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]