when Ricketts remarks about John's sloppy shooting, the player will take it personally, influencing later scenes.

The Uncharted series is full of heroic actions being taken in cutscenes that the player could have done themselves, but it also subverts the trope way more than the usual cutscene-driven action game. Here is an interesting example:

  • In Uncharted 2 Nate chases a train with Elena and jumps onto it from a jeep, and then manages to derail it while he's on board. Afterwards, he is stranded in the snow until he is rescued by a native of the area.
  • In Uncharted 3, Nate chases a plane with Elena and jumps onto it from a jeep, and then manages to crash it while he's on board. Afterwards, he is stranded in the desert until he is rescued by a native of the area.

Most people complained that the plane scene was just a retread, which it was, but ignored the obvious innovation. Naughty Dog basically rewrote U2's train scenario with one little difference: In U2, all the aforementioned beats were cutscenes, and in U3 they were all gameplay. The plane and desert scenes are made a million times better because we actually get to experience them first hand.

Interestingly enough, In U2 you get to play through the wreckage in a phenomenal climbing scene, yet in U3 Drake scavenged the plane wreckage in a cutscene. It would have been great if we could go to the crash site ourselves after landing, and see the damage we caused first hand. It would also give us the time and space to reflect on how bad the situation has become for poor Nate. Plus, if we can begin the desert journey ourselves by going in whatever direction we choose, the journey itself would feel more like our own.

I think these scenes are a great showcase for why devs should not make the player watch what they can already do.


Spoilers for: The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain, Mass Effect

5. I'd Like To Do That 

Small, meaningful interactions in cutscenes the player doesn't get to experience.

This trope is different from That's My Job because it deals with instances that are not in the immediate control scheme. Since characters in cutscenes aren't limited by what the buttons do, they can do a wider range of things than the player. However, a lot of these actions actually can be replicated on the controller, even though the high concept verb may not be listed on the scheme.

These moments are usually special, relatively short in length, and happen once or only a few times in the game. These are those emotional, intimate, grandiose, intense, or funny actions performed in cutscenes that we hardly ever get to play in games:

Fifteen years ago in Final Fantasy VIII, Squall and Rinoa shared an iconic ballroom dance. We loved it but didn't get to play it. Later on Shepard and Garrus tore it up at a club in Mass Effect 3: Citadel. Again, we didn't get to play it. For a moment, I thought it would finally happen in Bioshock Infinite, when Liz asks Booker to dance with her. But of course it didn't happen. Then, in Burial At Sea, Liz and Booker actually do get to share a sway. Unfortunately, this dance was just a cutscene as well, even though it was in first person.

It doesn't have to resort to QTE's or a rhythm-based minigame. The default movement controls will do the trick. Left stick to strafe and right stick to turn, with maybe a face button or two for things like dipping or twirling. Participating in a shared dance this way would be quite lovely and serene for something slow like in Burial At Sea, and exciting for something faster paced like in Mass Effect or Final Fantasy VIII.

CPR is an urgent and scary affair, and watching it be performed can be an intense experience if you care about the situation. However, having to perform it to save a life is a much more intense and meaningful experience than watching it. You bear exceptional responsibility as you take someone's life into your own hands, and have a goal you are desperately trying to accomplish and can indeed fail. In this example, The Last of Us has the player witness Joel using CPR in a cutscene while Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead prove that having the player engage in it directly gives the scene more weight.

Moving in for a hug by actually walking into the other character via the left stick, maybe with a bit of swaying during the embrace if you so choose, and then unhugging by actually moving away would add a feeling of presence for the player that would be absent if it was strictly a press X to hug affair ala Beyond and Bioshock. A little malleability and humor (or other emotional meaning depending on the nature of the hug) can be added to the interaction by having the other character react to how long the player holds the embrace.

For example, a bro/bra hug like Shepard reuniting with Garrus in Mass Effect 2; If you hold the embrace for longer than expected and start swaying about, Garrus can get embarrassed or make a witty remark like, "Alright Shep that's enough, save it for the captain's quarter's" (that Turian charm). If you still don't let go he'll end it himself. Simple. For a more serious moment, like if you are saying your last goodbyes to Liara in ME3, you may not want to let go. I can imagine players being reluctant to leave but the clock is ticking. You can even be holding L2 and R2 to wrap your arms around Liara, so that letting go feels more intimate because you have to physically release the buttons in addition to moving away.

