I love good movies. I love good books. I love a good TV series. In general, I’m a huge fan of noninteractive media. Yet I skip through most cutscenes in videogames. Why is this?
When Super Mario Galaxy 2 released, some reviewers criticized its barely-there story. The game's story consists of the standard Mario Setup: Bowser kidnaps the princess, forcing Mario to traverse a bunch of abstract worlds in order to rescue her.
That is more than enough story for me, thank you. Games like Mario Galaxy simply shouldn’t have a complex story. It's hard to imagine a compelling narrative that explains why Mario must ride a giant hamster ball accross a wooden plank floating in the sky, or why Bowser can grow to the size of an office building.
Of course, many videogame writers would try to bring all of these random parts into a cohesive whole, but would it be a story worth telling?
STORY OR EXPLANATION?
Videogame cutscenes are often attempts to explain gameplay elements, rather than a means of conveying interesting plot points or compelling dialog. For example the puzzle-platformer Trine and its sequel allows a player to switch between three characters, each with unique strenghts and weaknesses, at any time. Thus, the story revolves around an ancient crystal with the ability to fuse three people together into one body.
Reviewers either derided or dismissed Trine's plot. It simply wasn't a story that needed to be told, but rather an explanation of a fun game mechanic.
The fact is that the average videogame structure just doesn't make for a compelling narrative.
Take your average 3rd or first person shooter. The basic structure consists of the player trudging through about 15 levels, killing 30-60 badguys between in each one. Every few levels, he'll fight a boss.
Just for fun, let’s try to fit the story of The Terminator, a classic action movie, into a modern action videogame. We'll try to convert its action scenes into game levels.
The movie starts off with the hero, Kyle Reece, teleporting into the year 1985. He arrives in the middle of the night, naked and unarmed.
The movie's next action scene involves a gun battle in a dance club between Reece and the Terminator.
Let’s skip to the movie's climax for the our last level. In the movie, a car chase ends with the Terminator being burned down to his metal endoskeleton.
First of all this is our final level. It’s good game design to steadily give the player new abilities, thereby steadily adding more depth to the gameplay. So for the game's climax, we’ll have to supplement Reece's pipebomb with an rpg, a minigun, and a few grenades.
Also, the Terminator, as the final boss, needs to become STRONGER for the last confrontation, not weaker. So rather than being burnt down to an endoskeleton, the Terminator can plug himself into a powerline to become a 20 foot tall Super Terminator! With shoulder-mounted missle launchers!
So there you have it. We took a tight story with a clear antagonist and focused action and turned into a convoluted mess. The game I just described has the potential to be a lot of fun, but doesn't make for the kind of non-interactive narrative that someone would want to watch. Why interrupt great gameplay to tell a 3rd rate story?
DOES THIS MATTER?
Ok so maybe most videogame cutscenes are inane wastes of time, but I can skip past them right? Not always.
For instance you’ll skip a cutscene and then you’ll find yourself standing in an open field with a mission objective on your screen that says “Pick up Shelly’s hyperdrive at Fort Blackstone”. So then you have to ask "who’s Shelly?", "what the hell does a hyperdrive look like?", and "which one of those buildings in the distance is Fort Blackstone?". All of those questions were answered in the cutscene you skipped and have no way of rewatching.
This situation may not happen often, but you never know when it’s gonna strike. So you'll end up sitting through hours of inane and unispired dialog because you’re afraid you might miss something important.
WHAT GAMES SHOULD HAVE COMPLEX STORIES?
The games that should have complex stories are those which were based around stories to begin with. If the inspiration for making the game was to tell a story, than there’s a chance the story is actually worth telling. This might be the case for games like The Walking Dead, Monkey Island, King's Quest, and Heavy Rain but it's is not the case for Gears of War 3.
So if you’re a game writer working on a game whose genesis was a story that someone was dying to tell in an interactive fashion, then go nuts. Otherwise, briefly explain why I have to collect 8 pendants from 8 castles, and then shut the hell up.