The Morality of Cutscenes, or Vice Versa

Having gotten back from GDC, and with a number of new things on my plate, there are a lot of things I should be talking about, and I plan a “Reflections on GDC” post in the near future, but until then, I feel obligated to grind out my thoughts on something that's been quite the topic of discussion amongst people in the industry I associate with.

Today topic is: Cutscenes in Games

It seems to be the general opinion floating around in most circles that cutscenes are generally a negative thing to have in games. Kind of like narration in a screenplay, they're thought to represent something that can be used to great effect, but most of the time when you see them, it just represents laziness on behalf of the writer. The thought is that when you are playing a game, you're engaging in some amount of interactivity, and cutscenes take that away from the player, and so are counter productive to the game experience. If you can't tell the story while still allowing the player some measure of control, you're better off writing for movies instead of games. Everybody with me so far?

Personally, I strongly disagree. The idea that the ultimate goal of games is interactivity confuses me. Yes, I understand that it's the salient characteristic of games, and therefore, could be argued their most important one, but art as a whole has as its goal the phenomenological experience of the person beholding it, nothing else matters.

I agree that cut scenes in games that rob the player of control are frequently just kind of a hack solution, but what about a moment in which the precise feeling that you're looking to foster is a lack of control? An appropriately dramatic cutscene is precisely what you want at the moment.

But virtually everyone can agree with that, what I have a strange time swallowing is the idea that for a story to garner a significant amount of emotional involvement, you don't need cutscenes. Everybody I've talked to has been pointing to games like Portal, Bioshock, Deus Ex, and Half-Life 2 as examples of games that tell an engaging story while not relying heavily on the cutscene format.

I feel like the technology just isn't there yet for that to be true. Yes, I loved all of those games, but I think Natalie said it best while I was up in San Mateo for GDC: “I remember playing through Half Life 2, and someone said something that revealed a facet of Gordan Freeman's personality, and I thought, 'Oh, I'm like that? I didn't know!'”

Thinking about this discussion has kind of revealed my vague dissatisfaction with sandbox style RPGs in general. I think it's time that the game industry faces up to a bitter pill: Tabula Rasa characters don't get people personally involved in stories. Period.

If I'm playing through Fallout 3, and I do a bunch of evil things in the beginning of the game, presumably I'm setting myself up for an evil character. For some reason though, Bethesda is afraid to limit your choices later on in the game too heavily, because the idea of having a lot of options open to you is some kind of holy grail that cannot be interfered with by any mere mortal man. If you force me to be evil late in the game because I was evil early in the game, you're robbing me of choices. In this case it's a partial lack of control, and in cutscenes it's a total lack of control, but the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. Again, I'm a little unclear on why this is so bad. Game developers seem to value interactivity over the general quality of the experience.

Because game developers are desperately concerned that I can choose to be evil or good at every possible intersection, the only story that can be crafted around this kind of game's main character is either two stories, one where you're Mother Teresa, and one where you're Hitler (Bioshock, KotOR), or a story that doesn't actually account for your morality in any way other than a footnote (Arcanum, Fallout 3).

Newsflash: by attempting to make a game that appropriately to the morality of your character dynamically, 99% of the time, you're actually making a game that presents a ridiculous parody of actual ethical behavior and consequences.

There's a place for this kind of game, and I enjoy Fallout 3 a ton, to be sure, but if you want to talk plot, give me a call when the technology is there, I'll be in the other room, playing Chrono Trigger on my DS.

(Oh, and for those who haven't heard, you should check here to see a conversation at GDC between myself, Jeff Ward, Corvus Elrod, Darren Torpey, filmed by Darius Kazemi.)