Cut-scenes are routinely treated with the disdain that might otherwise be reserved for something moist and sticky that gets stuck to the bottom of your shoe on a particularly hot day. Cut-scenes are a relic from the cultural imperialism of cinema, hangers-on from the narrative infancy of videogames. They are imported goods from a third-rate manufacturer. Those who create them are wannabes, trying too hard at a has-been medium.
Take the latest salvo fired in this ongoing war, by Jonathan McCalmont at Futurismic. “One of the most disastrous things to ever happen to videogames was the emergence of the belief that being a game designer is a bit like being a film director,” he opines. McCalmont then goes on to advocate the powers of the emergent narrative, suggesting that this is a preferable form of narrative than the limiting and contrived imposed narrative. “Video games,” he concludes, “are supposed to be an interactive medium, and their narratives should reflect this.”
I do not wish to take McCalmont to task directly, as there is much in his post that is insightful, and that I agree with. Instead, I quote from him in order to establish the tone and essential premises with which most of this debate is taken with – that videogames and cut-scenes (along with non-interactivity/interactivity and possibly even new/old) are, or at least should be, two discrete circles in a Venn diagram.
While it’s true that we’ll occasionally get the odd videogame clearly designed by someone who would much rather be creating cinema (and let’s all indulge in another round of back-slapping as we point to the overused example of Hideo Kojima), we need to stop looking at cut-scenes as the foreign “other” of videogames. For some, it seems any given videogame might be made up both of a genuine, pure videogame form that occasionally, without even changing the disc from the drive, spontaneously becomes cinema. This understanding of cut-scenes is misguided at best.
Non-interactive cut-scenes are one strategy of storytelling used by videogames. Interactive play is another. Narrative through non-interactive moving images is not a mode that can be monopolised by film, just as narrative through non-interactive text is not a mode monopolised by literature. Videogames are not just games, and Huizinga, as perceptive as he is, cannot ever hope to teach you all you need to know about the medium. To suggest the cut-scene is somehow alien to what a videogame should be is to fundamentally misunderstand where the cut-scene came from, and what cinema is. If you took all the cut-scenes in a game and stitched them together, would you have a work of cinema? If you isolated all the orchestral music from a film’s soundtrack, would you have a symphony?
It is understandable to want to be critical of the uses of cut-scene narrative in contemporary videogames. I am just as frustrated as the next irate blogger when forced to sit through a ten-minute cut-scene in order to progress through the latest blockbuster videogame. But it is unproductive and frankly downright silly to pretend that at their very essence, cut-scenes are the antithesis to the art of the videogame. They might sometimes be overwrought. They may tend to be long-winded. But they’re just as much a part of the world of videogames as any rule, any fail-state, or any controller.