Like hugs, kisses are a compelling one-on-one interaction that cutscenes hog. Let's see how we can make a kiss interactive without making it a selection in a menu or quick time event.

For example, something simple like the end of Uncharted in front of the sunset; Nate and Elena are edging closer to each other, all romantic like, and Elena says some quip that acts as a wink wink to the player so there's no need for a prompt. Then you plant the pecker by pushing the left stick forward to lean in. If the player is too slow to act or is oblivious to what Elena is getting at (a trait they would end up passing on to Nate here thus influencing a bit of his character), she'll initiate the kiss herself, adding some nice character based malleability to the scene. An alternate version could be based on the one that appears in the actual game; if you are too slow, Sully will intercept the moment with his perfectly timed, "You two have a funny idea of romantic" line.

The drive into Pittsburgh in The Last of Us is a great (albeit large) example because it is a full scene with a mini storyline, perfect pacing, and the characters are actually going somewhere. Playing this scene would not only be a nice change of pace, but it would also let the player feel that they themselves are on an actual geographical journey.

The player drives along an empty highway, listening to the rain patter, a setting and setup that lets you settle down for a bit after that last encounter. Then Ellie and Joel's conversation happens live, feeling reminiscent of the prologue drive but with the player now in Joel's position. After taking the detour, the player cruises through the streets, but there is only one path to take. The linearity makes things suspicious, and then the ambush happens. Trapped, Joel has no choice but to floor it and maneuver through the street.

In the actual game, the player was in a big encounter while getting the truck started, then the truck cutscene plays, and then it's right to another encounter when the truck crashes. This takes the player out of Joel's shoes and into his fists instead. We feel like his journey is somewhat off limits to us except for the fighting. It would have been nice to have more variety in gameplay segments, especially when driving isn't an abstract concept in video games.

Everyone who has played Metal Gear Solid knows how memorable and gripping the torture scene was. Not only did we as players have to struggle during the ordeal, but we could fail by inability or giving up. The story is affected by the player's actions in the scene as well, since the outcome determines whether Meryl or Otacon live in the end. In MGS3, Snake's torture is in cutscene form for whatever reason. All the creative decisions that enhanced the power of MGS1's scene were gone. Kojima brought back the interactive torture with Peace Walker, but only the button mashing was applied to it.

This random flip flopping between gameplay and cutscenes for unique moments seems rather odd to me. Instead of a constant push forward with each game, developers seem to ignore some of their past accomplishments at times.

Another example of flip flopping would be from Halo 4, where in a cutscene we see a giant ship come barreling in from the distance. Chief watches as it flies overhead in an epic fashion. It is a grand display, one that would be engrossing to experience from Chief's point of view...

And that's exactly what happened five years prior in Halo 3. After you hear on the radio that Forward Unto Dawn is inbound, the music starts up, and the gigantic ship flies into the scene from miles away, kicking up sand and rumbling the controller while the music swells to a crescendo. All in real time. It was such an awesome moment that made the world feel huge by letting the player feel small. Another view.

More comedic interactions would be nice as well. 

I don't want to spend to much time on one section so I'll just throw in that dialogue is something more games should insist on letting the player participate in. Talking to characters is always the most interesting and stimulating long term interaction in whatever game lets you do it.


Spoilers for: The Last of Us

6. Play This But Not Really Though

"INTERACT" prompt appears in gameplay, but actually means "ACTIVATE CUTSCENE".

Many games have one button reserved for "interact", which is weird. Of all the buttons on a controller, this is the one used to interact with the game world? What it really means is, press this button to do anything that isn't mapped to another button. When the prompt shows up, it implies that you will get to interact with whatever you're using it on. When prompted, the "interact" command can be misleading. I know this one's reaching a bit, but it irks me when a game invite's me to do something, and then I can't actually do it.

To use an example from earlier (as I've already shown how gameplay can be applied to it), when Burial At Sea says, Take Elizabeth's Hand, I expect to dance. I don't want to watch Booker dance with her. This isn't a movie. Bioshock Infinite is full of this (who can forget that dong sound?).

In The Last of Us' David boss fight, after a long scuffle and a suspenseful crawl towards the machete, Ellie's last hope is to grab it. The triangle prompt implies that you are going to pick up the machete, but when you press it, the cutscene where Ellie kills David starts. If we were never going to kill David ourselves, the cutscene may as well have started when Ellie regains consciousness, because then there wouldn't be a build up in gameplay (crawling to the knife) that never adequately pays off.

