Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Death From Above: Playing War Like a Videogame

Earlier this year, I watched the video released by Wikileaks that showed a US Apache helicopter gunning down civilians and Reuters’ journalists in Baghdad. Like a lot of people, I found the footage deeply disturbing. I have seen photos of battlefields before; I have seen the videos of 9-11 from a hundred different angles; but I had never before watched someone line up an individual in a cross hair and open fire. Part of me wants to hate the troops involved—the way they hope the wounded man picks up a weapon so they can finish him off; the way they chuckle when the tank runs over a body—but I know that this is unfair. Though I have never experienced a conflict situation personally, I imagine that constructing a barrier between “Us” and “Them” is the only way one could handle having to kill fellow humans on a regular basis. At least, I like to think so. The most gut-wrenching aspect of this video, then, is not the behaviour of these individual troops, but an environment that fosters such an irreverent, detached othering of enemy combatants.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said, when releasing the video, that “the behaviour of the pilots is like they’re playing a video game. It’s like they want high scores in that computer game.”
This caused a minor buzz in comment threads on various gaming sites complaining that people were yet again blaming videogames for all the world’s woes. For the most part, though, people conceded that this is exactly how videogames (and videogame players) tend to treat violence: disassociated, irreverent, and acted out on some not-quite-human other. Assange’s comments were not an attack on videogames, but rather a simple simile that points out that the same detached treatment of violence in videogames is applied in modern warfare to the same result—the doer’s increased distance from the violent act lessens the consequences and makes the actions easier to perform. While videogames are depicting increasingly realistic battlefields, real battlefields are becoming increasingly like videogames.
Less than a week after watching the leaked video, I picked up a copy of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I have already written briefly about how I think Call of Duty 4 works as a linear, story-driven game (even if the story it tells is not particularly fascinating), but I have not spent much time discussing its themes. The Call of Duty series has always tried to stress that wars are not won by any one individual hero, but by thousands of individual men and women (okay, it’s not so good at showing the women) who do not fight for “good” or “evil” but merely different sides (that said, the player is always limited to fighting for whatever side the Americans and British are on). The games do this by constantly changing your point-of-view to a variety of characters fighting from different perspectives and contributing to a collaborative result. As an extension of this, the series tries to depict war as the true horror that it is, by stressing that the people dying around you are people and the people that you are killing are people.
Here, the Call of Duty games (and, by extension, all war-based videogames and movies) has two major challenges. One is that they are also a form of entertainment and must, paradoxically, entertain the audience while simultaneously attempting to show them how horrible war can be. The greater challenge, though, is the fourth wall. The player will always be beyond the borders of the game-world and will always be fundamentally detached from the conflict. Call of Duty 4  constantly struggles against the fourth wall to pull the player as deeply and intimately into the conflict as possible: first-person perspective, explosions all around, roaring sounds and shaky screens all exist to immerse the play as deeply as possible in the virtual war, to render the fourth wall invisible among the nightmarish chaos of the battlefield.
But it never really works as, inevitably, the player behaves like they are playing a videogame. The horror of war is that you are killing people; however, just as the US troops on the Apache seem detached from the men they gun down—rendered as identical, grey silhouettes on the other side of a computer monitor—the enemies running at the player in Call of Duty 4 are not individual men with their own histories and stories but cloned NPCs spawning just off-screen indefinitely until the player passes a certain point. While Call of Duty 4 did a decent job of immersing me in the stories of its characters, it failed to immerse me in their war.
That was, until, the “Death From Above” mission.

