Monday, November 2, 2009

VGA 1-4 [Scene Slice]

Video Games as Art 1-4
Originally Posted: Tuesday // February 19th, 2008 10:55:28 Central Standard Time


All mediums should play off of each other to some extent and because of this, games have the luxury of keeping in crew with three other very powerful mediums (i.e. literature, music, film). The tools those mediums present should be questioned before anything. However, when a cutscene’s length rivals the game's actual duration of playtime, a very dangerous line is crossed and presents issues we’re going to get into now.

  • The cutscene is definitely a tool to consider for video games. It’s passively meant to engage the player, while continuing to carry along the plot in conjunction with the title’s fundamental interactivity. It almost innately causes innately amongst gamers because it’s the medium’s own culmination of an identity crisis. Whether it’s the scenes of Metal Gear Solid or the extensive text from the second disk of Xenogears, the cutscene raises a lot of questions for gamers.

  • They serve as a splint for the young medium to stand tall amidst its predecessors (films, novels, music,etc). The problem these days is the reliance being constructed around the use of the, almost to the point of it becoming integral in the design process. The good news is that the medium seems to be naturally progressing towards the in-game experience more. The bad news is the negativity that still surrounds the use of them. The connotations surrounding them being archaic, disruptive, and simply detrimental is something that needs to be addressed.

  • Extended text serves the same crutch and is even more guilty of this problem due to the simple nature of people not preferring to read when they sit down to play their games. A book is a book, and a game is a game. Sure, there issues like money, voice actors, sound design and such, but that can't be hidden behind forever. In some cases this is more problematic, as the line is far murkier in the things that can be presented as text for the player to read.

    "Sometimes I would simply rather have a character talk to me while I'm completing an objective. It's totally dependent upon the context though; I don't think games quite know that yet."

    -Randy M., 1UP Blogger/Artist

    At worst, a cutscene simply lives up to its namesake, slicing through various game sequences, separating them into simple extended play areas. Such play areas are punctuated by cutscenes and can be written off by most as nothing more than narrative fluff. One of the big hot-button solutions to this is recent rise in context sensitive scenes in games (e.g. QTE). At first this was cool and somewhat innovative (for example, God of War); now people view it as a sort of offensive cop-out. Some will even go as far as to say there is no solution to this problem when it's right under their noses in games they've no doubt already played over the last decade. The way some scenes are presented in Assassin’s Creed for example, show plenty of promise in dealing with this dilemma more effectively than various QTE instances. Stronger attempts to provide seamless transitions between the actual game and various cut scenes are a somewhat new watershed solution seen in titles such as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. There are also a countless number of ways to circumvent such problems by empowering the contextual narrative (e.g. the logs and tapes in both BioShock and System Shock 2).

    One of my most basic conclusions in analyzing the players’ stance with cutscenes is the weakness of a person's cognitive reception for engagement in a videogame (a consensual toleration level if you will). Plenty gamers simply won't go past a certain extent to connect themselves to a game. Others are unwittingly susceptible to their own hollow opinions and are weakly equipped to handle such scenes, therefore they devolve to simply antagonizing them. This can be seen in the consistent praise of being able to pause scenes. Sure, it practically has the benefit of allowing the player to go to the bathroom, take a break, or simply skip them altogether. However, if one scrapes even an inch of that practicality away, they’ll find the gamer’s ‘fear of castration’. If there is no pause sequence for instance, the player submits totally to the game itself and is forced to relinquish the control that most define video games for having (see last entry for my diatribe against gamers building those constructs). Some are simply more sensitive to this matter, and this is the driving force behind the animosity towards franchises such as Metal Gear Solid, whose scenes often total into multiple hours.

    "Totally agree with you about the codec sequences in MGS - It would be fantastic if they played out while you were running around doing things. There's enough downtime between alerts that I think they could pull it off (though Kojima wouldn't do that) Also, Excellent point about immersing yourself in the characters and, to some extent, becoming the characters. A lot of people have been playing games for so long now that the controllers are like extensions of their hands anyway, so once you grasp the controls of a game, you don't even notice that it's there. I think that's why a lot of non-gamers have trouble getting into games these days - unintuitive controls take them out of the experience."

    Kat B., 1UP Editor

    It's pretty damn hard for me to be effectively disconnected from the game, so things like cutscenes have never bothered me in the slightest. Consider the weakness I just mentioned; are those people really only pressing buttons to make their characters move on the screen and absolutely nothing else? In this sense, aren’t all player actions virtually cutscenes, differentiated only by time frames? It certainly sets some things into context when considered in its entirety.At no time in my entire life have I been pushing a button to make someone jump when in actuality I am. Some people will be able to grasp that concept instantly and some will wonder where my sanity is at (if you aren't wondering already). You've seen those people that run around constantly jumping in some videogames right? I'm one of those people, maybe not for the same reason, but I am. It's the equivalence of stating over and over an admittance of faith that my mind eventually accepts and is honed to:

    "I am jumping..."

