Lights! Camera! ... Action??


[i]We didn't need dialogue. We had faces![/i]”
-- Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

[justify]When Hideo Kojima innocently let slide that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots would push the limits of the PS3's blu-ray storage format, gamers were shocked. Astounded. Overwhelmed. Incredulous speculators strained to understand just how it was that a game could fill 50 Gigs of space. Was it that Kojima was creating his textures at insanely large resolutions and then downsampling? Were voice samples formulated to stringent DolbyHD standards? Was this just devious marketing speak? In any event, the most common assumption revolved around something that has been a staple of the Metal Gear Solid series since its birth on the PlayStation some nine years ago.

Cut scenes. An eternity of cut scenes.[/justify]

Considering that Guns of the Patriots will serve as a coda to the character of Solid Snake (and by extension, the Metal Gear “Solid” story), I can excuse Kojima for the liberal application of cut scenes. He and his team have created a universe that concerns itself with philosophical enigmas, militaristic futurism, and behind-the-scenes global power brokers. This chronicle is a sprawling, sometimes contradictory, sometimes unwieldy beast, and I would be very disappointed if Kojima's various dangling threads were left to fray in the fog of plot ambiguity. I'm looking for resolution here, not unanswerable conjecture.

I will argue to the death that Kojima's cut-scenes have entertainment merit, for his ability to intertwine impossible gun-fu with cinematic flair is top-notch. I appreciate that Kojima has resisted the nascent trend to pepper a Simon-like button press into every cinematic, choosing instead to wholeheartedly focus my attention on plot progression. If a similar announcement had been attributed to the Final Fantasy 13 team or (god forbid) a new Xenosaga venture, fan reaction would have filled the air with a palpable haze of revulsion. As rumors emerge suggesting that scenes may run close to the 90 minute mark, response has shifted from jittery anticipation to a more reserved, even reluctant, dread. Does this push game cut scenes into new territory? Is it hopelessly indulgent? Is it lazy storytelling? These questions will be debated upon well past the game's release.

I'm not sure if anyone in the days of Galaga and the Atari 2600 considered the possibility that the gaming crowd would one day be dissatisfied by cinematic transition pieces in their products. I'm frankly happy that the possibility for debate exists. It's quite the luxury.

One of the interesting aspects of the cut scene is that it means different things to different people. One developer may use them to convey facets of the game that would be difficult to portray using the engine as-is. At the cost of interactivity, a meticulously choreographed gun/sword/gunvolver fight that looks as if it came straight out of a John Woo blood opera unfolds. Another developer will use the downtime to pull away from the central cast and expand upon the bigger picture, the backstory, the world-at-large. Yet another might use the tool to create a sense of dread or urgency. And we're all familiar with the implementation of Quick Time Events as a way maintain a player's immersion. Why merely sit and watch a film clip when I can frantically mash buttons and participate in the sequence? Cut scenes as we know them have become both narrative tools and fluffy game content. They can move us to tears as a teammate meets her end, or bore us to tears as mundane actions are pre-rendered and thrust in our faces endlessly.

In other words, we've come a long way since two ninjas met honorably on a field of green beneath a full moon.

If you didn't catch the reference (shame on you), it's a callback to the famous intro screen of Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden. Released for the NES in 1988, it's the first console game that employed cut-scenes as a way to enhance the game's narrative structure. Mike Tyson's Punch Out! (1987) did have something akin to a cut-scene - Little Mac running behind Doc's bicycle - but it wasn't significant to the game's plot, used existing game assets and served as a transitional device between levels. (Think along the lines of the interstitial animations in Pac-Man.)