“Death From Above” places the player as a gunner of an AC-130U gunship. As the level begins and I look through the black and white monitor at the ground below, as the gunship’s crew chat about who and what to shoot with about as much gravitas as one would recite a grocery list, I can’t help but remember the Wikileaks video. I begin to feel sick in the stomach before I even fire the first shell.
“Death From Above” is the most detached of Call of Duty 4’s missions, by which I mean it is the level that positions the player the furthest from the violence they inflict. The mission does this in three key ways: Firstly, the player’s character is invincible and never in danger for the duration of the mission. Secondly, while in no other mission do your squad mates boast about their actions or mock their enemies, in the gunship they keep a running commentary on their kills as though racking up points, as though reassuring the player's character that the enemies are nothing more than identical targets on a screen. “Smoke ‘em!”; “Niiiiice!”; “Good kill, good kill.”; “Yeah! Direct hit right there!”. Thirdly, the utter destruction the gunship is capable of (witnessed by Soap at the end of the previous level) is diluted on the gunner’s monitor to a dull, monochrome thud. In other words, "Death From Above" plays like a videogame. The troops in the Wikileaks video unconsciously treat war like a videogame, as does the player of every mission of Call of Duty 4. “Death From Above”, however, does not unconsciously treat war like a videogame but rather demonstrates explicitly and intentionally how war has become a videogame.
Videogames can be incredibly immersive; it is one of their greatest features. While many games are nonchalant about the violence they ask of the player, some try to harness this immersive potential alongside acts of violence to challenge the player’s tolerance of such acts. Manhunt, for instance, challenges the player to be implicit in endorsing the character’s crimes, forcing the player to admit just how repulsive the violence they enjoy in other games truly is. However, the player will always be (to some arbitrary extent) detached from the game-world and disassociated from its characters. They have to be—it’s a game.
“Death From Above” has the same thematic goals of depicting war as the rest of Call of Duty 4, but uses entirely different means. Instead of hiding them, “Death From Above” makes explicit the filters of representation that inevitably dilute the impact of the player’s violent acts. It says, “This is not one hundred per cent accurate. You are in no danger here, but you are doing horrible, horrible things.”
In this mission, my imagination cannot help but to fill in the blanks. The enemies are no longer identical because the game only has a set number of enemy models, but because of my infra-red monitor. 
“We’ve got a runner!” shouts my spotter, and I quickly lock onto the man, running for his life, and gun him down. “Yeah, good kill!” my spotter commends. 
All I can think of is the Wikileaks video—the troops chuckling as the tank runs over a body. For the first and last time in this game, I feel like I am killing people and that is not okay. I am distressed at how much this is like ‘real’ warfare, and disturbed at how much ‘real’ warfare is like this videogame.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Paying For My Sins

“To Artyom!”
Artyom sculls the vodka shot. We are sitting in the bar at Riga Station, drinking to our survival. Artyom and I just experienced our first adventure beyond the safety of Exhibition Station. We lost the trader, but the remaining three of us pulled each other to safety. Boris is talking about something; I am not really listening. I look around the bar, admiring Metro 2033’s beautiful architecture. The nervous horror that caused my hands to tremble and my aim to go wide is already fading in the warm glow of the gaslights.
A flash of red catches my eye. A pale girl sitting at the back of the bar smiles and waves at me. Embarrassed, I glance away. Boris is making another toast in my honour, and I belatedly pick up my glass to join in. I edge my eyes around to look at the girl again, her red hair and black leather so out of place among the brown and khaki, so unlike the Exhibition girls. She stands and struts out of the bar, keeping her eyes locked on me as she walks slowly, teasingly, across my field-of-view.
Finally, the vodka is drunk, and I leave the bar—sad to be farewelling my friends but eager to continue to Polis. As I leave, I can hear Boris retelling our tale and raising another toast in my name.
Before I can find Riga’s shops, a boy tells me a man wants to speak to me. I give him a bullet and he leads me to Bourbon. Bourbon wants to pay me to help him get to the next station. I can hardly believe my luck. My first victory against the monsters behind me, a track-smart cowboy willing to assist me, a pocket full of military-grade bullets, and the promise of a pre-war AK-47 on arrival. Everything was looking up. Part of me knew I was letting the romance of adventure get the better of me, and I was forgetting the gravity of my mission, but I didn’t care.
With my newfound wealth, I head back to find Riga’s shops to load up on new weapons and equipment before setting forth with Bourbon. I dream of a weapon with a scope of some sort. Perhaps a few extra medkits and oxygen mask filters as well. If there was a button on my controller to put a skip into my step, I would be pressing it.
“Hey, you.”
I stop and turn. The red-hair, black-leather girl is looking at me, one hand on her hip.
“I’ve got a surprise for you. Back in my room.”
I walk up to her, pathetically nervous. The ‘$’ symbol appears, telling me I am able to enact a money transfer. What she wants is pretty explicit.
Throughout my gaming years, I have done horrible things—despicable things—to, and to the expense of, nonplayable characters. I have, on occasion, caused more death among the scientists of Black Mesa than the residence cascade ever did; I have chased down peds in Carmageddon, letting them hop futilely and frantically on their remaining leg before finishing them off; I have blown up Megaton for money. I have thrown grenades in strip clubs; I have nuked entire cities; I have removed ladders from my Sims’ swimming pools and watched them flounder. And not just violent things. I lie, cheat, slander, and abuse nonplayable characters for my own benefit and enjoyment. Not all the time, mind you—more often than not I play a morally “positive” character—but I do it.
All these things (and others I am too ashamed now to recall) I did because I was invincible. What I do in the game-world has no repercussions on me in the real world. I am a god. These people are not even real. What is their suffering to me if I am able to progress the game? So what if I get some kind of sick pleasure out of their agonies?
This girl in Riga Station (Nikki, I would later find out her name is) offering herself to me for money. This is something I have never been compelled to do in a game as virtual sex scenes do not particularly entice me. Never mind the many worrying connotations of a society that thinks it is okay to present a game-world where A) paying women for sex is fine, but paying men for sex is unheard of; and B) the only meaningful role played by a female is as a prostitute.

