The Story Mechanic Part Fourteen: David Cage: Cutscene Murderer

by on January 18, 2013

I’ve got a pile. It happens when you get older. Spend all day sitting at work on an ever more wrinkly bottom, busying yourself with all the miserable parts of being an adult and not playing on your Xbox, and your pile will inevitably grow and grow and grow.

The pile that I‘m referring to is, of course, the pile of games that you almost play, but never quite do. Those of you thinking about my wrinkly bum, we’ll talk later.

Your pile might not be a literal pile, but you have one. A bunch of titles that you should have played but have missed you out for one reason or another. I recently added Far Cry 3 and X-Com to my pile. Both should have been day one purchases but, owing to time and finance, I will be waiting for some nice Amazon discounts before I buy.

Ah … the burden of real problems. Real, middle-class, problems.

The reason I’m dragging this point out for such an interminable length of time is because I need you to understand that I have a pile of games I’ve not played, it stresses me out, and being old is awful. I also want to buy a little bit of sympathy from you, for now I’m going to twist the column around to reveal that I have only just finished Heavy Rain. A game released almost three years ago that lived on my pile and now I’m writing a column about.

The obvious question is, why? What does Heavy Rain do that makes me think I can drag some relevancy out of it in 2013?

Simple: It ruined cutscenes forever.

I have always been hugely critical of people who skipped cutscenes. I wondered why someone would spend forty pounds on a game only to skip significant chunks of it through … what? Impatience? I wanted to be absorbed in the story, not just skip to the game bits. Heavy Rain has made me waver. I think it might have been me who was wrong. The interaction, influencing the world; that’s the thing. The gameplay empowers you and the cutscenes, however cool, remove that power. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so patient when I was play-watching Metal Gear Solid 4.

Heavy Rain gives a clinic in keeping the player involved at all times. It shows that other games let the player switch off. After finishing Heavy Rain I picked up Mass Effect 3 (it was next on my pile) and, within the first hour of the game, I had timed one cutscene at three minutes long and one at FIVE minutes long. Neither had me doing anything other than pick a line of dialogue or two about half way through. After a few minutes, both had bored me. This is simultaneously a compliment to the game (I wanted to be playing) and a criticism of the narrative design (the story was stopping me playing). However, Mass Effect 3 might seem like an odd choice of game to criticise here. BioWare’s storytellers are some of the best in the business. The thing is, I could take aim at any Hideo Kojima game, Batman: Arkham City and others for having long cutscenes where I have no influence. However, I picked Mass Effect 3 precisely because it is as close as any other developer has come to the level of second-by second-involvement that Heavy Rain offers. Despite that, there is still a chasm of distance between the work that the guys at Quantic Dream are doing and what is achieved in Mass Effect 3.

You cannot switch off when you play Heavy Rain. There are no clues given in the interactive animated sequences to tell the player when they will be playing or when they can switch off, so to succeed the player has to develop a state of high alert, that they remain in throughout the game. The most relaxing Heavy Rain gets is when movement control is given back to the player and they, to some extent, can control the pace of proceedings. Though, because the team at Quantic Dream are quite brilliant, those sequences often have you working against a timer (usually hidden in the actions of other characters) to covertly manage the pacing of your experience. Other games just use cutscenes as a reward and a breather, Heavy Rain never lets you take that breath. When you factor in that every button press counts (SPOILER – I lost a character in the last five minutes of the game due to a couple of tardy controller swings) and that your success and failure has clear, visible on screen ramifications, it is easy to see why the game is so involving. This is despite button inputs being relatively minimal when compared to an action game or FPS. When playing Heavy Rain, every input counts, every one made under duress and when focussed. It is a completely different experience. All of this happens as the player is watching some of the most dynamic and interesting cutscenes in gaming.

Usually my PlayStation time is my wife’s excuse to go to bed or do something productive with her day. She watched me playing every minute of Heavy Rain. Says it all.

