First published in CTW (Computer Trade Weekly), issue 840 (11th May 2001)
As narrative elements become more popular and more necessary to video games, techniques for communicating story events to the player become vital. The primary technique currently used in narrative based games is the cut scene - a non-interactive sequence which facilitates narrative exposition. Basically, a cut scene is a chunk of story played out in visuals and sound, that the player is expected to watch and absorb.
Cut scenes have recently come under fire as being a blunt, inflexible method of communicating a story to a player. The fundamental argument in discrediting the cut scene technique seems to be that because cut scenes are non-interactive, they limit the player's involvement with the game world. This article seeks to explore the advantages and disadvantages of the cut scene, and asks: are cut scenes really an outdated video games concept?
Cut Scene Technology
There are two fundamental types of cut scene; the pre-rendered or FMV scene, and the engine-rendered scene. The former uses pre-created visuals such as computer generated animation or video, while the latter uses the game engine to generate the visuals. In both cases dialogue is provided either by written text or by a pre-recorded voiceover.
At the current time, pre-rendered scenes have fallen out of vogue. They originally became popular with the advent of CD-ROM storage for video games, and the availability of the space required to store memory-intensive blocks of data. CD-ROM's created the unpleasant breed of PC-based video game known as the 'interactive movie', which usually invoked reels of video visuals as a backdrop to necessarily simple game play concepts. The advent of the Playstation, with its popular ability to easily generate effective polygonal graphics, relegated FMV to cut scene or intro sequence status. Still, FMV was very popular with the new mass market of gamers, since it presented the illusion of high tech interactivity.
More recently it has been realised that expensive FMV scenes don't make games more popular. In part, Nintendo 64 successes such as Goldeneye (Rare) showed that engine rendered cut scenes could please a player and serve the game as well as FMV (which is restrictively memory-intensive for cartridge based systems), as well as being generally cheaper to produce.
It is interesting to note that Microsoft have announced a policy of allowing no pre-rendered graphics to be used in X-Box products, meaning that engine rendered graphics will be the only available choice for cut scenes on this system. Perhaps this will mark the end of an era where a product can advertise itself entirely on pre-rendered graphic images that have nothing to do with the game play of the product being sold.
The main concerns regarding the use of cut scenes fall into two related categories; the over-use of cut scenes, and the non-interactivity of cut scenes. This second complaint is the most important. A cut scene takes control away from the player, thus, in theory, reducing player identification with the game. The over-use of scenes exacerbates this problem; over-long scenes, or the use of too many scenes in relation to the amount of play between scenes, can bore players. Playstation successes such as Metal Gear Solid (Konami) and the most recent entries in the Final Fantasy series (Squaresoft) have received criticism in this area. The success of these games has arisen despite their often poor pacing, rather than because of the amount of story information presented.
The Advantages of Cut Scenes
Despite their lack of direct interactivity, cut scenes are a strong device for the development of plot. Players are used to this form of story information, because they are used to watching television and movies. In addition, cut scenes allow for character-based work that is difficult to achieve in-game. Cut scene animation can be more sophisticated than in-game animation, and so can be used to provide character information to the player. The Resident Evil series of games (Capcom) uses this technique well - excellent engine-rendered scenes (often using pre-rendered backdrops) give the characters dynamic movements and therefore personality, while in-game animation is kept simple and functional.
A second advantage of the cut scene is as a player reward. Since the concept of the high-score has become devalued, other rewards are required to give the player a sense of achievement. Story can be used for this. Cut scenes are especially useful because they give the player a break from the game action as well as providing reward, and allow them a safe period to lean back, massage their hands etc. - without allowing the player to break from the game reality and thus 'stop playing'.
A final advantage of cut scenes is that they may be used to add dynamism to the game. Jet Set Radio (Sega, Smile Bit) uses brief cut scenes at specific points within its environments to show the player an alternative view of their action, giving a sense of satisfaction and reminding the player that their activities are really quite spectacular.
Cut scenes are too valuable to dismiss entirely, but players are becoming increasingly frustrated by poorly paced cut scenes. It is irritating to find cut scenes popping up just as the player is becoming involved with a game, and there is a growing hatred of over-long scenes that actually bore. The issue of pacing seems to be an as-yet unexplored factor in video games, but efficient marshalling of various narrative techniques will be required as narrative structures in games become more complex. Otherwise players will be alienated rather than entertained.
Cut scenes are especially useful in more arcade-oriented games, in which an overreaching story is not necessary, but in which player identification can be improved by a snippet of character information here or there. In terms of narrative-based games, cut scenes have become far more flexible now that players do not expect expensive FMV. FMV constrains plot by being immutable when played - and so all story elements at that point of play are forced to conform. Next-generation engine-rendered cut scenes will be mutable, created using disparate, definable elements, and so will allow far more non-linear narrative structures to be used.
Fundamentally, cut scenes cannot be seen as an enemy to game play, as this view-point is short sighted. Instead, I believe that cut scenes should be seen as a useful tool in an ever-increasing toolbox of techniques, that may be responsibly employed by game designers and script writers to improve player understanding of the video game story.
The problems will come as it becomes increasingly difficult to satisfy players' demands for an influence in the game world without devising flexible ways to fit cut scenes into the player's choices. Dynamic cut scenes are already appearing in games, but soon there will be a need for dynamic dialogue and plotting to accompany these scenes. As the barriers between game design and script writing come down, developers will need to either learn new skills or forge new alliances if they are going to meet the challenges ahead.
Head of Script Services