Tetsuya Takahashi, the director of the recent Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, said just before the game’s release over here in the UK, in an Iwata Asks interview (an interview conducted by Nintendo), that he saw cut-scenes as a “creative dead-end”. At first that sounded insane to me, I thought that, even if they were over-used, they weren’t a ‘creative dead-end’. But then I played Dear Esther, I played Bastion.
And I realised, I was wrong.
If you’ve ever played Xenoblade, or indeed any of Takahashi’s previous work (namely the Xenogears saga, and graphic direction on Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana), you’ll know that this is a man who seems to love cut-scenes, his titles are filled to the brim with them, and in Xenoblade his main method of storytelling is still just that, the cut-scene.
Is this man a hypocrite? I asked, but I quickly realised that he wasn’t, he’s just a man who knows he’s made mistakes. If anything, we should trust him more on the matter, because he’s made so many cut-scene-laden games, he really understands that this can’t be the way to do it, because he’s tried so hard to make them work, and he’s realised that they never have.
I believe cut-scenes are the result of game-developers trying to emulate film too hard. The same thing happened in the original film industry, sets were designed far more like a stage than they are today. Film was a new medium, and the way that people try to understand new things, is by comparing them to old things, it’s only human.
But humans are also creative, more specifically artistic, humans eventually find new, better ways of doing things, different things, new things that make people say ‘wow’, things that couldn’t have happened in that other medium. The Bourne films could not have existed on a stage, but a Charlie Chaplin film absolutely could have. New mediums bring with them both limitations and expansions on the preceding. People thrive on limitation, without it there’s no need to be creative, because you can just do things the way they were done before!
So, videogames, then. I think you’d agree that they aren’t the same as film. In a game the creator inevitably loses the fine-grain control of a film. They can’t control exactly what the player sees, because they can’t control the player’s actions, obviously. If they could, the game would be no fun, that would completely defeat the purpose of it being a game! If the creator could control exactly what we did, then the creator might as well just make a film, it’s exactly the same.
So control must be what makes it a game, the defining factor. Without control games would simply be films. It follows that cut-scenes are a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium, putting them in a game makes some weird, franken-game that’s a sometimes a film. If you look at it like that, cut-scenes don’t seem right at all. How should we tell stories in games then? Should there be stories?
As someone who writes and reads fiction profusely, and someone who’s all time favourite games all feature heavy plot elements, someone who plays games, above all else, as a method of escapism. I believe there should be story in games, wonderful, fantastical stories. It’s not those moments where I think “huh, that’s a cool mechanic”, but those moments where something I’ve experienced in a game emotionally connects with me, it’s the same with film, the same with books, the same with poetry, the same with all forms of art. Sure, Tetris is fun, but Zelda is far more so to me.
But… I don’t believe we’ve always been telling them in the right way. It hasn’t ever been the moments inside a cut-scene that have emotionally moved me, but the moments when I’ve been in control. It’s the hours spent as a child exploring the sea in Wind Waker, the carrying of Midna on my wolf-back in Twilight Princess and, more recently, the saving of Zolf in Bastion, the staring down into caverns and crevices in Dear Esther, imagining what might have happened there as the music melts in and out. These moments weave atmosphere so thick that the worlds tell stories without saying anything, a game at its most powerful is a world different to our own, with different laws of governing, different beings inside them.
Then there’s the narrators of those two games, the crazed, desperate psychology of a man who suddenly lost everything, who questions his lifelong religion, who created a world inside his head to escape the one he lives in, the one that betrayed him. Then the man, heartbroken by his own actions who stares, in emotional turmoil, at the world he blames himself for breaking, a world he is now desperate to repair. These men narrate the world the player is living in, weaving a narrative around them without standing in their face, and without them, without the worlds, the music which tell stories by themselves, Bastion would be just another mindless kill-fest, and Dear Esther… Well, Dear Esther wouldn’t exist.
As soon as you take control away from the player you make the experience less enjoyable, if wanted to watch a film I’d buy a film. Let’s take Dear Esther as an example, it tells its story as a look around the (staggeringly beautiful) world, the narrator’s voice is triggered by where I step, but I can carry on stepping, can carry on exploring, carry on wondering. The key thing is choice here, choice gives an unbroken, customised atmosphere, if I’m scared I run, if something catches my eye I look at it. I wouldn’t be able to do that in a cut-scene, if I’m scared I know I can’t die because The Director is looking after me, and if I am going to die I can’t do anything about it. It’s jarring consciously and subconsciously, you don’t expect it, you naturally want to skip to it. We need to tell story’s without getting in the way of the player’s own story, we need to augment the player’s journey, not stop it.
I call this frictionless storytelling, that is to say that it doesn’t impede on the player’s ability to continue exploring and affecting the world around them. The greatest stories told in games are told by the player themselves. The player tells their story by looking and listening, listening to what narrators (and of course NPCs, but NPCs are horribly implemented in most cases) are saying. Games like Portal tell a great story because they tell one through frictionless techniques. The ultimate goal, as far as I’m concerned, is to crack the remaining problem of ‘threading linear plots through non-linear environments’ (In the words of Dan Pinchbeck on his next game, ‘Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’). Games like Portal and Dear Esther are linear, even if they try their hardest to hide it, and games like Skyrim’s main-story is still hopelessly linear, with linear side-quests bunched around it. It feels archaic, and I think there will be some incredibly innovative games that blow us away with their storytelling over the next five.
Cut-scenes are just holding games back, we need to embrace the new capabilities of the medium, rather than try to hide its limitations. A game is a world, at it’s heart, let’s build a world rich enough, beautiful and inspiring enough that it tells stories by itself, just like the real world. Let’s build a place for the player to go and explore, listen and learn, unimpeded by films in their way.