    "I am...jumping."

    "I...am...jumping"

    "I'm jumping."

    "This is me, I am actually jumping."

    "Like you, I really enjoy the MGS titles. Certainly these games contain a lot of cinemas, but overall they work quite well. I don't like it when the cutscenes could have blatantly been a gameplay experience. This is definitely where more developers need to draw the line: the cutscene should be a necessary cut or escape from the interactive nature. Overall, MGS2 didn't work for me in certain moments because several cutscenes just felt superfluous."

    Matt S., 1UP Blogger

    If you do happen to understand that, then God bless you for sticking with me. I have never in my entire life pressed a button to make Snake flatten against a wall, Dante swing his sword, or make a death-defying leap of faith with Mario. If the controller still exists in your hand then you're more of a problem than the game actually is. This is why you will see me jumping around like a nutcase in some games (most of the time it's TBC based RPGs that allow it), because sometimes even I simply end up playing with a controller in my hand. I'm constantly adjusting my mind to the way I am playing a game when I do that, especially when I am playing games that are difficult for me personally to connect with. As broad-ranged as I am, I don't like everything, but a key significance (not to mention dying art) in this consumer-based industry is finding enjoyment in even the things that one doesn’t typically like. If you don't step outside of your box for the things you that you claim to love, then you're never going to grow and you're insulting them at the same time.

    "I mean --- who would have thought that the act of simply climbing a ladder would have so much resonance."

    Nel, 1UP Blogger
    [Note: He's referring to Krasnogorje's tunnel]

    Like I stated in my last entry, one of the big games that always comes up whenever people start quarreling about the narrative in games is of course, the Metal Gear Solid franchise. While I love these games past the point of being an insane fan boy, I do recognize the issues within it as a game. Recently, MGS4: Guns of the Patriots attempted to rectify the series’ long withstanding archaic game mechanics that have plagued the series since the original playstation ‘Solid’. Not once however, have the MGS titles attempted to stray from their overabundance of cutscenes, as they define a significant portion of the series to begin with.

    A good question is why would my favorite games series fall into the category of games that lean so heavily on cutscenes? Firstly, I should reiterate that where they disconnect some people, they engage me that much more; especially if the duration of such scenes are within reason. Still, I've allowed myself to see from the perspective of the populous that has been complaining about this issue. As such, I stand by the assertion thatMetal Gear Solid is the maximum influence movies should have on games as they are. How much more satisfying would the serie’s trademark codec/radio sequences be if one was still actually playing the game in real time? If absolutely necessary, the codec screen could be inset at the bottom of the screen (think Heavenly Sword’s dual scenes). These kind of transmissions could pass time effectively between alert/evasion phases as well as serve as an emotional experience in cases that don't involve the player actively going to another screen, putting down the controller and having to listen to 5-10 minutes of conversation. It would also open up a new dimension of varied interpretive experiences while playing the game (i.e. "dude I was in the locker when I found out Liquid Snake fucked my mother!”) A lot of the scenes in the MGS series could translate more effectively into gameplay segments such as these. It doesn’t even have to be every single sequence, just key instances (i.e. which alludes to the argument of editing the entire franchise again). Even Guns of the Patriots dropped the ball in this respect, opting not only to downplay the codec sequences, but cutting the character out of them entirely. This is to the point where people who actually enjoyed such transmissions were pushed to the breaking point themselves (the player could only access Otacon and Rose for themselves).

    "Metal Gear Solid 3 made me hate cutscenes; it simply tried to romanticize me to death."

    James W., 1UP Blogger

    My curiosity towards the title Uncharted 2: Among Thieves stems mainly from of my obstinate stance on the Metal Gear Solid franchise. It seemed like a more progressive title than the implosive MGS4 and after watching the entire game, I stand by that now. While synthesizing, I noticed scenes which specifically blend certain scenes or quick sequences that would normally be saved for cutscenes in actual play. An example would be the falling obstacle in the chamber that Nate and Chloe explore in Nepal. The way certain shots are set up in condition how the player can or cannot die all factor in here and Uncharted 2 specifically utilizes this forte constantly. As an example, I could that Among Thieves ‘logic’ and apply it Guns of the Patriots:

