A lot can (and has) been argued against the use of cut-scenes in games. They are broadly seen as an archaic film mechanic that stumbled into gaming convention in an age when games were too young and naïve to put forward any other alternative.
I agree wholeheartedly that instead of relying on the storytelling mechanics of a pre-existing, passive medium, game designers should focus on exploring the unique, interactive ways video games can present stories spatially and dynamically. However, I feel that games have held on to cut-scenes for decades now for reasons other than a lack of knowing any other way to do things. In this piece, I do not want to defend the games that depend on filmic techniques to jam a linear story into independent gameplay, but rather defend the games that harness cut-scenes as one of many expressive tools unique to our medium.
These are some arguments commonly levelled at cut-scenes: Games are fundamentally participatory and active; films are fundamentally authored and passive. Taking away the player’s agency to tell them a story directly contradicts what a game is. Rewarding the player for completing an interactive challenge with a non-interactive scene makes no sense. It isn’t a reward, it is a punishment. As Eskelinen says, “If I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.” The world depicted in a game’s cut-scenes often contradicts the world depicted in a game’s gameplay, creating ludonarrative dissonance between the story and game. This should be avoided at all costs.
Again, I have to stress that I agree with all of these as issues in games that rely overtly on cut-scenes, and I could list plenty of games guilty of all three of these because they are too dependent on telling stories in preauthored fashions. However, I do not believe all cut-scenes should be frowned upon for these reasons. Allow me to counter the above arguments with the following justifications for when cut-scenes are viable: Cut-scenes pause player agency temporarily to allow the character to exert their own agency and to contribute to the player/character relationship. If a player’s emotive involvement in the game’s story has been sufficiently heightened during gameplay, a cut-scene can indeed be a reward by taking advantage of that emotive involvement in a way an entirely passive film never could. Ludonarrative dissonance, to an extent, does not matter. The game as played by the player does not have to be in perfect sync with the story as presented about the character. Okay. Now that I have put that out there, allow me to clarify what I mean by each of these before I get flamed.
1. Cut-scenes allow a space for characters to exert their agency.
I am currently working on a paper about the relationship between the player and the character in adventure videogames where I argue that adventure videogames don’t exclusively rely on player agency so much as they rely upon a symbiotic agency contributed to by both player and character. Both the player and the character exert agency in unique ways and only through a cooperation between the two can the story be enacted. For example, the player has agency over Drake’s aiming, jumping, and running; but Drake himself has agency over how skilled he is at these abilities as well as the decision to be a treasure hunter in the first place.
The cut-scene allows a space where the player steps back and lets the character have their agency. This is why, in extreme examples, some characters only ever speak in cut-scenes while remaining mute during gameplay (such as the playable character of Killzone 2). The games these characters belong to draw a clear (perhaps too clear) line between who is leading the player/character relationship and when.
Let’s look at Grand Theft Auto IV. The player has agency to decide how they navigate the city, which order they attempt missions, what crimes they partake in. But once the player begins a mission, the character takes the lead in conversation and their relationships with other, non-playable characters.
Of course, a bad game that is too reliant on cut-scenes will take this too far and will only be capable of progressing the story in cut-scenes when the gameplay is halted. A good game, though, does not draw such distinct lines but instead blends the player and character’s agency through the gameplay and the cut-scenes. This is seen in the long drives between missions in Grand Theft Auto IV (praised and slammed in equal measure across the internet and reviews for being “nothing but glorified cut-scenes”) where Nico converses with other characters, or in Drake’s constant chatter in Uncharted 2. Rather than splitting the player’s agency and the character’s agency, cut-scenes used well emphasise the player’s relationship and co-dependency with the character. We can play Niko Bellic as a sociopathic maniac in our gameplay if we desire, but it is in the cut-scenes that we learn to care about him and his relationships.
2. Cut-scenes can harness the player’s emotive investment
A cut-scene in a game, viewed by a player who has just spent two hours of active involvement with the world and characters, will be more emotively powerful than an identical scene viewed as part of two hours of passively watched film. Several cut-scenes exist throughout the Halo series that I found particularly memorable-more so that the same scenes would have in a movie. For instance, the conclusion of Halo 2 where the rings almost fire, and the activation of the forerunner artefact beneath New Mombasa in Halo 3 to name a couple. These scenes, while dramatic in their own right, would not have had nearly the same effect on me if I had not been involved in the world and its events for the preceding hours. The rings activating would not just affect the characters, it would affect me and my stake in the game’s world.
