Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Press the X Button to Watch the Game?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 18, 2011

I got a chuckle from a tweet by Brenda Brathwaite complaining about an RPG her kid was playing:

An Old-School RPG Designer Grouses.

Somewhere down the line, game designers discovered that “immersive” no longer had anything to do with “interactive.” It instead meant “cinematic” plus “press a button to see something awesome happen.”

Okay, no, that’s not all fair, it’s hardly a universal complaint, and yes I am a big fan of the series that is generally attributed with starting this trend – Wing Commander. I love a good story in an RPG, with lots of drama and character, and though it detracts from the gameplay, I do enjoy a nicely crafted cut-scene. Otherwise, when the T-Rex appears, you may be too busy rummaging through your backpack to notice. Take your pick of which is the least lame option, or find some better middle ground.

But sometimes I think the most important lessons to be learned from more “old-school” games is how players were able to be not just entertained but thoroughly immersed in something so lacking in qualities often considered essential today. The graphics were practically abstract. The interfaces could probably be called “abusive,” as could the gameplay in some cases. The games were overly simplistic in the the ‘wrong’ ways, and overly complex in equally ‘wrong’ ways.  The mechanics were often imbalanced or downright broken, and they had plenty of their share of annoyances (whadayamean monsters can attack diagonally but I can’t?). But they did consume the imagination.

I maintain that this was largely because the players were willing to invest themselves to the games, and got out of it what they were willing to put in. If we are trending towards more passive gaming experiences, then we need to ask ourselves if we’re gaining more by emulating more popular traditional media than we’re losing  by constraining player interaction. I doubt it’s a simple equation.

As for me, most of you know where my preferences lay. I like my RPGs to have rich, interactive worlds to explore.  I like to poke around in them a bit. I don’t necessarily need big open-ended environments, but I don’t want to be led around by the nose. I’m okay with cutscenes, but I want them to be secondary to actual gameplay (and none of this quick-time event “press buttons to keep watching the movie” B.S. either). I want to labor under the illusion that the world is packed to the gills with interesting and unusual stuff to discover if I just keep poking around. I want to be rewarded for going off the rails and trying an unconventional (or at least indirect) approach with at least an acknowledgment – the neat kind of feeling we get from text adventurers when the designer anticipated our goofier interactions with the world. And I want to feel that the world is sometimes too friggin’ dangerous for me to explore, and that I must tread carefully in a land that isn’t magically tailored to accommodate me. I want to feel like I’m the one in charge of managing my own risk vs. reward.

Is all that a tall order, with even some semi-contradictory wants? Yeah, probably. I’m not quite there myself with my own game in development, at least not to my own satisfaction. But I don’t think it’s an unreasonable list of demands.

How about you?


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Calibrator said,

    I have no problem with cutscenes in general, but:

    – They have to be in the right place to not disrupt the gameflow (for example between levels)!
    I hate it when the game continuously steals the control from me and I watch helplessly how the plot unfolds. I guess a fellow driving an electric wheelchair with a steering defect has a similar experience.
    More and more games have more and more cutscenes, sometimes for such simple things as open doors. The door loading sequences in the original Resident Evil games could probably called cutscenes now, too…

    – They better be watchable!
    I’ve seen so many childish plots written by naive authors and others trying to imitate movie plots etc. that it makes me sick.
    I still have the impression that the majority of games – whether for consoles or not – is still being made for adolescent boys not yet out of puberty (or made by them).
    In fact this is one reason I play more and more independent games (most recently the very commendable Machinarium, which really is an outstanding game).

    As an example for good cutscenes I still cite the first two Thief games. Here they added to the atmosphere and didn’t detract from the immersion (even though they were not made with the game engine).

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    While I do not consider the first two Thief games to be RPGs by any stretch, I wish more RPGs would emulate them in approach. The best thing about them was the feeling (illusion?) of control and open-ended possibilities throughout a mission.

  • Menigal said,

    I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I still think that for most games there should be two cutscenes: one at the beginning of the game and one at the end. Everything else should develop through gameplay. If it’s a game with an established character from another medium, like Arkham Asylum, then there’s some leeway, since seeing the character do their normal thing is usually part of the appeal.

