Q & A: Are Cutscenes Bad?

Another curious cat question that was too deep for the website, this time on cutscenes:

Are cutscenes in games really that much of a sin? I really like a good traditional narrative in a game so the talk I always here about them as something that NEEDS to be phased out for games to go forward make me feel like I’m not part of the crowd that enjoy games as they should be. Am I wrong?

Dear Asker,

Cutscenes are 1000% Not a Sin, and you have no obligation to feel ashamed or self-minimizing about your likeness towards cutscenes. Cutscenes are a powerful storytelling tool, and there are countless videogames that wouldn’t be nearly as thematically effective, resonant or relevant without their use of cutscenes!

Cutscenes get a bad rap because our culture has an established platonic ideal of what videogames are meant to be and what an authentic videogame should be that cutscenes don’t really fit into. A cutscene is just something that momentarily takes control away from the player to show them something important or relevant, but just the act of taking control away, and asserting an authorial presence jives against a pretty hardened ideology that some people take to heart.

We’ve developed this idea that what makes videogames great and unique and better than other things is that they’re interactive, and that unlike “static” and “finite” and “old” media, videogames are endlessly dynamic with near infinite possibilities. This informs the view that the right kind of videogame forgoes extensive authorship, and instead centers its entire structure around the player’s subjectivity. The right kind of game embraces endless possibilities of a system, whereas a game that is too limited or linear is regressive and undesirable. An experience that centers the player’s direct control at all times is a realer and more authentic experience, and authored nature of a cutscene makes a game too controlled and therefore fake and inauthentic. The aspiration here is that by embracing this standard is the path that will unlock true, unique power of videogames as an artform.

This is a really old thing that even goes back to the roots of academic study of games. You could write essays on this stuff but I won’t do that to you, instead I’ll give you a couple of pointers:

1) Videogames in general are fictional things, which is to say that videogames aren’t real. Rather they’re fake things constructed in a way to give a sense of realness. Videogames are illusory in the same way that a theatre play is illusory, and by extension all art and fiction (with room for argument). A playwright writes a fictional play, a scenographer and adjacent designers construct a set that gives a sense of time and place, to give a sense of approximate realness to the fiction, and thereby a sense of proximity to our real lives. A videogame is a piece of software with millions of instructions processed by a CPU and drawn onto a screen by a computer’s GPU 30–60 times every second. Modelers, environment artists, gameplay programmers, writers… they come together to create visual and interactive media that also gives a sense of approximate realness to the world, to connect the fiction to our real lives in whatever way serves the work. So, any sense of realness claimed is just illusion of realness, it’s a subjective and about perception and interpretation of a work.

If videogames are constructed fiction what on basis lies the idea that cutscenes make something less authentically real? Is the amount of control a player has the only way that a videogame becomes authentic and real? How would make that make any sense, if non-interactive media has felt authentic and real to people for hundreds of years? A cutscene can absolutely, and has many times in the past, made a videogame feel more personal, more grounded, more real and authentic even though it temporarily takes away player control. How could it have never done this? There is no objective or logical basis for evaluating the authentic realness of a videogame. There’s no measure or scale of player control, or realness that can give any consistent model of value judgement. Art is complex and multi-faceted, there are all sorts of ways that something can make you feel a thing. It’s all perception and interpretation. Which makes these claims about the objective and moral inferiority of cutscenes total baloney.

2) On the topic of freedom: it’s cool that videogames can give us lots of options, it’s cool and fun to act in the ways that you want to but videogames do not make us freer and they will not free us. There is no amount of infinitely simulative emergent procgen-ness that will bring us to this true empancipated future, free from the oppression of some looming author figure. A videogame is always controlled, always limited by some technological limit, some condition written into software, into hardware, into the technologies that project it onto the screen. An artist is someone that works within conditions and constraints that create an experience. This is based in a lot of ideological weirdness that was heralded by people like Warren Spector in the 2000s and hasn’t really been challenged since, probably because we videogame people were kind of raised on this sort of technocratic utopianism.

Anyways, the argument that we shouldn’t want cutscenes because they limit the freedom of a player is weird, right? There’s a lot more to a videogame then what just the player is doing, or able to do. And we play videogames for more reasons than just an illusion of freedom. I probably don’t have to list them to to you. And what does that even mean if freedom is so fragile and perceptive? “Freedom” isn’t singular, freedom means many different things to different people. Some people want an expansive landscape to explore but don’t mind the limited means of interacting with other ‘people’ (The Elder Scrolls V). Others want the freedom of how they build relationships but don’t mind the very segmented means that their experience progresses (Mass Effect). For others it’s about how you express and represent your body and your appearance. This is saying, again, that it’s about perception, and it’s about interpretation of the experience. I hope it’s becoming clear how these ideas fall apart when you challenge them precisely.

A cutscene is a narrative and structural device that you can use in various ways to do an artistic thing you want to do. Many games are better without cutscenes, a lot of them are great with cutscenes! Cutscenes aren’t good or bad things, they’re just a thing. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. *shrug* Using them well requires a good resources and a strong artistic sense, like anything else. And if we truly regard videogames as artistic then this should be obvious to us. And moreover, what makes videogames so valuable is that there are so many different reasons people enjoy them! And the way that you enjoy them, with “traditional narratives” is no less valid or important than those who enjoy them with more loose narrative structures.

I hope this has given you some tools to better understand and challenge these notions, and in case any of your friends if they try to hate on you for being down with cutscenes. Hope this helps! Thanks for writing me, and take care.


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