There are few people who have a middling opinion of video game cutscenes—people tend to love them or hate them, finding the way they strip the player of control to be frustrating or finding their storytelling capability to be a benefit. As a narrative device, cutscenes play an important role in getting a player through a crucial, scripted event at the expense of turning the player into a ‘watcher.’
Many games don’t need cutscenes, but story-heavy series like Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy often use them to bring the story back to center when it’s easy to get lost in sidequests and distractions. They serve as a reminder of the game’s plot, but story isn’t what every gamer is after.
Are cutscenes doing more harm than good, or are they a necessary part of telling an engrossing story in video games?
Cutscenes Fall Victim to Common Pitfalls
Not all games do cutscenes badly. There are a number that don’t entirely strip the player of control, letting them wander or look around while the story happens around them. Others allow engagement during cutscenes, letting players choose the words their characters speak. Others rely on quick time events, breaking up watching the story unfold by making players press a button or fail.
Each variation has its pitfalls—running around while characters talk at you (as seen in the Half-Life series) feels a little silly, particularly for people who would much rather just skip the talking and get back to the action. While choosing dialog options is great for RPG fans, it can be tedious or frustrating for others. And quick time events are rarely popular, especially when, in games like Mortal Kombat X, you expect to be actually fighting, not just pressing X to progress a cutscene.
Cutscenes Without Action but With Player Interaction Work Surprisingly Well
Uncharted bridges the gap between cutscenes and interactivity fairly well, especially during Uncharted 2: Among Thieves‘ famous Tibetan village scene. As Nathan Drake, players explore the village, unable to communicate due to the language barrier. For once, Drake is entirely out of his element—he can’t communicate, he can’t fight, and he can’t climb his way out of the mountain village or he’ll just be lost in the Himalayas.
Instead of letting the action play out without player involvement, this scene does the opposite; there’s no action, but the player is involved nonetheless. You can explore at your leisure, or hurry after Tenzin to progress the game. This amount of autonomy is an excellent balance, and while some players might still be aggravated because they can’t attack the innocent villagers, it does make sense—it’s not really in tune with Drake’s character or the tone of the game. Sure, you can pet a cow a thousand times just for weirdness’ sake, but turning the scene into a bloodbath runs contrary to its tone and place in the game.
Scenes like this are the ideal use of cutscenes—it’s slow-paced but still interactive, and it doesn’t wrest control from the player to let some wild explosions happen. While the Uncharted series is still guilty of both of those cutscene sins, the middle ground in the Tibetan village is an excellent balance of interactivity and the game’s cinematic nature.
Action Cutscenes Without Interactivity Can Make Players Feel Cheated
True cutscenes—unlike Uncharted‘s interactive village—usually play out as miniature movies. This can be a great experience, but also a frustrating one—why is a shot to the hip in a cutscene somehow crippling when protagonists routinely soak up bullets like sponges? Cutscenes sometimes introduce mechanics, weapons, or weaknesses that aren’t available in the standard gameplay, which makes the player feel cheated.
These type of cutscenes are usually used for dramatic effect. A player is going to be frustrated if a single shot downs them, so developers turn that action into a sequence that’s not playable. In a game like Mortal Kombat X, a standard fighting game that takes place on a largely static stage, the opening sequence, in which Johnny Cage, Kenshi, and Sonya fight Scorpion and Subzero in a helicopter, is action-packed and fun, but not in the game’s traditional, 2.5D style. Instead, the action plays out in a cutscene with quick time events.
It’s not an ideal solution—while the sequence is fun to watch, the lack of interactivity so early in a fighting game can be a little frustrating. These quick time events do have consequences in the following battles, meaning that instead of just forcing you to try again and again until you succeed, the repercussions of failure will be explored in the game’s fighting mode. Again, it’s a tremulous balance that could go either way for fans—it’s a compromise, not a complete solution.
Cutscenes Experience Growing Pains Like Any Other Mechanic
More and more games are taking an approach that adds interactivity into cutscenes. Games are still an evolving medium, meaning that blending the cinematics of storytelling with the interactive aspects is still a work in progress. Some games do it well, and some suffer pitfalls, but games that are daring with their approaches—Uncharted‘s village scene, or Half-Life‘s entire lack of cutscenes—prove that the medium isn’t constrained to only interactive aspects or only cinematic ones to tell a story.
What do you think of cutscenes and quick time events?