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I like cutscenes

Jeanne_2 ...and almost never skip them. I'm a sucker for story, and generally (though not often enough) cutscenes can be relied on to advance or enhance a game's narrative. Titles like Devil May Cry 3 and God of War, and heavyweight franchises like Metal Gear (3D), The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil all rely on in-game or pre-rendered cutscenes to do a variety of useful things. Blizzard, creator of the best cutscenes in the industry, even has a dedicated design unit whose sole responsibility is creating Hollywood-quality (oxymoron?) cinematics. Occasionally, cutscenes even outshine the game itself (see Onimusha 3 or Final Fantasy VIII).

Other games, not so much. Few experiences raise the break-controller-over-knee frustration level higher than games containing frequent recurring useless cutscenes that can't be skipped. My exasperation about such games stems partly from frustration, but mostly from a concern that gamers who play these titles are essentially being trained to skip cutscenes whenever possible.

I know LOTS of gamers who simply never watch cutscenes if they can avoid them. They just want to "get back to playing the game." For a guy like me--who still thinks Aristotle's Poetics is a pretty useful document--watching this happen is like tearing my heart out. "Wait! Don't you want to know why his brother betrayed him?! How can you NOT WANT TO KNOW that?! Are you aware of how much time and effort went into that little 30-second scene?! Ingrate!!"

It's perfectly understandable to me why designers create cutscenes we can't skip. They see them as essential to the game experience. But those cutscenes had better be more than superfluous interruptions or load-time cover-ups. They had better be compelling in some way--or even just Kojima-freaky weird--or players will skip them if they can. Some players won't ever care about story, and that's fine. But I think it's possible to lure players to a story and keep them attached if you've got what Aristotle told us we needed 2300 years ago:

  • a story about something important
  • characters with something at stake who reflect something recognizable about ourselves
  • delivered in a way that exploits the medium to its fullest potential

So what makes a cutscene compelling? I think it should do at least one of the following:

  • Establish setting and tone - see opening sequence of Final Fantasy XII or Diablo II
  • Advance the plot - see Resident Evil 4 or Fahrenheit
  • Develop or enhance our understanding of the characters - see Persona 3 or Planescape: Torment
  • Provide a rhythmic transition or palette cleanser for the player - see Metroid Prime  or Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker

Hanging a narrative with frequent cutscenes on a game that won't support it is a bad idea. The frustration I described above came from playing the otherwise excellent Jeanne D'arc. This title by Level 5 works nicely as a traditional tactical RPG, but shoehorning this experience into an absurd amalgam of historical 15th century France, contemporary Japanese anime, and high fantasy underworld demons just didn't work for me. Certainly, the story of Joan of Arc needs no leg up from Level 5 in the narrative department. While the cutscenes may vaguely adhere to elements of my list above, the stylistic collisions that result are so jarring--and occasionally laughable--that they finally derailed my desire to get to the next battle.

So I guess, at least on my PSP, the English baddies conquer France with token resistance. Sorry about that, La Pucelle.