What Ninja Gaiden brought to the table, aside from an eye-catching attract mode, was an ability to advance the story outside of the core gaming experience. As a child, I learned of Ryu Hayabusa's ancestry, discovered the significance of his quest, and pieced together the mystery behind his father's disappearance in between the brutal platforming segments that made up the game's levels. Such fleshing out was previously relegated to the domain of the seldom-read game manual. Those scenes essentially became a reward for carving a steel swath through an endless parade of eagles, thugs and hellhounds. Completion of a level wouldn't just earn you a new stage and put you closer to the end, it treated you to some animated drama in the process. While the scenes in Gaiden were perhaps a bit barebones - they mostly used parallax scrolling to give the sequence a sense of motion and many shots were of mostly static images - the art style was crisp and colorful. The Gaiden folks also packed a lot into the cartridge. If one were to extract the cut scenes, they clock in just shy of 20 minutes. Granted, the speed of the on-screen text pads them out a bit, but that's still a pretty good number for the ol' NES. But Gaiden's visual wizardry communicated a growing desire to push gaming storycrafting standards to new bounds.

Ninja Gaiden did more than simply use visual storytelling to shepherd the plot along, it also triggered an avalanche, bringing insight to our unspoken desire to make video games more and more like movies. With the “video” portion of video games fulfilled, future games would have to challenge the conventions of story telling, nudging it along a path of greater complexity. It's no secret and no shame that the goal of many developers and producers has been to create a game that can be as enjoyable as a movie while also withstanding comparisons to the medium. Hideo Kojima, in fact, was studying to be a film director before he decided to switch gears and move into the video gaming field. Game designers have long cribbed from their film and theater cousins to achieve certain effects. Parallax scrolling was a depth-of-field technique pioneered in traditional cell animation, for example. And consider the concepts of stage illumination and lighting the next time you walk down a corridor. There's a reason why the Resident Evil remake on the Gamecube opted for sparsely lit hallways and interiors: hints of light are a lot more effective at creating spine-tingling moments than a fully lit room is.

It's been some 20 years after Ninja Gaiden first surprised us, and most gamers currently regard cut scenes as they do music - integral to both the presentation and quality of the product. But should game developers really be that concerned with providing an experience comparable to film?

Perhaps it's time we start looking for alternatives to pre-scripted scenes. One of my favorite moments in gaming is successfully casting Final Fantasy VII's summon spell "Knights of the Round". Taking over a minute of real life time to cast, the grandeur and visual splendor was a reward in and of itself. But that initial wow doesn't hold up over time. It becomes amazingly tedious. It inhibits my ability to play. I'm not saying we should do away with such scenes en masse, but surely there are other alternatives to explore. I found the modern Ninja Gaiden series to have surprisingly forgettable cut-scenes. Instead the draw was in its ability to bring an entirely beautiful, visceral sense to the activity on screen. The action is so engrossing that even if the story elements magically disappeared, I would still recall it as compelling and satisfying experience. I may see the image of a gutted ninja hundreds of times during a playthrough, but the way that end is reached is always unique. My reward isn't sitting back to enjoy a cinematic, but rather the primal pleasure of skewering a disposable minion in mid-air, dissecting his lifeless corpse, and tossing the pulped bits into a crowd of similarly impotent fodder. With the fundamental mechanics of the battle system at my disposal, I am able to create carnage on a scale that is virtually poetic in its brutality. I am the agent that creates a compelling visual landscape. It is my skill alone that decides if the next battle is handled with the clumsy thrashing of a berzerker or the gentle finesse of a fencer. I become the dreamer.

That's really the crux of the matter. Unless the development team has created an extremely well-formulated scene, a scene so magnificent that I'll be thoroughly amazed and moved, I'm much more content exploring the game myself. By rushing to get movie-quality scenes into gaming, the old film caveat “show, don't tell” has found twisted new life. What is weak composition in a passive medium becomes a cardinal sin in the interactive space of gaming. Xenosaga: Episode One: Der Wille zur Macht is a prime example of such a misstep, as the first 30 minutes of the work contain roughly 2 minutes of actual gameplay. As I waited for the cinematic to run its course, I could feel my sense of agency ebb away. I wouldn't be contributing to the development of these characters, I realized. I would only guide them to the next cinema scene. Gaming as a whole is now able to express concepts on-screen in a way that is very similar to film. But instead of co-opting the visual language of cinema, games should focus on creating an active language that the player can command. Whether it takes flight through the dismemberment of ninjas or the creation of complex assault plans in Rainbow Six, the result is that I, as a player, feel an incredible sense of control. There will always be a space for cinematic storytelling, but it shouldn't consume games to the extent that it drowns out gameplay itself.

