Have they had their day or do you believe there is still life left in them?

Back in August, a few of the AG guys and I were deep in discussion when we briefly got onto the topic of cutscenes and whether or not we were a fan of them. More importantly, however, we began to discuss if we thought they still had relevance in this next-gen era of consoles.

Now, this was a question I hadn’t really given any thought – until it was posed to me. I was always a huge fan of cutscenes, growing up they were probably my favourite aspect of video games. I loved their amazing set pieces and intense fight sequences. They were, in a way, the ultimate goal for the player to reach; they were the shiny, visually stunning reward for completing each level. But after I gave it some thought, I realised I’m still stuck in that mind-set; constantly playing through games to try and find satisfaction in the visual and storytelling qualities of their cutscenes. I don’t know if this is due to the fact that I’m a huge film fanatic or because I am being brainwashed by lazy game developers.

Humble Beginnings

Allow me back up a bit, and by a bit, I mean back to 1980 and the release of a little game called Pac-Man. Pac-Man is widely credited as the first video game to use cutscenes; however, they were used between levels for comedic effect, as a way of setting the light-hearted tone of the game – rather than being used as a form of storytelling. Fast-forward 3 years to the release of Bega’s Battle, a laserdisc video game which uses scenes from the anime film Harmagedon. It was the first game to use full-motion video cutscenes and voice acting to develop a story in between the game’s shooting stages. Ever since then, cutscenes have become the standard approach to video game storytelling.

I was always a huge fan of cutscenes, growing up they were probably my favourite aspect of video games.

I grew up in the 90’s, playing games that used live-action cutscenes as a way of telling the story. Although they get a bad rap (I’m looking at you Resident Evil), sometimes they worked extremely well. The cutscenes in Star Wars: Jedi Knight for example helped me get very emotionally involved in the narrative, as it’s hard to get attached to ugly 90’s blocky characters. Jedi Knight’s cutscenes had more heart, better dialogue and way more tension than all 3 of the Star Wars prequels put together. Which just goes to show, when done right, cutscenes could add so much more to a game. Note the emphasis on could, as this all changed with the arrival of Valve’s seminal PC shooter Half-Life in 1998.

old snake salute

Can you imagine a Metal Gear Solid game without cutscenes? Snake certainly can’t.

The Game Changer

Half-Life was a game that famously featured no cutscenes, yet succeeded in telling a genuinely gripping story. This was achieved through the use of scripted in-game sequences, viewed from a first-person perspective, which served to move the story forward. This groundbreaking technique meant that the once passive experience of storytelling was now an interactive one, one that the player could experience first hand. So this meant the end of the cutscene, right? Wrong.

Video game graphics at that time still paled in comparison to the stunning visuals that could be created using pre-rendered cutscenes. So game developers continued to use cutscenes as their principal form of storytelling, which was fair enough. But here we are in 2013, the eighth generation of consoles having just been released; in-game visuals have reached near perfection, yet video games still include cutscenes. The question is why?

Lipstick On A Pig

2K Games’ BioShock used Half-Life’s scripted sequence technique and created one of the most engrossing video game narratives of all time. This would surely prove that the cutscene was no longer needed. But, refusing to give up the gun, developers came up with the interactive cutscene as a way to try and bridge the gap between gameplay and cinematics. This practice is now used throughout the video game world in the form of quick-time events and in a most cases, diminishes the quality of the overall gameplay. The Call of Duty franchise is famous for this, their use of QTE’s fools the player into thinking that they are performing the action on screen; when in actual fact the visual prompt is basically saying “Press X to see a cutscene of you stabbing a guy in the neck” instead of actually letting you stab a guy in the neck – which personally, drains the fun out of it for me.

Needle In A Haystack

In some cases, however, the implementation of QTE’s works perfectly. Asura’s Wrath, Heavy Rain and Telltale’s The Walking Dead are all great examples of how cutscenes can be used effectively; each of these 3 games uses them in completely different ways to create their own totally unique style of gameplay. So my argument isn’t to get rid of the cutscene altogether, it is to stop relying on them as a safe form of storytelling and only use them where they are needed. Nowadays the only feeling I get from watching animated cutscenes is annoyance, as they constantly seem to show your character doing something super cool, but that something can never actually be done in-game. It seems that with certain games, we make ourselves slog through some incredibly boring level designs featuring ridiculously monotonous gameplay, just so that you can get to the spectacular cutscene at the end. Now call me crazy, but doesn’t that defeat the object of what video games are all about?

Need for Speed the Run

Need For Speed: The Run was a stark example of QTEs done wrong.

Just Let Go

What I am trying to say is that cutscenes in the traditional sense shouldn’t be relied on any longer. I used to love watching them as a kid, when they featured actions and visuals that weren’t possible in-game with the technology back then, but that isn’t the case anymore. In-game graphics have now become as visually stunning as cutscenes. So in effect, the only thing cutscenes do is take control away from the player. I think the reason games like Half-Life and BioShock were so well received, is because they pulled the wool from the gaming communities eyes and made them realise that games don’t need to rely on cutscenes and in most cases actually benefit without them.

The Future Is Looking Bright

More recently, 8th gen titles like Knack were slammed for their use of cutscenes, for jarringly taking the control away from the player for no real reason. New technology should also help to remove the traditional cutscene from the limelight, as they wouldn’t particularly work with hardware like the Oculus Rift, as they would ruin the experience completely. This new evolution of technology is a sign that the time of the cutscene, as we know it, is coming to an end. Though don’t think of this as a tearful goodbye, but more like a freeing transition. Cutscenes have served the gaming world well for the past 34 years, but now I think it is time to take off our training wheels and ride out into a new era of video game storytelling, where the possibilities are endless!

Do you think cutscenes have had their day or do you believe there is still life left in them? We’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section!