As I played it, I looked forward to those sit-back digital performances because they were beautifully executed and they really felt like rewards for completing the level. My only criticism of the Halo cut scenes would be that too much of the story was told in dialogue which I often found difficult to follow. Even so, the visual artistry and score more than compensated for this shortcoming.
So how important is the cut scene?
I’m currently playing Mass Effect (I know it’s a bit old but I’ve only just got around to it!) and I have to say I find the cut scenes rather frustrating and intrusive. I am impressed by the nuanced performances and the direction so it’s not the execution – the choice of shots and editing within the scene is very nicely done and I thought this too for Gears of War 2. I’m updating my directing course for Learn Film Asia and I’m wondering how I can incorporate some of the cut scenes: it’s very interesting to discuss the director’s choice of lens and camera position/movement in a situation where there are no physical constraints. But that’s a digression….
My point about Mass Effect is that the cut scenes start to feel unwelcome. I picked up my Xbox controller to take control, not to sit back and be controlled…at least not so often. I feel terrible about saying this because I want games to have more storytelling (I’ll get onto BioShock and Fallout 3 in just a moment ) and it’s quite possible that I’ll ask Santa to bring me a PS3 so I’ll be able to play Heavy Rain (which I’m really excited about along with Alpha Protocol). But with ME it feels like information overload. There’s just so much story to take in before I’m allowed to progress and the game keeps taking away my control too frequently and for too long.
Now look at BioShock and Fallout 3… oh brother what beautiful works of art these games are. Yet the cut scenes here are few and far between. And when they’re used it’s for the drama – sometimes delivering a powerful plot twist that each time really amazes and engages me. Unlike Halo 3, they’re not rewards for completing the level, at least not in the same way, they advance the story and they can come at unexpected times: I’m suddenly flicking the buttons on the controller wondering if it’s gone dead when BAM! I’m held captive to a story advancement that’s a thrilling experience. The plot twist in the middle of BioShock I found truly jaw-dropping: first class. The storytelling, the cut scene and my active control are all in harmony and not stratified.
Friends of mine who “don’t have time for games” are missing out on what I’ve found to be a rich, rewarding experience. I’m no game designer so I won’t pretend to have any expert knowledge in this area, I’m just trying to rationalize my experience as a humble gamer. I feel as though holding the controller creates such a deep, heightened connection to the story that isn’t there with movies. It’s more than just being in control, it’s also those moments in the cut scene when the controller vibrates to underline what’s on screen.
Although the vibration is felt in my hands, I experience it in my chest.
Sidebar: In movies the closest we get to this is pumping up the bass in the mix hoping it’ll cause the cinema seat to vibrate (it’s in the Dolby Surround spec but I doubt I’ll be mixing in Dolby again anytime soon). Maybe now that portable devices are so popular, someone could develop a media player that while playing the movie it listened for a very low bass audio frequency and then activated the mobile’s vibrator?
So how would I feel if BioShock or Fallout 3 had more cut scenes? Hmmm… I don’t think they’d benefit to be honest. The cut scenes in these games are not bolt-ons or after-thoughts or supplementary fluff, they’re intrinsic to the gameplay.
But here’s another suggestion: I would love to see rendered in-character pseudo “behind the scenes” footage from the “cast”. The Liam Neeson interview on the Fallout extras is nice but what would have been really cool would have been an interview with his digital character. For example, his father character could have been interviewed by Three Dog at the radio station, LOL! It would have blended realities in a very engaging way. I know this needn’t be part of the actual gameplay but it could have delivered story insights – for example about the shelters or the wasteland or other characters. And it could have been optional for those like me who enjoy this stuff while those who just like killing mutants could sidestep it.
So what’s the conclusion?
Well, wait a minute… how do I feel about the cut scenes in the Tony Hawks skateboarding games? Hmm… they don’t really feel like level rewards and they don’t really tell a story… not a proper story, come on. In the THPS series the “story” is a flimsy mechanism to make the skateboarding venues feel part of something cohesive. But it does definitely work. I buy into each THPS “story” without any question but here the cut scenes tend to explain how to get through the level - they’re informational and they’re perfunctory. But most importantly they don’t feel intrusive.
So maybe we can say the cut scene should never feel intrusive; it must feel integral. Though what this means in practice is different for each game (or depends on genre maybe?).
Perhaps the goal of the cut scene should be to go beyond integral (that’s a hygiene factor) and strive to be something that heightens the experience. I’d like to see more games like BioShock and Fallout 3 where the cut scene delivers a real punch… but to do that well the game is going to have to have a decent story.
End note: BioShock 2 – YES YES YES; BioShock feature film… oh please nooooo. I just know it’s going to suck even with the great director they have onboard. I’m sorry but Hollywood doesn’t have a good record with game-to-movie conversions.
Had I been given the chance to direct the BioShock movie (which was never going to happen), my choice would have been to make it a motion capture digital movie using the existing BioShock in-game “sets” (levels). So much of my love for that game is in the texture and the lighting: it’s so so possible to create an amazing feature that leverages the existing assets. Guys, give us fans a Creative Commons license and the machinima tools to tell our own stories in the rich environment you’ve created. The ARG looks cool but think of the publicity and awareness you'd get with hundreds of user-generated videos? And you'd be rewarded with more loyalty towards the IP such that should the movie suck you’ll have an easier ride :) I honestly believe you could make BioShock a cultural phenomenon: but you must unleash the tools!