Sunday, February 13, 2005

In Defense of Cutscenes . . . And Story

Disclaimer: The following was written under the influence of NyQuil. Be forewarned.

At one point in my life I assumed that criticism was basically about fooling people into thinking that your opinions mattered for shit.

Later on I realized that, in fact, most critics assume the same thing.

A teacher of mine clarified things. He said that criticism was about judging a work on its own merits. Ask the questions, "What is this work trying to accomplish" and "How well does it achieve its goals?" Try to ignore your own preferences as much as you can (and I don't want to hear the tired 'there's no such thing as objectivity' response).

I watch this show on G4TechTV called Judgment Day. This show reviews certain games and the two hosts give their ratings. One of the hosts, Tommy Tallarico, pisses me off at least once per show. If he dislikes a genre, or doesn't have the patience to learn the controls, or isn't enamored of the main character, then he gives the game a poor rating.

I know, I know, why watch the show, then? It's a guilty pleasure.

The problem I have is that his opinions tell me nothing at all (and to be fair to him, on the website he is said to give 'his opinionated take on the latest games'). He reviewed Homeworld 2 and hated it, because it didn't immediately satisfy his preferences. So? Why give it a review? Why not abstain? Why subject me to a prejudice and pretend to offer information?

The point I'm trying to make is that useful criticism is not occurring. And while I don't demand Supreme Court Justice-like objectivity (the theoretical kind, at least), I don't see any point in having someone who hates first-person-shooters telling me their feelings about Halo 2 (Personally, I hate Halo 1 and 2, but I think they're well-made games).

It is at this point in my rant that I come to the cause of my discontent. This article attempts to make an argument against cutscenes in video games (cutscenes being the movie interludes between gameplay). This link has popped up on a few blogs, and several that I've read seem to lend their support to the premise.

The premise appears, to me at least, to be that emulating movies and utilizing storytelling and narrative makes games worse in some way.

While it's true that many gamers feel that cutscenes are an annoying interruption, I don't think that a blanket statement opposing them brings anything at all to the game industry.

The only cutscenes that I truly hate are the ones that you can't skip.

My conceit #1: Video game creation is an art.

What if we insisted that painting, as a supposedly creative medium, is best limited to abstraction? Should we say that paintings of actual things force the viewer into too narrow an interpretation and therefore are detrimental to the enjoyment of said paintings?

What is the purpose of a cutscene? Why do games bother with stories?

Story can both anchor a player in the gamespace and set waypoints to drive the player forward. And, provided those story sections are easily skipped, there is no way they could seriously detract from a gamer, um, getting his game on.

Popular writing advice goes 'show me, don't tell me.'

In most video games these days the player is shown everything; It is primarily a visual medium (barring some text adventures), so it becomes necessary to tell a player the significance of what they are doing. Exposition is often key to laying out clear goals. Conversations are often useful in eliciting emotional connections from the player to the NPCs they are working with and against.

Half-Life 2 has no cutscenes. Or does it? All story elements are rendered in-engine. But they're still cutscenes. You can't skip them. You can't pause them. You sit and listen and absorb your next goals, or you wander around and ignore what's being said, but nevertheless those elements remain. They were obviously considered important to the creators. An artist can spend all day trying to figure out whether the audience will react to their story or find it frivolous ("Another 'save the world' FPS? Who gives a shit? Gimme gimme deathmatch!") - eventually they have to fish or cut bait.

Is narrative a no-no in games? I think that very much depends on the gamer.

Narrative seems to be a mostly single-player phenomenon, because narrative creates significance for the player that is often unnecessary in multiplayer. Multiple players create their own significance between each other through their interactions.

I am personally more of a single-player game person. I've never been a fan of forming relationships on MMORPGs. I suck at Halo, hell, I suck at any kind of FPS deathmatching. When I do play video games with others, it's fare like Pocket Fighter or Mario Party or Worms.

So, for me, creating a story structure and, yes, showing me cutscenes enforce the idea that what I'm doing with the world matters. I'm not interested solely in interaction, in feedback, but in coherence and relevance.

In Grand Theft Auto I talked about developing my own stories, which is a blast. But I don't think I'd see the game the same way if it hadn't had its initial structure. If I hadn't followed CJ and watched his interactions I wouldn't have speculated on bold directions for his life to take. If I could've gone anywhere right from the start, without seeing the milestones that the story provided, it would have been fun, sure - but without the same feeling of accomplishment.

Accomplishment is part of what I look for in single-player experience.

People like stories. They permeate our day-to-day lives. From a joke we heard on the radio to the depressing story our friend tells us, we enjoy storytelling. To demand some sort of separation of story from game is ridiculous - if the game designer feels an urge to tell a story with their game, therein is the art. Even chess has pseudonarrative elements - otherwise why a knight, why a king and queen, why pawns and rooks and bishops?

To attempt to treat all games the same is unfair.

In Mr. Thompson's 'more cynical moments' he sees narrative as an excuse for the industry to continue selling the same old stories repackaged each year without 'truly new forms of play'.

But what new forms of play is he expecting? And what new stories?

Stories are old. Games are old. They are both about creation and manipulation and imagination. I don't care if chess never ends - I won't play it unless there is another person playing opposite me on a real board with real pieces. Same with poker. I want the tactile sensation of the cards in my hands, of the chips on the table, of a glass of jack and coke. I want the music in the background and the banter and the smack talk. I'm not there to make money. I'm not even there to win. I'm there for an experience.

I think maybe some of the problem is what exactly is considered a game, and what is simply play? Or even how to define a game, which I won't even fucking attempt. Ever. In my life (don't hold me to this).

I remember Principal Skinner on the Simpsons, when explaining how he kept his sanity by dribbling a basketball: "I made a game of it. Seeing how many times I could bounce the ball in a day, then trying to break that record."

In GTA, if you go on a rampage and just run around trying to destroy everything until you're killed, is that a game? Do the natural limitations of the game engine automatically make a game, or is a goal necessary? If you set a goal to destroy five police cars, does it suddenly become a game? Where do we draw this line?

Maybe what Mr. Thompson enjoys most about video games is Will Wright's conception of game as toy. In this transcript, Will Wright even mentions playing Go as a kid and being "impressed with the combination of simplicity and strategy it achieves."

This is only one facet of the gaming continuum; One purpose for video games to serve.

I enjoy story. I don't care if video games repeat the same stories. So do books. So do movies.

It is not the basic essence of a story that captures us, but the interesting re-imagining of its elements. Star Wars is the Hero's Journey reworked into a science-fiction universe. Romeo and Juliet was a cliche even in Shakespeare's time, but new permutations still arrive to entertain us. The Da Vinci Code was a dumbed-down Foucalt's Pendulum, which was a non-gonzo Illuminatus! Pac-Man is Super Mario Bros is Spyro the Dragon is Jak & Daxter (collect these things, avoid these enemies, use specific things to defeat said enemies).

We will always return to familiar stories.

It's up to us to decide whether they are worth our time or not; Not to decide whether they should exist or not - that is up to the artist.

To steal a quote from Dennis Miller: "Of course that's just my opinion, I could be wrong."

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