This time, though, I am tempted. Artyom is eighteen, just survived a near-death experience, is slightly intoxicated, and has plenty of bullets to spend. Besides, Nikki is the most attractive person I have seen on the Metro thus far. Artyom could more than likely be heading to his death; doesn’t he deserve some fun first? But this is unfair, to put all the blame on Artyom. I press the button and pay her the bullets. She smiles again. Looking back, I think it is the smile that bought me.
“Follow me.”
In her room, she sits me on her bed and turns her back to me. She starts fumbling with her top.
“Now, close your eyes.”
This is when I realise something is wrong. I want to stop Artyom from doing this. As if the fool would be stupid enough to close his eyes! As if I would be stupid enough to lead him into this room in the first place!
Artyom opens his eyes after a few seconds. A giant of a man is looming over him. In that man’s face, in Nikki’s victorious smile behind his shoulder, I do not see con artists. Rather, I see ever nonplayable character I have mistreated over the years for my own benefit or enjoyment. “This is what happens when you fuck with us,” they seem to be saying. Artyom is punched out cold; I am slapped across the face.
When I finally come to, the man, Nikki, and all my bullets are gone. A bum sticks his head in the room and laughs at me, not believing anyone could be so stupid to fall for Nikki’s trick. Everyone knows to stay away from Nikki, supposedly.
The self-loathing is heavy on my shoulders as I sulk back to Bourbon. Part of me wants to scrounge Riga Station for bullets, to make up for what I lost, but I cannot bare the idea of coming face to face with more nonplayable characters. As it is, I look down at the ground as I pass the few on the way to Bourbon, unable to make eye contact.
I am carrying the same crappy weapons I left Exhibition with. I have no scoped rifle, no extra ammunition, no money. I’m embarrassed, ashamed, and feeling incredibly stupid. Metro 2033 tempted me to treat nonplayable characters the same way I always do, like shit, then taught me a harsh lesson for doing so.
Bourbon looks up at me. I swear he is about to ask me what I spent all his bullets on. Fortunately, he does not.
“You ready?” is all he says.
I look at my meagre supplies: my sparse filters, my two medkits, and few clips of bullets. I nod.
“Good. Let’s go.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Moments 02: Red Dead Redemption

[In this less-regular-than-initially-anticipated section, I record some of my more memorable gaming moments, the moments that remind me why I play games. In this entry I describe my feelings as I played the epilogue of Red Dead Redemption. If you are yet to finish Red Dead Redemption, I strongly recommend you do not read this post as it shall spoil a calibre of ending not enough seen in videogames.]