    As for quicktime events, just no. I have and will no doubt continue to not buy games just because they have those affronts to real gameplay in them. There were a bad idea when Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair did them a long time back, and they’re still a horrible idea.

    It’s like they’re the conclusion to a terribly flawed chain of logic by people who don’t know anything about games, but still want some of that sweet, sweet cash. Games are getting more and more cutscenes. Some people complain about this. We can’t get rid of cutscenes, because they make the game more like a movie, and movies are what games should strive to be, right? So add in a button every so often to keep the player “connected” to the action. Problem solved, except for the real problem never being addressed or even understood.

    They are one of the worst aspects of the enforced cinematic mindset that’s taking over game development, and I for one will dance on their grave when they finally die (again).

  • skavenhorde said,

    I don’t mind cut-scenes either. You mentioned Wing Commander and I have to say those were some of the best cutscenes ever. You still had your gameplay that was the heart and soul of the game, but then you had good story to go along with the gameplay.

    I never played the earlier Wing Commanders. I only came along during the FMV phase with Luke and Biff 🙂 When they showed up on screen I nearly wet my pants. There were some really bad FMV cutscenes in the games during that time period, but not Wing Commander. They did it right.

    Too bad Origin went bonkers with Privateer 2. There was a reviewer for some magazine at the time that said something along the lines of, “Come for the game, but stay for the show.” The game sucked, but the movie was pretty descent in a LSD sorta way.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Cut-scenes are okay when using sparingly and to good effect.

    I hate when cut-scenes MOVE my character. I can be in perfect defensive position and a boss will show up in a cutscene and the game will just throw me out in the middle of the open like a big “screw you”.

    I also don’t like when cut-scenes go longer than than should – and I don’t mean length. I mean when the boss appears – lets say a T-Rex – from the undergrowth, and the cut-scene has my character standing (out in the open) gasping and shocked as the T-Rex gets closer and closer and right up on him. What the hell, game? If it was basic gameplay, I see the T-Rex head come from the undergrowth and I’m going to start running and moving, not stare at it.

    Though I also dislike disconnected cut-scenes – those that are completely independent of your gameplay choices and actions. Games like Call of Duty Black Ops just roll right along regardless of what you do – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RULv6HbgEjY
    In the Cuba mission, which the above video shows, the game LITERALLY plays and beats itself. All you are doing is controlling the camera.

    And then there are games like Final Fantasy XIII, where I am convinced I could play through the first 3 hours blind-folded – literally. The director and producer of the game actually admitted they couldn’t afford and didn’t have time to put in towns and open areas with NPCs after they finished with the graphics! Square-Enix is a case where it seems like the developers REALLY want to be movie makers. They should just drop the gameplay and keep making movies like Advent Children. The cut-scene fidelity and convoluted story you are forced down seems to be all they care about any more.

    And quick-time events just are not cool with me. If you want to show me a movie, show me a movie. If you want me to play, let me play. Don’t try and show me a movie and test me randomly to see if I’m watching or gone to make a sandwich.

    The first Xenosaga game is kind of unique, because it had a TON of interesting and varied gameplay, but it had hugely long cutscenes as well. In fact, when the second game was released, you could buy a DVD movie that used the cutscenes and arranged them to tell the entire story of the first game. It was a shock to watch it and discover that A) it was exciting and everything made sense and nothing from the story was missing and B) that is was EIGHT hours long. And that was edited.

  • fluffyamoeba said,

    The important thing is that any cutscene before a tough battle should trigger an autosave after it has finished. Particularly if there’s no saving allowed in combat. I *hate* having to replay the same cutscene over and over every reload. The better the cutscene, the more annoying this is. At least with a crappy one, I hated it the first time around anyway.

  • McTeddy said,

    You know… contrary to my ultra-old-school attitude… I really do like cinematic experiences. I love watching my character doing something badass even if I cant. I love the use of dramatic camera angles to make the revealing conversation more exciting.

    But, my god, I’m still there to play a game. Don’t make cutscenes ungodly long… don’t make everything of importance happen in cutscenes… and please stop asking your children to write the dialog.

    I love cinematic experiences… but I find that they often replace the gameplay experience. It’s like developers think that they are mutually exclusive to one another.

    I’ve enjoyed a lot of cinematic games… but they all had gameplay to hold things together.

