Cutscenes, interactivity and story

Hello and welcome to my first entry on the Round Table. The Blogs of the Round Table is a monthly collection of posts from different blogs revolving around the same topic. This month’s the topic is Diamonds in the Rough, which touches the concept of flawed characters or the lack thereof in games.

When talking about stories in videogames the topic of cutscenes always comes to the surface. Just the concept of taking control from the player is a flawed one because of the focus in interactivity that the medium has. But we still use cutscenes because it’s the best way we know of that let’s the game have action sequences outside of the engine and most importantly allows for traditional storytelling by forcing the player’s hand.

Then again, the cutscenes all by themselves are not the problem, it’s the use of them. I’ve read (not played) that Bioshock had one particular cutscene where the lack of interactivity was deliberate and used to great effect. I won’t go into details because of it’s spoiler nature, but suffice it to say that this particular part of the game deserves applause. Of course this is shinning jewel that shines even brighter because of the deserted surroundings. I seriously don’t know any other example where the use of a cutscene is well justified.

Moving on, interesting stories in any form of media have flawed characters because we can’t relate to someone who is perfect in every way. But in videogames the player becomes the main character, so the flaws the game tries to impose on the player feel forced most of the time. Character flaws almost never surface through gameplay since controlling a handicapped protagonist isn’t exactly a thrilling experience. So we are treated almost always with character flaws that show up only in dialog or pre-scripted events. This is not desirable either but it’s the most harmless common option that I know of.
A better approach to this would be taking advantage of the inherent interactivity and have the main character show the flaws of the player. But then again, how the game is supposed to do that? Well, one way of trying to achieve this would be by taking into acount the player’s choices on non-obvious solutions for a problem. Or cater to the player’s ego shinning through the main character (Shamus McLaser already talked about this).

Having interactivity is a mayor advantage and handicap at the same time: The player is much more engaged by the actions happening on a screen but this is ruined by the over-use of pre-scripted events, so traditional storytelling just isn’t suited well for the medium. If given in short bursts this events can be used to spice things up a bit by giving the player interesting situations that he would otherwise not encounter.

The way we tell our stories through games supports itself mostly on text in dialogs, sound in voice acting and videos in cutscenes, so it is really hard to see videogames as a storytelling medium in it’s own right. This problem is agravated by the ability of quick saving and loading: undo everything bad that happens, be it death or minor hp loss due to a trap. Nothing has meaning, success is expected and anything else is negated. This causes nothing interesting to happen during gameplay, the part that is exclusive to the medium. In a nutshell if it were not for the alien inclusions of text, voice and video the stories told would be the most boring of them all. There is no failure that one can speak of, anything can be retried until successful. If the game has no multiple endings either the player wins or walks out without finishing it.

Of course none of this applies to puzzle games nor multiplayer nor little distractions justified only by the mechanics.

For links to all entries on the Round Table please visit the Main Hall.

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2 thoughts on “Cutscenes, interactivity and story

  1. Leaving aside the discussion of whether cut scenes are the best means of communicating story for a moment…

    I find it interesting that so many entries in this month’s Round Table consider character flaws to be a handicap. It’s that sort of interpretation that keeps the story in the cut scenes, don’t you think?

  2. kimari2

    The only flaw that I can think of that doesn’t present itself like a handicap is the personality flaw. Even then it’s rare to see the personality of the main protagonist shine through the gameplay (mmmhhh does mario count?).

    When talking about flaws in characters I inmediately think about crippling traits, things that could hinder the enjoyment of the player if shown through gameplay. Is there any other kind of flaw?

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