Amy Hennig (Naughty Dog’s Creative Director) had an interesting rebuttal to an idea I posed here on the blog, regarding the use of game interaction during cutscenes. Speaking on the 1UPYours podcast, she talked about – and seemed doubtful of – games that use token interactivity during story sequences, specifically citing Assassin’s Creed, in which the player can switch camera angles or pace, but nothing else while an in-engine scene takes place.
It’s a valid argument, to be honest. Assassin’s Creed is particularly worthy of criticism in this regard, precisely because there is no particular reason to ever move around or change angles. Big chunks of invisible collision prevent the player from moving more than a few meters in any direction or interacting with anything remotely visible. Since actually acting at all seems to be non-eventful at best, the functionality ends up working like a big red herring.
Despite this, there is still a solid argument to be made for interactivity in cutscenes, and I think where Amy just missed the boat was in citing perhaps the worst example of it. You see, there is a far more interesting – and successful – example on the market today: Kojima Production’s own Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. As a game itself borrowing concepts from previous entries in the series, MGS3 not only realizes its reliance on cutscenes, but takes the bull by the horns in integrating them into the overall experience. Here’s why:
In MGS3, the camera is typically used as a “peeking” device, allowing the player to see slightly further around corners or while in tough spots where movement is limited. It makes sense, considering the player must literally sneak through the game and try to avoid detection. In cutscenes, this control proves to be a natural extension, providing limited (and hardly distracting) angle adjustment. It may not always be needed – not every scene has to have a secret – but it still helps make the player think he is in control.
KojiPro succeeds with the idea of extra camera angles by using them sparingly, and offering rewards for the attentive gamer. Rather than being an “anytime” thing, they can only be activated during short time windows prompted by on-screen icons. The rewards also vary, with instances of comedy (such as Snake having a pin-up on the inside of his rocketship in the intro), story correlation (as in, the same scene, but hey! What’s that other important character doing pacing in the next room?) or even outright prizes (a ghostly friend will help out Snake in prison by providing a secret radio frequency.)
Equally important to note is that the treasure hunting I’m talking about is just that – a hunt. It’s optional! The player who just wants to watch CAN watch, and most likely will coast through the game without a second thought about secret views and wacky solutions. The player who can’t be bothered to find out what Snake’s motivation is likely to be going through each cutscene with a toothpick.
The Game is Never Over
The previous game in the series – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty – was particularly notorious for smashing through the 4th wall on occasion and making the player always question what they were being told. MGS3 took the trend and put it through the ringer, going so far as to fake a game-over sequence that the player could resuscitate himself out of. Both games were even-handed in reminding the player that once they press start that first time, the experience keeps going..and that includes the cutscenes.
Everything the player sees in a cutscene could have a connection to events before or after. Just as fans of LOST might take screengrabs to find out the name of an old trading ship, players of MGS3 can find out details about bosses – such as The Sorrow, who is dead well before the start of the game – or the secret connections that conspire against the main character (try switching angles during the ending, for example…)
Simply put, by keeping the player on notice, there is a much better chance that he will appreciate the storytelling you bring to the table, and not write it off as the ramblings of a wannabe script writer. (An accusation you might hear now and then about designers these days.)
Now, I’m not bringing this whole concept up as some sort of panacea for cinema sequences. We can’t just apply “camera waggle” to a notorious cutscene-heavy game like Xenosaga and suddenly have it play like a dream. But as part of a properly considered game plan – a web of content rather than a tense anchor – as developers we can keep players involved while wading through our storylines…
…all the while making them aware that the game doesn’t come to a halt every time we need a jolt of narrative.