When I first sat down with Attila-the-game-dev to chat about cut scenes I immediately went to the cinematic pre-rendered moments you’d see in Uncharted or just about every AAA game for the past few generations. But Attila expanded my mind and the topic (as he does) to include any instance where control is taken away from a player. He cited the post-win celebration in Donkey Kong, and we discussed the beautiful art of Ninja Gaiden
Since video games by definition rely on input from the player, it got me thinking more seriously about any instance where control is taken away. Negatively speaking, this can cause a disconnect in the experience or even boredom, especially when front-loaded. I often dread starting a new game and being thrust into un-skippable story moments of characters I don’t care about yet. In my opinion, playing with the characters and environment is the fastest way to build that connection, and must be done before any narrative poured on top will have any context.
Besides offering ‘control first, cutscene second’, a way to keep players engaged is by unpredictably giving control back. Naughty Dog is great at transitioning from cutscene to action smoothly, often leaving the player standing still until they realize the change has occurred. Naughty Dog is aware of the illusion they play and generally don’t put the player in danger. However, I’m a big fan of QTEs thrust in the middle of these instances to let the player influence the action and keep them engaged, for fear of missing their cue.
Attila is usually against QTE and we debate their merits in the episode linked above.
Cutscenes grew with each generation and exploded with the advent of CD technology, allowing much larger video files to be utilized. That’s why Half-Life‘s decision to never take away control from the player shocked the industry so well. They proved that a first-person game that never left the perspective or took away control could prove deeply immersive. This doesn’t work with every game of course, but as Attila says in our discussion, Valve is fantastic at working within their limitations (what a smart guy he is).
When researching this topic I found a great piece of (someone else’s research) on mgsforums. The hilariously named Getal Mear posted the ratio of Gameplay-to-Cutscene in every Metal Gear Solid game.
Total play time = 11h 32m (692 minutes)
Gameplay = 8h 17 m (497 minutes)
Cutscenes = 3h 15m (195 minutes)
Gameplay/Cutscene = 2.5487
Cutscene Proportion = 28%
Total play time = 13h 08m (788 minutes)
Gameplay = 7h 44m (464 minutes)
Cutscenes = 5h 24m, (324 minutes)
Gameplay/Cutscene = 1.4321
Cutscene Proportion = 41%
Total play time = 16h 11m (971 minutes)
Gameplay = 11h 13m (673 minutes)
Cutscenes = 4h 58m (298 minutes)
Gameplay/Cutscene = 2.2584
Cutscene Proportion = 31%
Total play time = 12h 36m (756 minutes)
Gameplay = 10h 39m (639 minutes)
Cutscenes = 1h 42m (102 minutes)
Gameplay/Cutscene = 6.2647
Cutscene Proportion = 13%
Total play time = 19h 27m (1,167 minutes)
Gameplay = 10h 59m (659 minutes)
Cutscenes = 8h 26m (508 minutes)
Gameplay/Cutscene = 1.2972
Cutscene Proportion = 44%
Total play time = 34h 08m (2,048 minutes)
Gameplay = 31h 11m (1,871 minutes)
Cutscenes = 2h 57m (177 minutes)
Gameplay/Cutscene = 10.5706
Cutscene Proportion = 9%
Total play time = 7h 47m (467 minutes)
Gameplay = 5h 28m (328 minutes)
Cutscenes = 2h 19m (139 minutes)
Gameplay/Cutscene = 2.3597
Cutscene Proportion = 30%
2 and especially 4 felt like they had the most sitting around and statistically that rings true, with 4 having nearly 50/50. 3 had its fair share but the larger areas, exploration, and downtime of catching food elongated the gameplay sections. The original was criticised by Jeff Gerstmann (while others showered 10s) for being incredibly short on subsequent playthroughs if the codec conversations and cutscenes were skipped. Kojima embraced the brief time it took to replay and added several rewards for fast and/or perfect stealth runs.
The perfect ratio is unique to each game and perhaps to each player. Cutscenes are a poweful tool, but knowing when to use it the true power (that was cheesy).