Pre-rendered cinematics are a common standard in almost every kind of story-driven videogame. Traditionally, story-driven games alternate interactive gameplay with non-interactive storytelling such as pre-rendered cinematics or plain-text narration.
It works pretty well in lots of videogames, from Gears of War to Silent Hill. There are lots of advantages to pre-rendered cinematics: they’re cheap, cosmetically beautiful, familiar and, above all, they’ve been proven very successful on the market. Why should we abandon this convention?
For the greater good of interactive storytelling.
It’s within the fundamental nature of videogames. Let's face it upfront. Videogames are highly interactive software. Story-driven videogames are highly interactive software with a story.
My point is that story-driven games should go towards a highly interactive gameplay with a highly interactive storytelling. Players enjoy experiencing control over the game story. But a total player control over the story can be prohibitive and even destroy the entire game experience.
How can we solve it?
I've been playing traditional role playing games since I can remember. Note that I’m not talking about computer-RPGs but their old paper and pencil ancestors. One of the best lessons that role playing games can teach you is that interactive story-driven games are based both in character development and story templates.
Character development, commonly seen as the "D&D leveling up system", includes all gameplay systems which model the character growth over the story. Call of Cthulhu sanity loss system, for instance, models the psychological character growth (the slowly but inevitable descent to madness) in the horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft.
All character development systems are playable, i.e., interactive. Some character development systems are deep and moral such as Vampire the Masquerade's humanity loss system. There are lots of great character development systems out there for you to find! And, of course, you can always design your own character development systems, fitting your specific taste and requirements.
Story templates are the basic story structures that fit a certain type of interactive storytelling. In other words, a story template is the story behind all possible game stories. A typical D&D story template features a group of adventurers which explore a dungeon, collecting loot and slaying enemies, eventually confronting a dragon.
Call of Cthulhu story template, for instance, models the most common structures of Lovecraftian horror stories: a group of investigators adventure deep into the occult, discovering a terrifying truth and eventually escaping the untied ultra-terrenal horror. All story templates are flexible and interactive, allowing the players to influence the story and the gamemaster/narrator to re-build the story in real time.
So there’s no need of pre-rendered cinematics to advance the story at expense of interactivity. Go design your interactive story-driven videogame and let your players enjoy the experience. They’ll come back for more!