Cut-scenes, then, should not be used as a prescriptive film mechanic forced onto the game, but as a tool wholly reliant on the game’s interactive nature and the player’s consequential engagement in order to invoke the desired response. As a movie, Halo would be dumb and cliché; but as a game it is able to take advantage of my connection to the fictional world to extract illicit and specific emotional responses.
If I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to stop and tell me a story. But if you caught it like this, I would expect you to revel in the feat you just achieved before throwing it back to me.
3. Ludonarrative dissonance does not matter… not all the time, at least.
A dissonance between the world of the game and the world of the cut-scene can jar the player’s experience when the dissonance is an inconsistency in the fiction. Why should a grenade critically injure a character in a cut-scene when we have seen countless grenades explode futilely at their feet during gameplay? If Solid Snake is holding a silenced pistol in a cut-scene, it is fair to assume he will have one when the cut-scene is over. This dissonance that does jar is due to a contradiction of the character’s abilities during gameplay and the character’s abilities during a cut-scene, and it is certainly a bad kind of ludonarrative dissonance that should be avoided at all costs.
However, the dissonance between how the player plays the character during gameplay and how the character behaves during cut-scenes, I would argue, is not jarring. Or rather, if the player does find it jarring, it is partially the player’s own fault. If the player wishes to actively engage in a game’s story, the player has a responsibility to engage in a certain way. If you feel Grand Theft Auto IV‘s story makes no sense because Nico acts like a sociopath between missions, then don’t act like a sociopath between missions! Player’s cannot expect to have an active role in a game’s story without also taking some responsibility for that story.
Though, the player may certainly play the game however they desire and ignore the story completely, in which case the dissonance between gameplay and cut-scenes is insignificant because the player is not playing for the story’s sake. The player should be able to cause ludonarrative dissonance because they should be free to play the game however they want. This is true even of games that do not have cut-scenes, such as any player of Half-life who gunned down every scientist and security guard they stumbled across during their escape from Black Mesa.
If the dissonance is internal to the character, that is bad and a sure case of a game depending on cut-scenes to tell a story. If the dissonance is caused by the player’s behaviour, it does not matter because it is the player that is choosing to cause it and at the end of the day, the player is free to do whatever they desire… as long as they take responsibility for the consequences. The cut-scenes of Grand Theft Auto IV do not jar my experience of the game, but rather hint at how I should enact my role as Niko Bellic if I wish to contribute to a meaningful story.
Some of the best games I have ever played have no cut-scenes and would not be made any better with cut-scenes. But at the same time, some of my most memorable gaming moments were not interactive but were memorable solely because of the interactive context they were situated in (Bioshock and Heavy Rain being key examples, for me at least). At the end of the day, videogames are interactive and need to develop their own unique, interactive way of present stories for the player to enact independent of pre-existing linear mediums. However, just as video games are able to use written text without prescribing to a purely novelist mode of storytelling, video games are also able to use linearly acted cinematic cut-scenes without prescribing to a purely filmic mode of storytelling. Has any cut-scene in any Halo game been as memorable as my mad dash to the Longbow with only twelve seconds before the ring self-destructed? Certainly not! But that does not mean the cut-scenes did not contribute to my overall experience Halo experience.
Cut-scenes should not be used to jam a story into gameplay that does not need it, nor should the duration of a game’s cut-scenes ever outnumber the hours of actual gameplay. But as one of many tools available to the interactive story-creator, the cut-scene should not be thrown away just yet.
Most recently I read the slides for Trent Polack’s talk titled “The Cut Scene Crunch” and I think they put forward a very simple, very concise argument. Strongly recommend everyone checking them out.
Brendan Keogh is a Film and Media Studies student at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. He is a prolific gamer, a hopeful writer and an Audiosurf tragic. He writes at the gaming blog Critical Damage and can also be found on Twitter