My mother is dead. It happened suddenly—very suddenly. I didn’t even really note the time passing: three years since we buried my father, three years since The Law betrayed him, betrayed us. I guess ma died from grief, or just gave up, or something of the sort. After all, if this is no country for men like my father, what kind of country is it for women like my mother? It doesn’t matter now; what matters is that they are both dead. There’s a gap in the soil between their graves and Uncle’s, just enough room for one more.
For me.  
But first, I have business to settle. Pa tried for redemption, but that didn’t go down so well, did it? No, I won’t try for redemption. Revenge will be my game.
I take Pa’s gun, the same gun that saved me from that grizzly three years back, when I was cocky enough to think I could shoot. Well now I know I can shoot. I dig my heel into the stead and leave my ranch for the last time, rifle on my back, and make for Blackwater. I’m furious. My revenge cannot come soon enough.
I have no plan. I am too angry to have a plan. My dad wanted to change, god damn it; why did they have to kill him? The anger is swelling somewhere in my gut, and I just want to make as many of them pay as possible before it consumes me utterly. Lawmen, men, women, dogs, horses, I don’t care. I am going to shoot the first moving thing I see.
But lo and behold, fate shines on the people of Blackwater this day. Before I see a single person (perhaps the foul weather is keeping them inside, perhaps a communal sense of foreboding), I notice the question mark symbol on my radar: a stranger. Some unfinished business of my father, perhaps?
The first person I see, then, is a federal agent—his bowler hat gives him away. A plan forms in the part of my mind that is still thinking. This is not my father’s unfinished business; this is my own chance to do something with the anger threatening to burst within me. I tell the man I have a letter for Edgar Ross and, to my surprise, the agent tells me where to find him: Lake Don Julio. I leave without another word. I still consider razing the town on my way out, but resist. My revenge has an aim now. I will let it build up inside of me, eat me from the inside as I gallop to Don Julio, and then I will let it all out in one relieving sigh.
So begins my journey across the same lands my father traversed those years earlier. I pass McFarlane’s ranch mere hours after leaving Blackwater. This is urgent. I know that if I do not vent this anger soon, something bad is going to happen. I dig my feet into the stead, desperately. I ride the poor animal within an inch of its life.
“Hey! You!”
A lawman waves at me from a crumpled wagon, one wheel lies detached in the grass. Another lawman’s bloodied body is crumpled nearby.
“A criminal we were transporting escaped! Shoot him or bring him back alive!”
I look at the lawman for full seconds. My options are clearly highlighted at the bottom of the screen: “Shoot the outlaw or return him alive to the lawman.” I can still see the criminal staggering across the barren land; I could be overtaking him within seconds. Hell, I could probably shoot him from here.
I shoot the lawman in the face and continue to Lake Don Julio.
It felt good; I won’t deny it. Sure, at the back of my mind I realise I have just killed a man, possibly a good man. But what of it? I killed him because of what he represented. The anger still bulges under my skin, but it is held at bay for just a bit longer.
At Lake Don Julio, I find Ross’s wife. He has gone south, to Rio del Toro with his brother. His wife is polite and kind. I consider killing her, just to get to Ross. Perhaps I could take away his family, show him what it is like. Part of the reason I don’t do this is because I am concerned the Stranger format of this mission would fail if I killed her, but mostly I like to think I would have let her live regardless. I try to tell myself that I spared her because I am a better person than Ross. I don’t quite believe it.
On to Mexico.
“Help me! Help me!”
Mere seconds after crossing the border, a woman is waving me down, asking for assistance. It is a half-hearted attempt—I can see the boots of the bandits waiting in ambush behind her wagon. Pa often encountered this set up. He told me how he always let the girl go, that it was rarely her choice to be involved in such a heist.
I shoot each bandit in the face with my revolver. The girl begins to beg for her life, but gives in and starts running after I shotgun the second horse. I calmly finish off the third and forth horse before I chase her down. I don’t even slow as I fire the shot, nor do I look back to see if it finished her.
I find Ross’s brother camped under a tree by the river. He tells me Ross has gone downstream to hunt ducks. Once again, I consider killing him to get to Ross but again I resist. My next bullet is for Ross.
Do I think killing Ross will prove anything? Of course not. Do I care? No. This isn’t about doing the “right” thing. There is no right thing. Pa tried to do the right thing and they killed him. This is about releasing the black blob of anger that is taking me over. This is about removing from me the impulse to gun down every god-damned man, woman, and creature I pass.
Ross speaks to me; I don’t listen. He hasn’t even removed his pistol from its holster when I empty my revolver into his face.
And that is it. There is a brief moment before his corpse slides into the river where I can see the crumpled mess I have turned his face into and, in that second, the anger is purged from my body. It is like a drop in pressure—abrupt, nauseating, violent. I see things with such a sudden clarity that I feel like being sick.
Pa found his redemption when he chose to leave his life of crime behind. Pa found his redemption when, even after the government kidnapped his family and forced him to hunt down his old gang, he did not seek revenge. Pa found his redemption when he knew they would come back for him but refused to run away. Pa found his redemption by leaving behind a family that could look after itself.
The government and its lawmen did not take away Pa’s redemption. Edgar Ross did not take away Pa’s redemption. I did. The dirt has not even set on my mother’s grave, and I have become everything both her and my father tried so hard to leave behind.
I holster my pistol and walk back to my horse. I take one last look at Ross’s body bobbing to the ebb and flow of the river, and ride away. I try not to think of his wife and brother. I try not to think about how I have failed my father. Instead, I think to the future, of how I could possibly make up for these sins, of how I could find my own redemption.

