While I have been playing video games since the digital dawn of gaming, it was not until I completed Halo 5 that I gave some philosophical consideration to video game cut scenes. For those not familiar with cut scenes, they are non-interactive movies within a game. They are used for a variety of purposes, such as providing backstory, showing the consequences of the player’s action or providing information, such as how adversaries or challenges work.
The reason that Halo 5 motivated me to write about cut scenes is an unfortunate one: I believe that Halo 5 made poor use of cuts scenes and will argue for this point as part of my sketch of cut scene theory. Some gamers, including director Guillermo Del Toro and game designer Ken Levine, have spoken against the use of cut scenes. In support of their position, a fairly reasonable argument can be presented against cut scenes in games.
One fundamental difference between a game and a movie is the distinction between active and passive involvement. In the case of a typical movie, the audience merely experiences the movie as observers—they do not influence the outcome. In contrast, the players of a game experience the game as participants—they have a degree of control over the events. A cut scene, or in game movie, changes the person from being a player to being an audience member. This is analogous to taking a person playing sports and putting her into the bleachers to be a mere spectator. The person is, literally, taken out of the game. While there are some who enjoy watching sports, the athlete is there to play and not to be part of the audience. Likewise, while watching a movie can be enjoyable, a gamer is there to game and not be an audience member. To borrow from Aristotle, games and movies each have their own proper pleasures and mixing them together can harm the achievement of this pleasure.
Aristotle, in the Poetics, is critical of the use of the spectacle (such as what we would now call special effects) to produce the tragic feeling of tragedy. He contends that this should be done by the plot. Though this is harder to do, the effect is better. In the case of a video game, the use of cinematics can be regarded as an inferior way of bringing about the intended experience of a game. The proper means of bringing about the effect should lie within the game itself—that is, what the player is actually playing and not merely observing as a passive spectator. As such, cut scenes should be absent from games. Or, at the very least, kept to a minimum.
One way to counter this argument is to draw an analogy to role-playing games such D&D, Pathfinder and Call of Cthulhu. Such games typically begin with what is analogous to a game’s opening cinematic: the game master sets the stage for the adventure to follow. During the course of play, there are often important events that take considerable game world time but would be boring to actually play. For example, a stock phrase used by most game masters is “you journey for many days”, perhaps with some narrative about events that are relevant to the adventure, such as the party members (who are played by people who are friends in real life) becoming friends along the way. There are also other situations in which information needs to be conveyed or stories told that do not need to actually be played out because doing so would not be enjoyable or would be needlessly time consuming if done using game mechanics. A part of these games is shifting from active participant to briefly taking on the role of the audience. However, this is rather like being on the bench listening to the coach rather than being removed from the field and put into the bleachers. While one is not actively playing at that moment, it is still an important part of the game and the player knows that she will be playing soon.
In the case of video games, the same sort approach would also seem to fit, at least in games that have story elements that are important to the game (such as plot continuity, background setting, maintaining some realism, and so on) yet would be tedious, time consuming or beyond the mechanics of the game to actually play through. For example, if the game involves the player driving through a wasteland from a settlement to the ruins of a city she wishes to explore, then a short cut scene that illustrates the desolation of the world while the character is driving would certainly be appropriate. After all, driving for hours through a desolate wasteland would be very boring.
Because of the above argument, I do think that cut scenes can be a proper part of a video game, provided that they are used properly. This requires, but is not limited to, ensuring that the cut scenes are necessary and that the game would not be better served by either deleting the events covered in the movies or having them handled with actual game play. It is also critical that the player not feel that she has been put into the bleachers, although that bench feeling can be appropriate. As a general rule, I look at cut scenes as analogous to narrative in a tabletop role-playing game: a cut scene in a video game is fine if narrative would be fine in an analogous situation in a tabletop game.
Since I was motivated by Halo 5’s failings, I will use it as an example of the bad use of cut scenes. This will contain some possible spoilers, so those who plan to play the game might wish to stop reading.
Going with my narrative rule, a cut scene should not contain things that would be more fun to actually play than watch—unless there is some greater compelling reason why it must be a cut scene. Halo 5 routinely breaks this rule. A rather important sub-rule of this rule is that major enemies should be dealt with in game play and not simply defeated in a cut scene. Halo 5 broke this rule right away. In Halo 4 Jul ‘Mdama was built up as a major enemy. As such, it was rather surprising that he was knifed to death in a cut scene right near the start of Halo 5. This would be like setting out to kill a dragon in Dungeons & Dragons and having the dungeon master allow you to fight the orcs and goblins, but then just say “Fred the fighter hacks down the dragon. It dies” in lieu of playing out the fight with the dragon. Throughout Halo 5 there were cut scenes were I and my friend said “huh, that would have been fun to actually play rather than just watch.” That, in my view, is a mark of bad choices about cut scenes.
The designers also made the opposite sort of error: making players engage in tedious “play” that would have been far better served by short cut scenes. For example, there are parts where the player has to engage in tedious travel (such as ascending a damaged structure). While it would have been best to make it interesting, it would have been less bad to have a quick cut scene of the Spartans scrambling to safety. The worst examples, though, involved “game play” in which the player remains in first person shooter view, but cannot use any combat abilities. The goal is to walk around trying to find the various people to “talk” to. The conversations are scripted: when you reach the person, the non-player character just says a few things and your character says something back—there are no dialogue choices. These should have been handled by short cut scenes. After all, when I am playing a first person shooter, I do not want to have to walk around unable to shoot to trigger recorded conversations. These games are supposed to be “shoot and loot” not “walk and talk.”
To conclude, I take the view of cut scenes that Aristotle takes of acting: while some condemn all cut scenes and all acting (it was argued by some that tragedy was inferior to the epic because it was acted out on stage), it is only poor use of cut scenes (and poor acting) that should be condemned. I do condemn Halo 5.