Adventure games like The Walking Dead and Beyond: Two Souls suffer from this heavily. A while ago I compared Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead, and one of the notable differences was that Heavy Rain has a whole control scheme dedicated to physical interaction and not just selection, which annihilates this trope. It's a shame that Beyond didn't inherit that system, nor has anyone bothered to copy and improve it.

Most games wouldn't need Heavy Rain's analog interaction system, however, since many cutscene actions could have been gameplay in other ways, as I demonstrated previously.


7. Play This But Not Really Though 2

Pseudo-cutscenes that employ Quick Time Events which could have been normal gameplay.

There's no use trying to explain this, as most of you probably already have problems with QTEs. Here are some examples anyway.

Unlike the other dances I talked about, this one in Beyond actually does have some interactivity and minor malleability. It's simple, it's not really out of place, and you can mess up and step on the guy's foot. But like I explained before, a dance like this could have been done in live play, and would have been better had it been. There is also a kiss in this scene, which is a choice using Kiss and Move Away prompts. That could have been done by leaning forward to kiss, and back to move away, instead of using a QTE choice moment.

The Wolf Among Us uses the same directional QTE system as Beyond for it's action scenes. It works for fighting because there are no dedicated melee controls, but for scenes such as this chase, it just seems lazy. We watch Bigby run through the environment and we occasionally respond to a giant on screen arrow prompt to avoid obstacles. Instead of playing Dragon's Lair, we could have chased the perp ourselves, especially since there are already dedicated movement controls. How cool would it have been to reach that hallway intersection, wonder where to go, and then hear the footsteps and see the dust falling from the roof in real time?

The arcade scene in The Last of Us: Left Behind is an excellent example of using QTEs creatively to great effect. Also, this delightfully strange application in Beyond.


Spoilers: God of War, The Last of Us, Metal Gear Solid 1&3, Fight Night Champion, Portal 2

8. Let Me Get That For You

After an epic boss battle, the final blow is delivered in a cutscene rather than by the player themselves.

This trope is an oddball. I'm surprised devs are still doing this. Why not just let us finish what we we started? We worked up to a climax, so we should get to experience it. Playing through a conflict all the way to the end makes sure we feel the full pay off, whether it is accomplishment or failure.

Imagine the emotions raging inside as we mash square against David's face in The Last of Us. All that intensity. It would have made the moment more horrifying and a hell of a lot more cathartic, and how fast we stopped would say a little something about ourselves (Like at the end of The Walking Dead, Episode 2).

There are numerous creative ways to make a boss kill stand out in gameplay, for example:

The tragic nature of The Boss' death in Metal Gear Solid 3 hits the player harder than Sniper Wolf's, thanks to the player being the one responsible for the execution and the cinematic flair that surrounds it.

Each colossus death in Shadow of the Colossus has meaning within the story that would be diminished if the player didn't deliver each final strike.

In Fight Night Champion, when you finally get Isaac Frost rocked, time slows and the background goes black, letting the player savor the final blows for the ultimate catharsis overload.

In Portal 2, firing a portal at the moon was one of the most unexpected and creative decisions of the game. It was made better by letting players figure out and execute it themselves.


Spoilers for: Uncharted 2, The Last of Us, The Walking Dead

9. Play Time's Over

Realistic mortality (and other fail states) in cutscenes.

What's there to say about this one that hasn't already been noted by everyone? You know the drill: The player character has a health bar in gameplay, and every hit they take basically isn't canon. When cutscenes roll, now they are susceptible to the dangers of (the fiction's) reality. 

This means there is no reason to feel suspense, no need to worry, as our character is not in any danger while were in control. They will just heal or respawn. The absence of that kind of tension during gameplay makes even the most serious attempts at establishing danger fall flat on the story layer. There is no fear for our character's well being, mental state, or life. Only the fear of losing items, or worse, your time. When you know there are checkpoints, the real reason you don't want to fail is because you don't want to have to do that thing all over again.

It's just weird to see games that take their story injuries and deaths so seriously in cutscenes allow the player to witness the character take bullets and explosions like gods during play. It creates another layer of separation between the story you play and the story you watch. One is serious, has real tension and stakes, and the other is just for fun. If death, injury, or the possibility of those is supposed to be a theme of the story, it shouldn't be handled in gameplay as just a minor annoyance. Especially in zombie stories, the fear of getting infected should be real for the player, rather than a pit stop until the story demands it happens.