From Tom Bissell's Extra Lives

"I want to be told a story--albeit one I happen to be part of and can affect, even if in small ways. If I wanted to tell a story, I would not be playing video games."

Bam. Discuss.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Game Diary 03: 03 June 2010

[Game Diary is a semi-regular column reflecting on the games I am currently playing, articles I have recently read, and writings I am currently working on.]

It has been quite some time since my last Game Diary entry. I can put this down to one major excuse: Red Dead Redemption. Though, ModNation Racers as well as cheap copies of Mass Effect 2 and Final Fantasy XIII have not helped matters either. I now find myself in the unenviable position of having three hundred-plus hour games to complete along with plenty of articles and essays to write, and great articles to read.

Games I Played
Red Dead Redemption. Where to begin? What to say about this game that you have not already heard? While I know many of you will disagree with me, I feel Rockstar are doing some of the most exciting work out there in terms of incorporating mature, intelligent stories into videogames. I know Red Dead Redemption is created by a different team than Grand Theft Auto IV, but Dan Houser is still a major writer (if the opening credits are to be believed), and it certainly shows. The entire game drips with intelligent satire and knowing nods to the Western genre--staying true to the aesthetics and iconography while also critiqueing it with a contemporary eye. Rockstar's biting satire remains but the potty humour and mention of titties has (thankfully) largely been left in Liberty City.
The map is sprawling and vast, yet full of things to do. I rarely feel the urge to quick travel; this is the kind of world that begs you to take your time exploring. Shooting is more fun than in Grand Theft Auto IV, and actually quite challenging once you turn off auto-aim. My only major criticism is that every mission is basically the same predictable structure (ride somewhere, shoot stuff, ride back), but there are a few delightful surprises. But even when the missions are all the same, the scriptwriting and presented fiction are all so tight that I hardly mind galloping into Armadillo one more time.

ModNation Racers. I won't repeat everything I have already said in my post on this game, suffice to say that it is an excellent, enjoyable racer hidden behind a horrible mish-mash of laggy, un-navigable menus.