As the releases of Metal Gear Solid 4 and Ninja Gaiden II stare us down, daring us to take a shot, we should stop to consider the humble beginnings that have directed us to the present day: Two ninjas, standing in a field of rolling grass, facing each other down, their swords exploding in a sightless midair collision.[/justify]


It seems to me that Kojima really just wants to make movies.

So you're saying that the interstitial cut scenes in Pac Man did NOT advance the story?

Just kidding, nice write up. I had forgotten about Ninja Gaiden, what a cool, well crafted piece of gaming for its time.

90 minute cut scenes, and not 90 minutes of cut scenes. I dunno, it seems that's just too damn much.

They're long, but don't think of it as a game full of incredibly long cut-scenes, think of it as a game with many opportunities to take a break from playing for a while and just listen to David Hayter.

I guess we'll know more about the big cut scenes any minute now. But I have a hard time sitting through 90 minutes of professionally produced film half the time. Let's face it, most movies suck. Sure there are some that are skillful or interesting than others, but for the most part the vast majority of film shot and released in any given year is hardly worth watching. The fact that we get a dozen or so that rise above is a testament to hard work on behalf of a talented few more than some kind of endemic superiority of film in storytelling.

I mean, when are you going to know that the 90 minute cut scene starts? Are you going to figure it out 30 minutes in? Is there going to be a way to hit the triangle button and skip the dreaded cut scene? Or are we really talking about 90 minutes of cut scenes overall in which case I don't see the big deal.

I agree with Spaz 100% on this. I'd much rather be in the action and watching the action. On the other hand I've written myself about the importance of cut scenes in a good game when they been designed to be integral in advancing the story. I used Guild Wars as my example there, but [i]I was mostly railing about how great the world could be beyond the action itself. So either I'm a flip flopper or it's a nuanced issue.

It should be pointed out that many sources, including Kojima Productions, have refuted the 90 minute cutscene rumour. I think we can count on them being lengthy, but it's unlikely any of them will reach the 90 minute mark.

**Minor spoilers GTA Spoilers**
I was just thinking about this playing GTAIV. The Heat bank heist scene is a perfect example of the developer spoiling a scene by taking away control from the player to present the action in a more 'cinematic' fashion. I was itching to get back in control during the ~5 minute cutscene. It would have been so much more fun if you played through it normally.

0kelvin wrote:

It should be pointed out that many sources, including Kojima Productions, have refuted the 90 minute cutscene rumour. I think we can count on them being lengthy, but it's unlikely any of them will reach the 90 minute mark.

Sure, but even if they're half that, that's still a mighty long time to just sit there. Especially if the writing is as bad as it is in the introduction video they released a while back.

Hmmm.... where have I seen that image before?

Seriously, though, I just want to take this moment to talk about cut scene length.

In the spirit of full disclosure, let's just get this out of the way now, :
I couldn't care less about Solid Snake. F that guy.

I enjoyed PLAYING Metal Gear Solid on the PSOne, but I didn't enjoy WATCHING the same game. My biggest complaint about MGS cut scenes is that they remove drama through excessive length. I mean there I'd be, heat of battle, shooting guys, hiding in boxes, spin around the corner and there's Revolver Ocelot... tons of dialog, lots of exposition and back story... but 10 minutes later and it's still going on! Yeah, I know there's drama in the story. Sure, lots of clones, and betrayals and your friend/brother/comrade issues, but it was exposed in a way that left me completely cold and uncaring. Maybe it's that there were too many plot twists, or maybe it's that my mind simply checked out after 5 minutes of not pressing a button. Either way, it left me with that same impression: that I was watching, and not playing. And it goes on, and on! MGS had a 20 minute cut scene at the mid point of the game! Frankly, it's a surprise I finished that steaming pile of ... What's that? ... Oh ... right... As I was saying...