    The extensive scene in Act Three of MGS4 after meeting EVA could have been a sequence of much greater power if the player was granted actual control. During this scene, EVA launches into a long dialogue explaining the events that transpired after the events of operation Snake Eater, and how affiliations like the Patriots came about. To its credit, the scene was aided by the typical Shinkawa sketches and graphically designed flower animations showing a visual motif for The Boss’ actions and how they rippled across the next fifty years. The church is set up to specifically give way to shots of Noriyoshi Ohrai’s paintings of various Metal Gear Solid 3 touchstones while the player is maybe granted sight to them for a matter of seconds before it resumes its self-indulgent scene. The track ‘Paradise Lost’ could have stayed, not to mention EVA’s explanation, and the scene could have been designed around how much control was given to the player for that scene specifically. Even simplistic solutions are available here, such as the scene playing out with an Assassin’s Creed type movement system. Even the floral designs could remain while being overlaid (with an extremely low and customized opacity) over the sequence itself. Scenes such as this, not to mention the graveyard instance in Naked Sin could have communicated much more profoundly to the message MGS4 so oppressively attempts to state. On these grounds, I think newer titles such as Uncharted 2 move the bar up just a tad, as its constant use of ‘play within dialogue’ is something titles like MGS4 could have used even more effectively had they deviated from the cutscene system just slightly. The cutscenes don’t have to disappear entirely (or even majorly), but a dynamic is presented when they’re broken up; when things like pacing and transition are considered far more.

    "My problem isn't that he forces you into viewing too many (or long) cut-scenes; my main problem with him is that he just isn't a very good writer. While I loved certain scenes in all of the MGS games, I didn't find the story of MGS3 to be much better than an old episode of GI Joe. It seems like he is caught between making an action movie, and making a political statement."

    Fandel M., 1UP Blogger

    *sigh* The Japanese…

    The transitions between sequences go a long way in how cinematic scenes set themselves up as well. Loading screens are far more disruptive than the actual cutscenes in most cases. If the blending between scenes and play were more efficiently addressed in modern titles, they’d certainly be much better off. Perhaps this is something developers miss out on as they spend the majority of their time creating, rather than enjoying. The small nuances of what the player sees is explosive when compared to that of the developers (which is an assumption, but I’d rather be proven wrong than not say anything). How the screen cuts, switches, or pans has become immensely important in a game, which is what I saw in Uncharted 2. As a result, I’d say that this is where games actually need to look towards film for help. How scenes transition into each other is almost as important as the content of the scene itself sometimes, so anytime the adjective ‘cinematic’ is used, I’ll be looking here from now on. For all the growth that games have made, they still struggle the player’s influence over simple sequences such as showing two characters talk to each other. The progression and deficiencies of titles such as Guns of the Patriots & Among Thieves are definitive proof of this.

    If we look at something like Xenosaga, the same rules apply, but the playing ground for criticism is buried more in the grounds of what composes the JRPG. Very few games involve the Xenogames’ pedantic path of a story dipped in philosophical beliefs/religious undertones. My guess we won't see anything even close to it for a long time (if ever again). Even fans of the game have stopped for YEARS at some parts only to come back and find themselves loving it just as much, but just simply bogged down in the overall cutscene length and bland running around. Xenosaga Episode I was a relatively solid turn based RPG. It suffered mainly from being a tad overly technical and bland. Episode II took the same setup and watered it down to the extent where they almost lost their fanbase (which was crucial to the series making it as far as it did mind you). This left Episode III to finally hit a sweet spot between the first two games, which is all the miserable little series could have hoped for at that point (especially considering that the entire series went to hell and back again from a developmental standpoint).

    "I just want to say that I think your idea to include the codec sequences during gameplay in MGS is brilliant. Leaving options open to the player is always welcome. I still sometimes like to have a breather and watch cut-scenes (or in this case, codec sequences), but at other times (waiting for alerts to die down) your idea would be a godsend."

    Adam S., 1UP Blogger
    [Note: I'm still fairly disappointed that MGS4 didn't utilize this more successfully]

    A new level that has been seen in Half Life is the perspective of an entity. Gordon Freeman has no real character or personality within the Half Life world. He simply just exists and is acknowledged by everyone else. This is brilliant on plenty of levels because it leaves room to the gamer's imagination. They can just simply put themselves into his place taking on nothing more than just his name for the ride. However, it does weaken the impact of characterization in the game itself. In the end, one could call the player a passively interactive watcher on the entire Combine/Earth ordeal. Gordon isn't there, not really, not as it seems right now. If they're isn't some extraordinary good reason to why Gordon is the way he is, then I'll be extremely disappointed with the entire series story-wise because it will almost discredit a good majority of what makes the game so great overall as a storytelling device; he just can’t get away with what characters like Master Chief and Samus do. Still, what Valve has done here is pretty damn excellent. Movement, interaction, and a definitive connection between the player and their avatar on the screen must be maintained to some consistency for some gamers and it's a desire that should never be ignored entirely, but not bent to with the strictest priority.

    ~sLs~