This morning I watched a spectacular thing: the most recent story trailer for Uncharted 4. In case you missed it, take 2 minutes of your time and enjoy it below:
Ok, now that you’ve caught your breath, let’s have a discussion about something that’s grated my nerves since the arrival of Metal Gear Solid on the original Playstation: the idea that a video game shouldn’t feature extensive cinematic scenes. The argument is pretty simple – people pay $60 to play their favorite characters. Not to run from one area to another and then watch a 40-minute cutscene, then go to a new area and watch another 10-minute cutscene, etc. Now, on the one hand I understand their frustration. Poorly timed cinematic scenes can certainly be jarring to gamers; stopping everything in the middle of a high-octane shootout or car chase to explain the motives of a particular hero or villain can take away from the experience. Others argue that it’s simple “art for art’s sake”; a way for developers to push the limits of the hardware by cutting away to a cinematic with no player control so that they can demo breathtaking graphics as representative of the game as a whole. These are both points well taken. However, having been an active gamer for over 25 years I’ve found that video games have a powerful tool that sets them apart from other mediums; the ability to interact with an engrossing and enriching world more so than any other. My argument is that the cinematic scenes that cause so much consternation is actually one of the most effective methods in creating such an immersive experience.
Before you start lighting the torches and passing out pitchforks, don’t misunderstand me: I have immense respect for the arts, music and literature. All of these are essential elements of a well-rounded individual. Video games, however, provide a unique element of control. Think back to when you were younger: did you ever read those Choose Your Own Adventure titles? Something about the uncertainty about where your next choice would lead you made them extremely popular. Maybe you were impulsive and decided to go down that shady-looking hallway to your inevitable doom. Maybe you chose the more diplomatic route and ended up a respected official in your own happy ending. It’s this control that so many gamers cling to as their argument against more cinematic titles, but I would challenge them to look at it another way.
Developers like Naughty Dog, CD Projekt Red and others create vast and impressive worlds with the help of consoles that we could have hardly imagined 20 years ago. The hardware allows them to spin to life lush landscapes and expansive storylines that are digital incarnations of Choose Your Own Adventure. Take Uncharted for example – maybe you want to charge through Rambo-style and shoot anything that moves. Maybe you channel your inner Snake and sneak, hide and stealth-kill your way to victory. This choice allows you to craft the game in your own image, and cinematics play an essential role in emphasizing this fact. When you see a breathtakingly beautiful digital landscape, the camera pans and zooms in on your character and sometimes you can’t believe that when you move the joystick, you can control that figure on the screen.
The best recent example of this that I can think of is the Metal Gear Solid V prologue scene. For those unfamiliar, the prologue features Punished “Venom” Snake recovering in a makeshift hospital. Unfortunately for him, the nefarious Cipher organization wants him dead and launches an attack on the facility. In traditional Metal Gear style, jaw-dropping graphics set the scene as a mysterious “man on fire” slowly makes his way towards Snake in an attempt to finish him off. Military forces arrive to try and combat Cipher and the man on fire, resulting in spectacular explosions and pretty soon, everything is on fire. In the midst of these blockbuster-quality cutscenes everything would suddenly slow to a halt: it was your turn. Now, while Metal Gear Solid V had its own challenges, very few people could argue that the first 60 minutes was one of the most impactful and heart-pounding sequences in an action-title in recent memory. Sequences like the one in Metal Gear Solid V work because the cinematics don’t work to interrupt the flow of the story, they successfully establish the world around the player and transport them to another level of realism.
An additional benefit of high-quality cinematic scenes in video games is the way that it engrosses those not just playing the game, but those who are around watching. Personally, I know my wife isn’t really a fan of watching me kill monsters in Bloodborne or dispatch bad guys on a tiled battlefield in Disgaea 5. Playing games like Heavy Rain, The Last of Us, and Uncharted, however, she eagerly watched and engaged with my gameplay. The cinematics draw casual gamers and spectators in with a familiar framing of storytelling that invites them to come along for the ride.
In short, while I was watching the story trailer for Uncharted 4, I just couldn’t believe that we’ve gotten to this point graphically. I mean, when I was a kid an RPG battle screen looked something like this:
Now with the forthcoming Star Ocean title, we’re likely to see combat with graphics like this:
To those who are concerned with the extensive cinematic element of certain titles, I would make this simple request: try to slow down and enjoy it. The purposefulness of these scenes, the crisp quality of the graphics, all of the elements that went into creating the work you are playing were included to create the most authentic and engrossing world possible.