Storytelling in Games Part 3: Cinema or Set Piece
This is part 3 in my continuing examination of the various methods of storytelling used in modern video games. Last week I talked about the notion of player choice in games, and I concluded that choice is the future of interactive storytelling, but as it is now, the choices are too black and white and the level of impact the player has on the game is not enough. This week will be a bit different, as I’m going to compare two different types of storytelling techniques. The first will be the use of non-interactive cinematic cutscenes and the second will be the use of in-game scripted events and set piece moments.
Ever since games started having real stories, there have been cutscenes. Cutscenes go all the way back to the NES, with Ninja Gaiden in 1988 being one of the first games to feature cutscenes to tell the story. Today, most games have cutscenes in one form or another, but they vary greatly in length, frequency, and complexity. Some games keep cutscenes to a minimum, using them mostly for exposition and story progression, while others use cutscenes as the sole means of telling the story, with elaborate choreographed actions scenes and lengthy character dialogue. When most people think of cutscenes, one series usually comes to mind; Metal Gear Solid.
The Metal Gear Solid games are famous for having very frequent and extremely long cutscenes. Metal Gear Solid 4 released in 2008 probably the most so, and the length of cutscenes easily matches or exceeds the total length of gameplay throughout the course of the game. Some of the cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 get up around the 90 minute mark, meaning they run nearly as long as a feature film. Though it may be an extreme case, let’s take a closer look at MGS4. In Metal Gear Solid 4, cutscenes are used for every story need, with in game dialogue usually just serving as objective information and player instruction. For the most part, the in-game objectives rarely have much story impact. Usually, you just make your way through a level and then reach a cutscene at the end, where story is told. Now, MGS4 is one of my favorite games of the current generation, but if I’m being honest, it fails miserably in the area of merging gameplay and story. In MGS4, you’re either playing a video game, or watching a movie, there is no middle ground.
Now, though the gameplay and story are not combined very well, the cinematics in MGS4 are the standard by which all other cutscenes are to be judged by. The cinematography, choreography, and writing are all on par with a big budget Hollywood production, and make what amounts to a 12 hour movie very engaging. But that’s where the disconnect come up; often times when I would play MGS4, more so on my second and third playthroughs, I would wish I could skip the gameplay and just watch the cutscenes. That’s not to say the gameplay is bad, because it is entertaining, but once I’ve already played the levels, I feel less motivation to do so a second time because all the interesting story stuff occurs in the cutscenes. It can also be sort of frustrating when all the cool things your character does occurs in cutscenes, but you just have a standard stealth game move set during gameplay.
For the other side of the spectrum, let’s look at the reigning champion of scripted events and set piece moments, the Uncharted series. The first Uncharted was a decent action game with platforming, puzzle, and third person shooter elements. With the second game though, developer Naughty Dog did something no one was expecting and created one of the most cinematic interactive experiences of all time. Uncharted 3 upped the ante with more, and more elaborate, set pieces, and while it is nowhere near as revolutionary as the second, it is still an outstanding game and an excellent example of in-game scripted events and set piece moments done right.
The main focus of the Uncharted games is telling the story through interactive set piece moments and blurring the line between cutscene and gameplay. Many moments that would simply be a cutscene in other games, actually require player input, limited as it may be, in the Uncharted games. This usually amounts to running toward or away from the camera, pressing or rapidly tapping context sensitive buttons, or climbing on something as it crumbles away beneath you. For the most part, these scripted events don’t really take much skill to get through, but the added element of interactivity can serve to engage the player in the experience more. The only problem that can arise, is that for most of these sequences, there is a very specific way that it is meant to be done, and if the player strays from the set path, the magic is immediately lost. What the scripted events in Uncharted mostly boil down to are cutscenes that superficially give the player the feeling of control. While much of the action and story occurs in these in-game scripted events, there are some more traditional cutscenes in the Uncharted games, but these mostly provide exposition and action free character dialogue. Though the feeling of control over these jaw-dropping events may be mostly an illusion, this illusion serves to really immerse the player in the experience, making the Uncharted games the pinnacle of story driven gameplay, as opposed to story and gameplay being two separate entities.