Cutscenes Without Context
"Your true value depends entirely on what you are compared with."-- Bob Wells
In their Games section, Slate recently put up a slide show discussing various traditional game conventions. It wasn't horrific as far as mainstream media articles about games go, but it sputtered badly when it tried to take on the topic of cutscenes.
The author started off with an iconic example - Aerith's death scene in Final Fantasy VII. He didn't much care for Aerith's scene. He dogged it for it's original Playstation polygon counts and for what he refers to as "stilted acting". The sample they include was only one minute long, and he totally dismisses the impact of that one minute. Not only on that game, but on games in general.
Square's style of storytelling took it's first leap into 3D in FFVII. Its primitive models may not look like much today, but the challenges met in the underlying technical work on concealing loading screens, realistic movement animation in three dimensions, new cinematography techniques, and the sheer effort it took to fit the huge amount of content (for the time) on a Playstation CD gave them a working primer for their continuing movement forward in that area. Its artistic and monetary success made it a blueprint for many other developers who have followed in their footsteps . Whether or not you agree with the need for cutscenes in games, that one qualifies to use the movie critic term "important".
Slate's writer isn't alone. Back in 2004, Stephen Spielberg remarked to a class of film students that he thought games weren't quite there as a storytelling medium. He was quoted as saying, "I think the real indicator will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17." Well, as many gamers know, quite a few of us cried at this one. And we'd done it seven years before. What is the disconnect here? Is it the technology? The ever-growing list of quality CGI titles on top of the box office listings and the growing machinima scene seem to suggest that others are getting meaning out of this type of imagery. Does the story suck? Well, that's kind of subjective.
What has been missed here is the context for the scene that comes from playing the game itself.
The whole base of the discussion on that slide is ludicrous. His contrasting point was the opening section of Kingdom Hearts II. Who would try to compare the two to five hour mix of gameplay and scenes that make up the opening sequence of Kingdom Hearts II and a one minute clip long clip that is shown 40 hours into the 10-year-old FFVII? We don't do this when discussing traditional film. You're not going to find an article out there decrying the state of current film making by taking the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene out of "Apocalypse Now" and trying to deconstruct it without taking the rest of the film into account. And we're not going to start trying to compare the special effects with the first half of "Black Hawk Down" or "Saving Private Ryan". But the essential silliness of this exercise only scratches the surface.
Cutscenes in a game have more to do than an equivalent piece of traditional film. They don't just tell story. They have to support the game, and the game is an integral part of experiencing them.
The story in those scenes is structured to rely on the player having the context that comes from playing the game to give it perspective. It does look stupid with Cloud just standing there like a moron and her falling off Sephiroth's seriously over-compensatory sword. But if you've played through the game, you know so much more about what is really going on there. Cloud really couldn't help it - was in the process of having his mind taken over by Sephiroth. And you know that Aerith walked in there with her eyes wide open. She knew what she was doing, and her sacrifice saves her planet. If she hadn't gotten the power of Holy and chosen to be in the Lifestream when the Meteor struck, their world would be gone at the end of the game. Her death has meaning, and it drives the actions of the remaining characters and the rest of the story far more than those few hackneyed frames can convey on their own.
The technical limitations of the hardware do have to be considered when it comes to expression, but they're not the biggest factor. Watching that scene from Final Fantasy VII you can see how far we've come since then. She looks like a Fisher Price doll, but that was state-of-the-art back then. And it didn't matter if you had the rest of the game context. Anyone who's watched the technical demonstration for the PS3 that updated the opening sequence of this game with this generation's hardware can tell you that the newly re-imagined Aeris (with her more properly localized name and bunchteen billion more polygons) has more to work with. But for fans of the game they just gilded the lily. Square showed that clip at E3 in 2005 and it is still fueling wishful thinking that they will go back and re-do the original Final Fantasy VII.
Timing is everything. In a movie version of Final Fantasy VII, there would be an hour or so between her death and the climactic fight scenes at the end. In the game, there's probably about 40 hours. That gap makes the game director have to make decisions about how he's going to get information across to the player very differently than a traditional filmmaker would.
