As I twiddled my thumbs through yet another banal cutscene in Darksiders II, I couldn't help but agree with John Carmack's infamous take on Id Software's predilection towards excuse plots. "Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important," quipped Carmack, as he downplayed the need for a narrative altogether. Old-school gamers would concur, while pointing out how Id games were little more than thinly veiled engine demos meant to push the envelope of technology, and not achieve high art. In fact, these old schoolers may be onto something here. Is it really necessary for games to have a story told through elaborate FMV (Full Motion Video) sequences?
When I was a snotty little kid playing Mario on a cheap chinese NES knockoff, I didn't care why an Italian plumber would want to fight humanoid turtles and rescue a princess. At no point did I wonder what business she had with a plump, working class guy, or how all the turtles out there transformed into mutant kidnappers. Many years later, Hollywood tried to make sense of it, but people still didn't care. What mattered the most was the fact that it was a technologically advanced (fluid sidescrolling was a big deal then) platformer with brilliant gameplay. Modern independent titles such as Super Meat Boy and Limbo stand testimony to this fact. Their signature art and solid gameplay makes one oblivious to the absence of a plot and elaborate cutscenes.
However, as 8-bit consoles went 64-bit — which, in turn, were replaced with ones bearing FMV-friendly optical storage — we saw a new breed of games such as Final Fantasy VII, where gameplay and design played second fiddle to painstakingly crafted cinematics. The trend caught on, and now you have games where the collective length of cutscenes exceeds the run time of a feature film (I mean you, Metal Gear Solid 4). Not surprisingly, their lack of interactivity doesn't go down well with old-school gamers at all. Moreover, creating these interludes, especially the beautiful pre-rendered kind, takes considerable time and budget. While I'm no game designer, I still believe these resources could be better spent on a larger development team, improved QA, beta testing, and essentially to deliver high-quality games despite cutthroat lead times.
I'm sari, come again?
Fortunately, French developer Quantic Dreams struck a good balance between cinematic appeal and core gameplay by expanding upon the Quick Time Event (QTE) mechanics pioneered by Shenmue and perfected by God of War and Resident Evil 4. Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) and Heavy Rain are perfect examples of how video games can deliver a compelling narrative without sacrificing on interactivity. However, the studio may have gone a bit too overboard when it decided to cast Hollywood star Ellen Page in its upcoming game Beyond: Two Souls. Since current motion capture technology isn't sophisticated enough to resolve facial features, it's the animators who have to incorporate the acting part. In essence, the studio then seems to have paid big bucks for little more than the Ellen Page brand.
The Hollywood connection doesn't come cheap, which puts an even greater pressure on the game to translate into a commercial success. If developers keep going overboard with this business, soon enough they'll be looking at the prospect of making Call of Duty money to remain profitable. Quantic Dream, ironically, should know that having big names doesn't translate into successful games. Even David Bowie couldn't help its maiden venture Omikron: The Nomad Soul. In an ideal world, money will be spent on creating an original character in an original IP, courtesy of a well-staffed and handsomely-paid development team.
But do you really need to sacrifice gameplay at the altar of cinematic storytelling? For starters, Half Life leveraged scripted events and clever design to seamlessly integrate a stellar narrative without taking control away from the player. Recent games such as Machinarium and The Journey show that you don't need a plot, pretty cutscenes, or even dialogues to deliver a moving narrative. In fact, the deepest storyline I have encountered as a gamer wasn't pre-rendered by one of Square Enix's powerful render farms, but as several paragraphs of clunky text in Planescape: Torment.
Overdependence on cutscenes, in a way, is akin to forsaking the greatest gift offered by the medium — interactivity. Instead of blindly mimicking movies, classics such as Ico employ gameplay elements to convey the unspoken bond between the lead characters, without resorting to a convoluted script. However, the fact remains that most young gamers, and those who prefer a more casual experience, love the simplicity of the Call of Duty model employed by cutscene-rich games. These gamers tend to find small bursts of gameplay interspersed with loads of cinematics and QTEs a lot more palatable. Truth is that these type of games pull in the numbers with the efficiency of a Salman Khan masala flick, despite having just as much gameplay depth.
If you may equate the traditional gameplay-focused titles as gourmet meals, these modern cinematic games are the equivalent of a Maharaja Mac. Unfortunately, the last time I checked, burger joints were a lot more popular than fine dining establishments.