The Scripted Sequence: Eye, Robot
Ethan Woods shares his storytelling pet peeve.
You could read this article. But why not play it instead?
Everyone understands that gaming is fundamentally in existence because of its interactivity. You can take away the sound and the writing and I even once saw one remove graphics entirely. But if you take away the interactivity, then all you’re left with are disparate parts which might make a nice looking picture with an accompanying, slightly erratic soundtrack, but that’s about it. Seems to me this begs the question of why games would take control from players and ask them to watch idly.
I am talking, of course, about cutscenes, a practice that seems to fundamentally undermine the fundamentality of the medium they’re employed in. In theory, there’s little difference between games using these little films and films using written flashcards, or novels using pictures. Ignoring the most basic convention of a medium is fine, but you’d better have a good reason to do so. And, as it turns out, most developers don’t. Cutscenes are simply used as convenient storytelling shorthand.
In a day and age where, more than ever, we’re all hoping for video game storytelling to be taken more seriously, the reliance on cutscenes is undermining those efforts. How can anyone proclaim to evidence great video game storytelling if they relay their tale through what is effectively a film? That’s cheating! We know how to do that. Stories have been told with actors following scripted actions and lines for thousands of years. You’ve not mastered video game storytelling, you’re just repeating something that belongs to another medium.
If a game’s plot can’t be expressed without the use of regular cutscenes, then it is perhaps time to accept that it shouldn’t be made. Or that the plot should be changed. There’s no shame in a story not fitting a medium – I’m sure we’ve all heard of “unfilmable” books. Such a phrase shouldn’t be considered a slight against filmmaking, merely an acknowledgement that it has its weaknesses. Until developers, players and critics get that into their heads, then no amount of better writing and acting will allow video game storytelling to be what it should be.
Perhaps we must even admit that, amongst the storytelling media, gaming is the weakest, at least conventionally speaking. Instead of trying to emulate the sorts of plots seen in films, perhaps it’s about time more effort was put into merely conveying experiences and emotions through the construction of mood and tone. Let the players sort out the intricacies themselves. These kinds of games already exist: DayZ and EVE are both fine and hugely different, examples of such an approach. As gaming stands right now though, it’s a medium that’s compromising its own potential out of the wish for a quick-fix to its problems. Maybe it’s time to kick the habit.
Ethan Woods is a dashingly handsome, thoroughly amateur writer on the videogames, and a student of English and American Literature at the University of London. Prominent fans of his work can find the odd tidbit more at his blog, Ballistically Grapelike.