Mass Effect 2. I made the mistake of walking past EB Games the other week just as their stocktake sale was commencing. Before I knew it, I had picked up half-price copies of Mass Effect 2 and Final Fantasy XIII--both games I intended to play "one day" when they didn't cost $100. I guess it is that day! 
I have something of an allergic reaction to BioWare games, I admit. I don't know what it is. Every since Knights of the Old Republic, I have started a game with high hopes after hearing nothing but positive things, and then I just get... over it, I suppose, quite quickly. Perhaps not 'bored' so much as 'intimidated'. Perhaps BioWare's stories, which I really do have some control, scare the crap out of me and, afraid of the responsibility, I run back to my more predictable, linear games. Well whatever it is, I am glad to say that Mass Effect 1 was the exception to my BioWare fallacy, and Mass Effect 2 seems likely to continue the tradition. i am glad that they have stripped back (or hidden away) the role-playing elements; though, it would have been nice if they had fine tuned the combat a bit more to make up for the lack of number-crunching depth. But it is early days yet, perhaps when I stop relying on my pistol and single tech skill it will get a bit more involving. That said, the graphics are still slick, the voice acting is still incredible, and the world(s) are still beautiful. I'm looking forward to putting a heap of hours into this one when I get the chance.

Final Fantasy XIII. Okay. I admit I have not actually played this yet, but my girlfriend has, and I have been sitting nearby for the five-ish hours she has played so far. So far it seems to be exactly as every review and article I read about it says: one incredibly slow grind that drips abilities and options to the player at the slowest pace imaginable, as though the game is afraid the player could not possibly handle two 'new' concepts at once (as if anything in Final Fantasy is new anymore). Though now, after five hours, the combat is looking a lot more compelling and I am more tempted to start up a game myself.
The scriptwriting and voice acting, while still not amazing, seems a great deal better than any previous Final Fantasy. I particularly like all the tensions and strains between the various characters. And all the nods to Final Fantasy VII are enjoyable and appreciated.

Some Things That I Read.
"I'm Your Huckleberry" at The Brainy Gamer. An entertaining and well-written little piece telling the tale of one player's perpetual fight with an anti-Semite shopkeeper in Red Dead Redemption.
"Groping The Map: Pauper's Drop" at Groping The Elephant. Justin Keverne has set himself a huge challenge of writing these massive, multi-part articles that thoroughly walk through specific game levels and explore how those levels use space and their mise-en-scene to guide the player. His first installment, on the Bioshock 2 level Pauper's Drop is nearly all up (five out of seven sections!) and certainly worth the read. Justin has a great critical eye for the ways the level manipulates and directs the player, and how the player understands the world through the level. As someone who has a great interest in videogame level design but absolutely no formal education in the matter, I'm finding these posts as educational as they are interesting.
"Video Games, I've Let You Down" at Kotaku. Leigh Alexander's piece about the difficulty of trying to explain why videogames can be great to non-gamers strikes pretty close to home. A good read.
Practically all of EDGE E215. Alas, my subscription to EDGE ran out at E214, and then E215 has a whole bunch of great articles. So I went and bought myself a copy from a shop, once they finally got it imported, and then went home and renewed my subscription. The retrospective on Halo is especially interesting, as it is a far greater version of a piece I have wanted to write for some time. Halo is a spectacular game, fanboy-love aside, and I think this piece does a good job at justifying why. The Time Extend on Sim City 4 made me pick up a cheap copy (I haven't played a Sim game since SimCity on SNES), and the LittleBigPlanet2 hype article was, well, successful. Oh, not to mention the extensive interview with Shigeru Miyamoto.

Some Things That I Wrote.
Most exciting for me since I last posted a Game Diary: Kotaku Australia published my reader review of Metro 2033. Apart from that, I have written a rambling review of why I hate to love ModNation Racers, an article to pay tribute to the heroes of the Moscow Metro that risked their lives for me, as well as a reluctant, hesitant piece defending the cut-scene as a valid mechanic of interactive storytelling. The same old university writing is continuing at the same old pace.
And that is about it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In Defence of the Cut-scene

A lot can (and has) been argued against the use of cut-scenes in games [1]. They are broadly seen as an archaic film mechanic that stumbled into gaming convention in an age when games were too young and naïve to put forward any other alternative. I agree wholeheartedly that instead of relying on the storytelling mechanics of a pre-existing, passive medium, game designers should focus on exploring the unique, interactive ways videogames can present stories spatially and dynamically. However, I feel that games have held on to cut-scenes for decades now for reasons other than a lack of knowing any other way to do things. In this piece, I do not want to defend the games that depend on filmic techniques to jam a linear story into independent gameplay, but rather defend the games that harness cut-scenes as one of many expressive tools unique to our medium.