It goes the other way too. Some things that cause death in-game don't in cutscenes. For example, in MGS3 falling off a bridge causes Snake to die, but in a later cutscene on the same bridge he is thrown off with a broken arm and survives. It works with other fail states as well such as the infamous chase sequence in Assassin's Creed 3 that restarts if the perp gets away, but when you catch him, a cutscene plays where he gets away.


10. Paradox

Some mechanics and rules that are fundamental to the game's world don't exist in cutscenes.

This one separates the game and story layers to potentially game-breaking distances. It forces the player to create two different fictions, each with it's own rules, instead of seeing the game as one cohesive story. The most well known example would probably be when Aerith dies in Final Fantasy VII, reminding players that Phoenix Downs, despite having a mythology behind them, are merely gameplay constructs unrelated to the canon story.

When the player has certain things equipped, they might not show up in cutscenes. For example The Last of Us, which uses pre-rendered cutscenes, does not show any melee weapons Joel was carrying in gameplay. On the other hand, Mass Effect does show Shepard carrying the player's armor and weapons in cutscenes, and the Metal Gear Solid games show whatever camo the player chose. But when Shepard or Snake decide to use a weapon during a cutscene, the default pistol or rifle will always appear in their hands. That default weapon may not have existed in the player's inventory, and is often far less suited for the situation than the ultra mega death weapons the player is packing.

Sometimes the story layer will actually agree with the gameplay when it comes to customizable characters, but will then cause a massive discrepancy or plot hole: In Sleeping Dogs, cutscenes show Shen wearing the player's selected outfit, which means you can see him dressed as a police officer talking to criminals while undercover. In MGS4, Snake actually pulls out Crying Wolf's rail gun in a cutscene, presumably out of his pocket, to fight Geckos.

Certain skills and personality traits of characters also apply, like the ones previously explained in Bipolar. As do staple mechanics such as Booker's kleptomania and dumpster diving in Bioshock Infinite, Kratos' struggle to open doors in God of War, and Read Dead Redemption's fame/honor system.


11. Pacing Shmacing

Cutscene and gameplay interrupt each other.

Some games pace the gameplay and cutscenes nicely. There's a rhythm. Others make you wonder why the controller is even in you hands. Long cutscenes are one thing, but blatant misplacement is worse. Most players already know their personal limits for cutscene interruption, so I'll use an extreme example:

In the opening of Metal Gear Solid 4, after the long "War has changed" speech, the player finally gets to play. The immediate play area is about the size of a bedroom. You have to crawl under a truck to proceed. When you go under the truck, another cutscene begins. In the cutscene we see the rebels fighting some more and then snake rolls across the street. Cue gameplay again.

We needed a cutscene to cross the street.

Now the player can run around the building. After a few seconds of running, we get another minutes-long cutscene to introduce the Gecko. After that, the player can run again for about a minute until the next cutscene which keeps going for well over ten minutes not including the briefing or codec conversation. MGS3 had the same problem; Long intro, climb tree, long codec conversation, walk further, more codec.

Compare this to MGS1, where the first gameplay segment in the basement was a well designed stage that let us use most of the mechanics. It also had the credits displayed live, giving a nice cinematic effect that MGS4 lacked (the credits stopped during those gameplay cuts and continued during the cutscenes). MGS2 let us roam and explore the tanker, and Peace Walker had a lengthy jungle mission.

The other side of the spectrum is when the game establishes that it is currently in movie mode, yet quick time events appear out of nowhere. It is especially annoying in a game that uses them so sparingly that no one is going to be prepared when they are engrossed in whatever is going on in the cutscene:

Those of us who missed this prompt to hug Leonardo in Assassin's Creed 2 know what true guilt is.

The Witcher 2 gives an absurdly small window of success, and failing the QTE can cause a game over.

Another version of this is when a prompt shows up during a cutscene without a timer nor other options. The scene just stops for all eternity until you press the continue button for some arbitrary interaction that only slows things down. Bioshock Infinite and Beyond: Two Souls do this throughout.


Spoilers for: Bioshock Infinite

12. Cameraman

Some cutscenes happen during gameplay, but don't supplement the lack of filmmaking with any meaningful interactions.

You often see this in first person shooters, when the guns go down and other characters talk and interact with each other and the environment while you watch. It is effectively a cutscene, as the player is a passive observer in a closed environment which they can't escape the confines of until the game explicitly allows them to.

