Thursday, August 9, 2018

Cutscene Tagmatization

Yes, that's a word.
Look it up.

If you've played Wasteland 2 you probably remember this little cutscene because the ensuing fight against that mecha-scorpion is the bitchiest bitch that ever bitched a bitch. To introduce this moderately satisfying boss encounter, the game cuts to it smashing through a house to get at you and rearing up menacingly in a cloud of cement dust and rubble.
Of course, you'll probably die to its machine gun stinger, so you'll need to reload your save, and watch it burst through the house and rear up menacingly in a cloud of cement dust and rubble all over again.
Rawr! Rawr I say!
Then you'll probably die to the baby scorpion adds it enthusiastically shoots out of cannons on its back, so you'll get to reload and watch it once again burst through the house and rear up menacingly in a cloud of cement dust and rubble. Again.
Then you might get fried by its flamethrower AoE so when you reload you'll get to watch it again yet again once again and again burst through the house and rear up menacingly in a cloud of cement dust and rubble. Again.
And again.
Rrr- yawn?

Released in 2014, Wasteland 2 banks largely on nostalgia, which may explain its failure to address this decades old nuisance of repetitive clicking through cutscenes or dialogues. (Old RPGs were quite prone to this; the Final Fantasy series is infamous for unskippable cutscenes.) Compare as one example to Dragon Age: Origins, which five years earlier already knew enough to either autosave or allow the player to save the game after most lengthy expository dialogues instead of segueing your ass right into a boss fight, thereby sacrificing neither exposition nor the customer's time.
Why is that so hard?

I also recently tried Meridian: New World, a fairly unimaginative and self-indulgent bush league RTS also released in 2014 and also prone to dragging the player willy-nilly through cutscenes. Trying to play through the campaign, you constantly find your controls locked as the screen starts shifting around to SHOW YOU new objectives frame by agonizing frame. Its creators seemed more concerned with dramatically fading to/from black and panning the camera and interposing redundant voiceovers than with actually designing interesting units or a functional interface.

Meridian being a SciFi RTS, it inevitably recalls the original Starcraft and its cinematics. Quite a lot of effort went into those old clips of hydralisks and space marines duking it out or of Tassadar furrowing his lack-of-eyebrows. In the era of two-dimensional pixelation, cinematics served as the high-definition eye candy rewarding advancement through missions. As game engines improved, more and more cutscenes started being played through a game's regular graphics, merely at a closer zoom level with additional voice acting. The ease of this method has led quite a few companies to over-indulge over the years, to the point where you start feeling like a spectator to the designers playing their own product. The worst offender which jumps to my mind would have to be Dreamfall, from 2006, which may as well have been titled "Machinima: The Game" for all its perfunctory, linear ambling from one piece of exposition to another. Yet developers keep making this error. The Pillars of Eternity sequel, an otherwise valid product marred by incompetent storytelling, made players trudge through a minutes-long recap of the first game before they could even reach character creation. It took several post-launch patches to add a "skip intro" checkbox, presumably in response to endless exasperated customers' demand.

However, handled properly, cinematic interludes can indeed add to an interactive product. Old-school adventure games with their very limited gamut of player choice tend to bank heavily on proper timing creating the illusion of action and consequences in an otherwise completely linear piece of interactive fiction. The Secret World, which tried (and failed) to straddle adventure games and MMOs provides both positive and negative illustration:
"Stop" indeed. Cinematics and cutscenes are just that. A stop from the action. For the most part TSW used cutscenes as old '90s games used to: introductions to or rewards after a mission. The part of the game where you're not playing the game comes before or after playing the game. Duh. However, the last fight in The Darkness War instance consists of two phases of beating on a boss, sandwiching a mid-fight intermission of listening to a long-winded old fart wheezing out the tale of pure light burning enemies blah-blah-blah. In fact in most of my DW runs you can see players doing exactly what this tank does occasionally starting from ~ min 3:20 to ~4:10 - jumping around in boredom through the old narrator's "fire:good!" blather, waiting for the real action to start up again.

Listening to grandpa telling tall tales is no substitute for actual gameplay.

The last mission of the Tyler Freeborn arc (from which the above screenshot is taken) toyed with this passivity as did other of TSW's most memorable high points, tying you to a table or running you through a cubicle farm with no interactable elements. That last Freeborn mission is a fan favorite and rightly so, yet I wonder how many have stopped to think that you don't actually do much of anything during the whole ordeal except walk forward. Yet it's never dull. Largely it's a matter of well-executed aesthetics, but also of the tone-setting "stop... no, don't stop" at the start. You're never truly left with nothing to do; the narration advances as you walk and you're constantly looking around for your next foothold.

It's in actuality a victory lap referencing the entirety of the first third of the original game, and instead of capping gameplay off with a completely passive cinematic, it renders that requisite cinematic interactive. TSW has done this on numerous occasions, making you arrow-key your way through a story, adventure-game fashion, and it strikes me as the correct take on implementing cutscenes into games which haven't technically needed them for over a decade.

Lesson 1: DO NOT interrupt gameplay for this very special announcement. If theatricality is to be its own functional tagma, then don't let it metastasize into other, more vital morphological units.
Lesson 2: If you're going to do it, allow the player to pace the damn thing, to at least slow or fast-forward the incoming passive stimuli by fiddling with the environment. Don't completely wrest control of the interface from the player.

Games are not movies just as movies are not symphonies. Game cutscenes should be used as sparingly as film scenes where a completely black screen emphasizes the soundtrack. Very, very sparingly.

(and minor Dragon Age: Origins spoiler)
The Tyler Freeborn example is by no means unique. Returning to the example of DA:O, your approach to the Broodmother battle is played in much the same way, as a semi-interactive cinematic foreshadowing the upcoming boss encounter. You trudge through caves filled with the gory remnants of your enemies' carnage and their primitive totems while listening to the droning, haunting, echoing chant of a lone friendly survivor.
The first time you hear Hespith's voice you probably stopped as I did and looked around for its source. The muddled narration advances as you do, at the pace of your pacing through the cavern, until you finally reach her to get the whole grisly story of the Darkspawn's manufacture process for axlotl tanks.

Quite a few games have hit upon this gimmick but it has yet to replace, as it should along with scripted NPC vs. NPC encounters, the bulk of old-school cinematics.

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