These are some arguments commonly levelled at cut-scenes:
  1. Games are fundamentally participatory and active; films are fundamentally authored and passive. Taking away the player’s agency to tell them a story directly contradicts what a game is.
  2. Rewarding the player for completing an interactive challenge with a non-interactive scene makes no sense. It isn’t a reward, it is a punishment. As Eskelinen says, “If I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.”
  3. The world depicted in a game’s cut-scenes often contradicts the world depicted in a game’s gameplay, creating ludonarrative dissonance between the story and game. This should be avoided at all costs.
Again, I have to stress that I agree with all of these as issues in games that rely overtly on cut-scenes, and I could list plenty of games guilty of all three of these because they are too dependent on telling stories in preauthored fashions. However, I do not believe all cut-scenes should be frowned upon for these reasons. Allow me to counter the above arguments with the following justifications for when cut-scenes are viable:
  1. Cut-scenes pause player agency temporarily to allow the character to exert their own agency and to contribute to the player/character relationship.
  2. If a player’s emotive involvement in the game’s story has been sufficiently heightened during gameplay, a cut-scene can indeed be a reward by taking advantage of that emotive involvement in a way an entirely passive film never could.
  3. Ludonarrative dissonance, to an extent, does not matter. The game as played by the player does not have to be in perfect sync with the story as presented about the character.
Okay. Now that I have put that out there, allow me to clarify what I mean by each of these before I get flamed.

1. Cut-scenes allow a space for characters to exert their agency.

I am currently working on a paper about the relationship between the player and the character in adventure videogames where I argue that adventure videogames don’t exclusively rely on player agency so much as they rely upon a symbiotic agency contributed to by both player and character. Both the player and the character exert agency in unique ways and only through a cooperation between the two can the story be enacted. In Uncharted 2, for example, the player has agency over Drake’s aiming, jumping, and running; but Drake himself has agency over how skilled he is at these abilities as well as the decision to be a treasure hunter in the first place.

The cut-scene allows a space where the player steps back and lets the character have their agency. This is why, in extreme examples, some characters only ever speak in cut-scenes while remaining mute during gameplay (such as the playable character of Killzone 2). The games these characters belong to draw a clear (perhaps too clear) line between who is leading the player/character relationship and when.

Let’s look at Grand Theft Auto IV. The player has agency to decide how they navigate the city, which order they attempt missions, what crimes they partake in. But once the player begins a mission, the character takes the lead in conversation and their relationships with other, non-playable characters.

Of course, a bad game that is too reliant on cut-scenes will take this too far and will only be capable of progressing the story in cut-scenes when the gameplay is halted. A good game, though, does not draw such distinct lines but instead blends the player and character’s agency through the gameplay and the cut-scenes. This is seen in the long drives between missions in Grand Theft Auto IV (praised and slammed in equal measure across the internet and reviews for being “nothing but glorified cut-scenes”) where Nico converses with other characters, or in Drake’s constant chatter in Uncharted 2. Rather than splitting the player’s agency and the character’s agency, cut-scenes used well emphasise the player’s relationship and co-dependency with the character. We can play Niko Bellic as a sociopathic maniac in our gameplay if we desire, but it is in the cut-scenes that we learn to care about him and his relationships.

2. Cut-scenes can harness the player’s emotive investment

A cut-scene in a game, viewed by a player who has just spent two hours of active involvement with the world and characters, will be more emotively powerful than an identical scene viewed as part of two hours of passively watched film. Several cut-scenes exist throughout the Halo series that I found particularly memorable—more so that the same scenes would have in a movie. For instance, the conclusion of Halo 2 where the rings almost fire, and the activation of the forerunner artefact beneath New Mombasa in Halo 3 to name a couple. These scenes, while dramatic in their own right, would not have had nearly the same effect on me if I had not been involved in the world and its events for the preceding hours. The rings activating would not just affect the characters, it would affect me and my stake in the game’s world.