What these scenes inevitably accomplish is bluntly showing how ill equipped the shooter genre is at storytelling. You'll notice that these segments happen almost exclusively when the shooting stops. All that is left is looking and moving around. As you watch characters actually do things, real things that people do, you wonder why you can't join in on the activities. It's because when you don't use your gun, you don't do anything. There is no alternative interaction in these games. You passively observe as the game world lives it's life, while you sit there diddling the joysticks as the cameraman.

The worst applications of Cameraman are when developers try to implement some kind of player interaction but don't make the scene direction malleable. The outcome is a dosage of fake tension made to fool the player into believing they are really participating in the story. Basically, the player has to do something in the scene, and there are multiple somethings the player can do, but only a certain something will actually push the scene forward.

Here is an example from The Last of Us. You can see the infected, and since you're vulnerable, you may not want to go near it. You've got Tommy by you with a gun for protection as well. Unfortunately, the player is actually supposed to walk past the infected so that it attacks. Otherwise, Tommy just stands there until you deliberately put Sarah in danger. It's an immersion-breaking showcase of Cameraman being used instead of actual story malleability.

Since Bioshock Infinite uses Cameraman in addition to Play This But Not Really Though, you get instances where you are watching something happen, and an action prompt appears that you don't have to acknowledge. Irrational didn't bother making inaction an actual decision in these instances, which means you can sit back and watch scenarios like Comstock and Liz shaking each other for as long as you want. It's absolutely hilarious and not something a serious story should ever allow to happen.

Here is an example from Syndicate, where a man will have a seizure until the end of time unless you, the player, offer your super important services.

When a psuedo-cutscene halts abruptly, waiting for the player to respond in the only way they can, it is not interactive storytelling. It's an exercise in obedience. If you stop the cutscene, it should be so I can start playing. Don't just pause the cutscene so that I can press play.

There are two solutions: Let the player's interaction affect the scene even when they don't act, or just make it a real cutscene.


13. Robots In Disguise

Character animation is of very poor quality.

This one doesn't have anything to do with interactivity, but it's something I am passionate about and wish wasn't so common. It's a shame when a game has such a serious emotional story with realistically rendered human characters, and they move like they're in an episode of Archer.

Animation is acting, so mediocre animation is mediocre acting from a physical standpoint. Voice over became standard practice while character models were still blocky, so players are used to paying attention to only the voices when it comes to performance. So as long as the voices are good, nothing else matters. Characters can be put front and center on screen and look like manikins but it doesn't make a difference. I think it does, and all it takes is imagining how games like Telltale's or Bioware's would be like had they been animated as well as Naughty Dog's or Quantic Dream's. Playing Mafia 2 right after Ratchet and Clank made me question if I was looking at a completed product.

She's talking the whole time
Even though motion capture became the norm a decade ago, lackluster key framing of the body is still abundant in even the biggest titles, for both realistic and stylized characters. Good facial animation of human faces in particular is so rare that the games which excel at it actually use it as a selling point, whereas that kind of quality is standard in animated films and the visual effects industry.

The quality of writing, acting, art, and animation should all be on the same level. So many games with gorgeous environments and art styles fall apart when characters move. The blank stares and robot faces seem so out of place in otherwise lavish productions.

What bums me out the most is how nobody really seems to give a hoot about this. Animation is one of the most beautiful artforms, yet video games have no real standards for it despite being a completely animated medium. Some developers do care enough about their characters to portray them as believably as possible. Naughty DogValveQuantic DreamNinja TheoryDouble Fine and Insomniac among others do a phenomenal job. Praise is given to their game's animation, but never is that kind of fidelity considered a detriment when it's absent from other presentation-heavy games.

Like I said, this doesn't affect interactivity, but it's something that detracts from my experience and is primarily based in cutscenes. If you don't mind animation quality, I understand, and I envy you.


Thanks for reading!

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  1. Something strange going on this blog. Posts disappear, comments disappear. Why?


    1. Because I'm an idiot. I wanted to revise some of it and instead of pressing Update, I pressed Delete. Luckily I had a backup though.

      Sorry for the confusion.

  2. This was a fantastic read. I am a design student and I'm creating a game for my final honors project (Inspired by Telltales The Walking Dead). I want to push the storytelling and cinematic aesthetics while keeping a high level of interactivity and immersion in my players. Thanks for all the case studies!

    1. Thanks for the read :)

      Looks like we share the same goals, so I'm glad I could be of some help. Good luck with your project! (I'd be interested in seeing what you're working on in a pm if you are okay with that/are allowed to)


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