You have to educate the player, not just tell the story, and that also affects the choices the director makes. If you watched the short sample of Aerith's death scene to it's end, you saw them invest what seemed like an unwarranted amount of screen time bouncing that green ball down those platforms and into the water. It doesn't make any sense on the face of it. Unless you understand that her praying that ball into existence was the whole point of going there, and you knowing where it ended up is essential to winning the game. There are flashbacks and exposition later to remind you when the time is right, but all that has to be set up here. Player education can also come in the form of demonstrations of critical game mechanics, and direct tutorials on how to play the game.
Many games now include materials from other sources as part of their story in between versions, and they have to be tied in. I'm not just talking about licensed materials that have films or TV to support them. It can be argued that the film "Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children" is best described as a feature-length cutscene that lives between the end of the game Final Fantasy VII and it's recent spin-off game Dirge of Cerberus. And taken in that context it more than serves it's purpose. With the long wait between the two games, audiences needed to be caught up with that world. And the film's depiction of Cloud's second attempt to get his emo head on straight really helped add context to Dirge of Cerberus and re-introduce us to the new game's lead character, Vincent Valentine. The game helped give context to the movie as well. This fight in the film Advent Children is greatly enhanced if you already know these people who just start showing up to the fight, and who the summoned monster is. If you've played the game you can call the last two minutes of the fight like Howard Cosell.
The opening of KHII was a good choice as contrast in one respect - it encompasses all of these issues in one compact package. Well, compact when compared to the 40 plus hours it takes to get through the complete game. The scale seemed excessive even to fans of the genre, and the strong departure from the ending of the first game was disorienting. Who is this kid Roxas? Where are Sora and Donald and Goofy? At the end of it you're kind of mad. Hours of messing around with this other little punk and then we find out he's not even the main character of the game!? But that section of the game was a busy place. Think about what they're accomplishing there.
- Technical - With a mix of pre-rendered cut scenes and a new focus on using the in-game models to depict the scenes brings a whole new level of seamless connection between the player and the story. This technique is standing them in good stead in other games, such as Final Fantasy XII.
- Timing - It's hard to discuss this without massive spoilers, but suffice it to say the fact that it took five days and it's association with the end of summer vacation are key points in the story development and need to be given the proper weight.
- Educating Players - The location this sequence is set in (called Twilight Town) is an integration point between this game and the related Nintendo DS game Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. It is an essential location later on in the game as well. The player needs a strong familiarity with it and it's inhabitants to help advance the game.
- Game Mechanics - You need a tutorial system for the revamped combat and movement systems. It also has to assume that the player has not played the previous games, and it requires a lot of hand-holding because it has to handle an insanely wide age-range. The Stuggle matches seem like a massive detour, but it was a key step in integrating all the various skills learned before it. Remember, large parts of the intended audience of this game can't read very well and needs lots of practice in basic games skills.
- Other Materials - They have to provide enough structure from the first game in the series and the related KH: Chain of Memories to give story continuity and allow them to build from there even if the player had played neither of those other two games.
And most importantly, if you don't have any decent connection to Roxas and his friends you don't get the impact of him standing at Sora's feet and giving his very existence so that Sora can come back. Besides, this is a Square game. Do you really think it's all that simple? You don't find out unless you play through. Without the rest of the game, it's not just his summer vacation that's over.
I don't expect everyone to like cutscenes. They're a disputed addition to the current games climate. But to cut them out of any context or meaning lent by their associated game and then dismiss them for the lack does a disservice to them, and to the games they enhance.
Medikits, Power-ups and Cheat Codes: In Praise of the Videogame Cliche by Chris Baker -- The launchpad of this particular discussion. The slide where he discusses cut scenes is number 7, and it includes an embedded Youtube of the scene in question.
Aerith's Death Scene - this is a 10 minute cut that contains some of the context on either side of the scene. It starts off as the player moves up to the platform where she's praying, and goes all the way through to the end of her funeral.
The 100 Acre Wood Restored - Great example of using game-weight models to seamlessly move between gameplay and a cutscene. If I was going to compare and contrast Aerith's scene with something out of Kingdom Hearts II, I'd suggest this one. Anyone who has ever had to leave a weeping kid behind at the babysitters won't make it through the first two minutes of this one without a catch in the throat.