Cut-scenes, then, should not be used as a prescriptive film mechanic forced onto the game, but as a tool wholly reliant on the game’s interactive nature and the player’s consequential engagement in order to invoke the desired response. As a movie, Halo would be dumb and cliché; but as a game it is able to take advantage of my connection to the fictional world to extract illicit and specific emotional responses.

If I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to stop and tell me a story. But if you caught it like this, I would expect you to revel in the feat you just achieved before throwing it back to me.

3. Ludonarrative dissonance does not matter… not all the time, at least.

A dissonance between the world of the game and the world of the cut-scene can jar the player’s experience when the dissonance is an inconsistency in the fiction. Why should a grenade critically injure a character in a cut-scene when we have seen countless grenades explode futilely at their feet during gameplay? If Solid Snake is holding a silenced pistol in a cut-scene, it is fair to assume he will have one when the cut-scene is over. This dissonance that does jar is due to a contradiction of the character’s abilities during gameplay and the character’s abilities during a cut-scene, and it is certainly a bad kind of ludonarrative dissonance that should be avoided at all costs.

However, the dissonance between how the player plays the character during gameplay and how the character behaves during cut-scenes, I would argue, is not jarring. Or rather, if the player does find it jarring, it is partially the player’s own fault. If the player wishes to actively engage in a game’s story, the player has a responsibility to engage in a certain way. If you feel Grand Theft Auto IV’s story makes no sense because Nico acts like a sociopath between missions, then don’t act like a sociopath between missions! Player’s cannot expect to have an active role in a game’s story without also taking some responsibility for that story.

Though, the player may certainly play the game however they desire and ignore the story completely, in which case the dissonance between gameplay and cut-scenes is insignificant because the player is not playing for the story’s sake. The player should be able to cause ludonarrative dissonance because they should be free to play the game however they want. This is true even of games that do not have cut-scenes, such as any player of Half-life who gunned down every scientist and security guard they stumbled across during their escape from Black Mesa.

If the dissonance is internal to the character, that is bad and a sure case of a game depending on cut-scenes to tell a story. If the dissonance is caused by the player’s behaviour, it does not matter because it is the player that is choosing to cause it and at the end of the day, the player is free to do whatever they desire… as long as they take responsibility for the consequences. The cut-scenes of Grand Theft Auto IV do not jar my experience of the game, but rather hint at how I should enact my role as Niko Bellic if I wish to contribute to a meaningful story.

  *    *    *
Some of the best games I have ever played have no cut-scenes and would not be made any better with cut-scenes. But at the same time, some of my most memorable gaming moments were not interactive but were memorable solely because of the interactive context they were situated in (Bioshock and Heavy Rain being key examples, for me at least). At the end of the day, videogames are interactive and need to develop their own unique, interactive way of present stories for the player to enact independent of pre-existing linear mediums. However, just as videogames are able to use written text without prescribing to a purely novelist mode of storytelling, videogames are also able to use linearly acted cinematic cut-scenes without prescribing to a purely filmic mode of storytelling. Has any cut-scene in any Halo game been as memorable as my mad dash to the Longbow with only twelve seconds before the ring self-destructed? Certainly not! But that does not mean the cut-scenes did not contribute to my overall Halo experience.

Cut-scenes should not be used to jam a story into gameplay that does not need it, nor should the duration of a game’s cut-scenes ever outnumber the hours of actual gameplay. But as one of many tools available to the interactive story-creator, the cut-scene should not be thrown away just yet. 


1. Most recently I read the slides for Trent Polack's talk titled "The Cut Scene Crunch" and I think they put forward a very simple, very concise argument. Strongly recommend everyone checking them out.

2. This post has since been republished on Kotaku and has received a lot of interesting comments both agreeing and disagreeing with it.