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Saturday, August 06, 2005

I Like Cutscenes

I felt I need to declare this after reading the Idle Thumbs writeup of Fristrom's NTI talk:

He makes it very clear, however, that this means more than just filling a game with cut-scenes, quite the opposite in fact. "I hate cut-scenes," says Fristrom. "I've never seen a cut-scene where I haven't thought 'yeah that was cool... I sure wish it had been me doing it'." This feeling stems from an even bigger problem, he says, one which doesn't try to make games cinematic, but make cinema through games; that of the Frustrated Director Syndrome.

The way he sees it, far too many designers seem to have greater aspirations towards being movie makers instead of game developers. They envision epic and complex tales but with the added bonus of interactivity. Yet when it comes to actually implementing that story they find that they can’t really get the player to view their masterpiece exactly as they would like, so they slip in a cut-scene instead to save time, thus yanking the player jarringly into another gear.

First, I should preface by saying that I really like Treyarch's work on the Spidey franchise and, quite obviously, Fristom knows what can only be considered technically as a truckload more than I do. Heck, I don't even know what NTI means. That's never really stopped me from shooting off at the mouth though, and since Jamie goes right to the oft-cited example of Half-Life as to what's correct in such storytelling, I feel I should offer the following opinion.

Half-Life had cut-scenes. And Half-Life 2 had even more of them.

OK, so no ... they weren't really cut-scenes because the camera never "cuts" away. And sure, I agree that's a good thing. But they did have heavily scripted scenes that break from the normal gameplay wherein the player really isn't in any control any more. They are cutscenes, it's just that the player can move the camera around to watch them.

Case in point. Try and kill any of the main characters in one of HL2's scenes. You can't. Heck, in some of the later scenes, you can't even move - you just watch. Some of the moments in Half-Life 2 amount to cutscenes that you simply can't skip past.

So in no way does the first-perspective sticky cam offer a panacea for smoothing out the transition between active gameplay and passive cinema. It offers some interesting alternatives, sure, and definately some lessons learned, but it's not a cure all.

And that's OK. I like cutscenes. If they are good that at least. For instance, the cutscenes in Time Splitters: Future Perfect are relatively short, skippable if you've seen them, and sometimes at least moderately funny. Often they offer a quick breather after slaying a whole hidden lab of zombies. Likewise, there were many scenes in both HL and HL2 which helped make a more believable world and offer moments of entertainment outside of blowing crap up. And some the cutscenes in the Theif and Diablo series were, for instance, pure candy.

I don't instantly prefer one versus the other. It's all a matter of style, and how to pull it off. I think the real problem is when cutscenes go bad, they give them all a bad name. Project: Snowblind, for instance, has really pretty bad cutscenes. Which is odd, because some of their Valve style scenes are fairly decent. But the difference in the models between the cutscenes and the game, as well as the level of writing involved in them, makes the game drag.

So game industry, don't get rid of some animated goodness if you can do it with polish and flourish. If you can't, well ... text is still cheap.

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