    A game without gameplay is a failure* regardless of how pretty is is to look at.

    *And I am sorry Xenosaga… I do love you… but you sucked as a game.

  • Justin Alexander said,

    I’m unclear on why Wing Commander would get saddled with this rep. At least through WC4, the “cut scenes” still featured conversation-driven gameplay where the player made real and meaningful decisions.

    OTOH, I suppose I can see how poor imitation of those cut scenes led to the current predicament.

    Similarly, if you look at the original God of War you can see that the majority of QTEs were actually just monster-specific combos: If you’re fighting monster X, then you will need to perform combo Y in order to finish it off (or to finish it off more quickly). That’s still gameplay and it’s a skill that can be mastered. (You can, for example, easily memorize the sequence for minotaurs.) In God of War I still felt like I was controlling the character through the QTEs (for much the same reason that I feel like I’m controlling my fighter in a Street Fighter game).

    Over time, QTEs have morphed into a meaningless pattern-matching game which disrupts immersion.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I suspect Wing Commander got the rep because – around WC2 more than WC1 – it was the one that really told the story through cut-scenes and dialogs on the PC in a way that hadn’t really been seen on that scale before. That, and it had a huge budget that was likewise staggering by the scales of the day. And so it generated a host of imitators, just as you said.

    That’s my supposition – I’ve just heard that perspective echoed several times.

  • EHamilton said,

    I like cutscenes that happen as you discover something new, to set the stage for the actions you’re about to take. An “unveil” of a new area as you come over a hill, or a dragon swooping in for the attack.

    I don’t like cutscenes that finish the action in that area or chapter for you. I want to actually kill the boss (or otherwise resolve the problem) in an interactive way. The climax in a game should be something I do, not something I watch.

    On entry = good
    On completion = bad

    On the other hand, in games where dialogue options have been reduced to essentially the same basic result, the interactivity is mostly an illusion and then it might as well be a cutscene.

  • Kiolia said,

    I am with you on your take on how RPGs should feel. Regarding cutscenes, I think they depend on the format of a game: for anything in which immersion is what I’m after, I feel like cutscenes detract — this aspect of Dead Space 2, where the cutscenes were the equivalent of close third-person narration (where you (the audience) never know more than the character), really worked for me. The only time I felt really jarred out of that game was when I died and had to reload. And then Half-Life 2, I think, is a good example of strong design obviating the need for (most) cutscenes — you can see the way they guide the player’s eye to make sure they’re looking the right way when something cool is going to happen (with window placement, visual composition, drawing attention with enemy fire, and so on). F.E.A.R., on the other hand, tried to avoid cutscenes too, but without that same level of guidance/design — I was constantly looking the wrong way when something popped up that was supposed to unsettle me — a ghost appearing at the elevator controls while I was admiring the ceiling, for example.

    Of course, the real immersion-killer for me now is achievement pop-ups. I can understand their appeal, but it drives me nuts to WANT to take a game seriously and have idiotically-named achievements appearing, especially for non-events like storyline milestones.

  • MalcolmM said,

    As for cutscenes, I can take them or leave them. Usually they bore me, but if they are short that isn’t a big problem.

    What I don’t like about elaborate cutscenes is that they obviously take a lot of resources, time and money, to make. Resources better spent on improving the gameplay. My favourite game of the last few years, the King’s Bounty series, has very minimal cutscenes, and no voice acting. The developers efforts were obviously focused on gameplay, and it shows.

    Contrast that with Mass Effect (I’ve only played the first one so far, it is so bad I’ve put off starting ME2). Obviously the development budget was focused on the cutscenes. The gameplay is non existent. Obvioulsy I’m in the minority with this opinion, Mass Effect greatly outsold King’s Bounty.

  • Xenovore said,

    With the excessive cut-scene usage in games like Final Fantasy, Mass Effect or Dragon Age, one issue is that these games are neither here nor there; are they trying to be video games or trying to be movies? The game-play interrupts the cinematics, the cinematics interrupt the game-play, and ultimately they just end up being both half-assed games and half-assed movies.

    The ultimate problem with cut-scenes, however, is that player agency is denied. Anything that actually prevents the player from playing the game, is bad.