I'm all for cut scenes in a story. I know it's heavily reviled by Rob and the Conference Call Crew, but I loved every single Grand Theft Auto and the story therein. The cut scenes are short, concise, and too the point. They can reveal the plot and tell you what to do in a matter of a few scenes and some short dialogs. Knights of the Old Republic had some of the best and most memorable cut scenes in my experience gaming, and no single scene was longer than 10 minutes. Heck, most were shorter than 5!

I really think it all comes down to balance. If you can get a long play session before a cut scene, then maybe moving the story forward is justified. But if you've done nothing but walk down a hall, and then there's a scene, then down the hall further, followed by another cut scene, not to be out done by opening the door at the end of the hall with a longer cut scene, then we've got a problem.

So, to summarize:
Hooray for gaming as an art form! Hooray for great story and great writing! Hooray for letting a player participate!

Boo on every game that decided the only way to tell a story was for the player to sit and watch! Boo on any game where the play time in between the cut scenes is dwarfed by the time for the cut scene to play!

If your game has any one cut scene that lasts longer than the play session preceding it, then we've got a problem.

*edited for typo

Mike Tyson's Punchout Bicyle Scene is more of a one-scene montage than a cut-scene, but yeah.

I still believe it will be 90 minutes in total and not "at least one of the cut-scenes lasts 90 minutes". That would be increadibly tiresome, no matter how big a fan of MGS you happen to be (and I love the series).

Man, if we're going to complain about long cutscenes, somebody needs to mention Eternal Sonata - fun game, pretty graphics, but it had some of the most intolerably long and boring cutscenes I have ever seen. My personal favourite: watching a character have flashbacks to an event that took place within the same cutscene! Not to mention the cinematic at the end, which I swear lasted for more than an hour... after a certain point the only reason I kept watching it was because I couldn't believe that somebody would actually make a cutscene that long.

Nice use of the word interstitial! Man someone used that word the other day, I can't remember where though. interstitial...interstitial...sounds weird.

Sorry, on to point. I wasn't all that excited about this game to begin with, but now I'm going to outright avoid it. MGS 1 and 2 were fun, but I was pretty much done with the series after that.

Even if the cutscenes are half of that 90 minute rumor I'd avoid it. I am not going to pay $60 to watch a movie when I can go buy one from the movie section, that probably has a more coherent storyline, and I hate to say it but better acting. I pay the extra to play games. I want to bloody well control the character, I want to be in charge. As soon as a cutscene takes control away from me I get pissed. I can't even count the times a cutscene has started and I'm like "But I was just about to do my super awesome backflip killy thing! Dammit!" Now cutscenes at the end of the action don't bother me as much, but I still feel like a passenger as soon as they start rolling.

rabbit wrote:

I'm a flip flopper or it's a nuanced issue.


Rob_Anybody wrote:

As soon as a cutscene takes control away from me I get pissed. I can't even count the times a cutscene has started and I'm like "But I was just about to do my super awesome backflip killy thing! Dammit!"

You and I are very different people.

Call of Duty 4, in my mind, is the best-told shooter game.

Bioshock is the best-told game.

And they use very similar methods - you're still controlling the character while the "cutscenes" still happen. Need to tell us a world leader's getting assassinated? Guess what - you get to be the world leader for his last five minutes of life.

Need a little bit of exposition? Lock your guy in and have him watch a movie.

The important part is that these scenes are not happening to other characters; they are happening to you, the player.