At this point it would be stupid not to acknowledge that not every game can be Heavy Rain. Quantic’s game was designed to flex and change depending on the success of the player’s moment to moment interactions. Owing to this micro-branching, everyone who played that game, ultimately, saw a slightly different version of it. Even if that difference was just the odd punch taken rather than avoided. Games like Mass Effect 3 just couldn’t do what Heavy Rain does, at least not to the same scale. Mass Effect’s disc is already packed with dialogue, much of which is never used by Shepherd (the conversation choices the player disregards will outnumber those they select by the end of the game), so starting to introduce branching or divergent story paths would make the game a logistical nightmare (as well as one that would ship on about eight BluRays). Equally, it isn’t as if Mass Effect 3 doesn’t try and keep things interactive. The dialogue cut-ins are interactive, and have implications as far the the Paragon/Renegade meta-game goes, so the player does have some a shaping affect on the sequences and future gameplay. However, this doesn’t hook you in quite the same way. The big windows of time which you have to press L1 or R1, and the infinite time you have to select dialogue, just doesn’t carry the same urgency. Since Heavy Rain, I’m struck by the amount of time I just spend in other games just watching. I realise that I miss plot beats and information as my interest fades in and out. In Heavy Rain I missed nothing. I remember my story, my path through David Cage’s branching maze, clearly and in detail. I was so present, so immersed, that how could I not?

This whole episode has upset my equilibrium. I feel like an absolute traitor, a softie, who has started to feel sympathy for the cutscene-skipping philistines I used to spit on in the street. But now there is a little voice in my brain that keeps saying “You watch Mad Men and Breaking Bad to be engrossed by TV … you play games to play them”. “SHUT UP, LITTLE VOICE”, I yell back, much to the concern of everyone on the underground carriage with me. Troubling indeed.

I have come to a conclusion. In 2013, it is not sufficient anymore to tie the player to the sofa and tell them to watch. Heavy Rain has changed the way we should think about moment to moment interactions with games. Take Mass Effect 3’s opening sequence, for example. The Reapers arrive and start shooting up the place. What if BioWare had a sequence of buttons that the player had to hit in order for Shepherd to avoid the flying debris of the Reaper attack? I know what you are thinking … QTE. I’m not thinking that, however, because QTEs are success/failure events. Press buttons on time; survive. Fail, and do the sequence over again. I’m talking about game design where, if the player presses the buttons successfully, they start the level at one point, perhaps with ammo or an upgrade pack that would be denied them if they failed the button press sequence and had to start at a different point. ME3 levels are brutally linear. It would mean adding a second corridor, one that is only streamed in if the player needs to use it. Dialogue wouldn’t need to change much. “You OK? C’mon Shepherd, we need to get to the ship” works in either context and the player will know that their actions (or inactions) in the cutscene affected what they experienced.

There would be two repercussions: Every minute of the game becomes meaningful in terms of gameplay and, by extension, the player never switches off because at any minute the game could demand an interaction that changes the face of the experience. The player would be focussed on the game. They pick up on more details because they are watching for more.

Of course, there is an expense here: You have to animate an extra cutscene, one that illustrates the failure. Not cheap … not in terms of money or disc space. However, I see hidden silver lining; fewer lengthy cutscenes! Short sharp cutscenes, those that advance the story (or illustrate an objective), provide breathing room and give the player a thrill, still have a place. I’m not arguing for a world without cutscenes. Cutscenes can be exciting and dramatic, and they give writers space to communicate messages that would be too challenging in gameplay. However, what if it was considered to be poor game and narrative design to fill your game full of overlong cutscenes that just showcase great dialogue? Based on my time with Heavy Rain, I believe game narrative would be in a better place.

You want great writing in games, and this is not a criticism of the writers who produce the wonderful dialogue and plots that I do enjoy. The standard keeps on rising and that is great. I’m also not singling out the BioWare team because I think they are poor writers, nothing could be further from the truth. The Mass Effect series and the ever changing story  of its universe is one of gaming’s grandest achievements. Nor am I saying that Quantic Dream is perfect. God, no. They are the same people who thought the ideal way to introduce Mad Jack the Junk yard owner was with the line “HEY, cracker, what you doin’ in  there”. Yup … none of us are perfect.

What I’m saying is that game design, like any design, carries the inspiration (and the baggage) of what has come before it. This is certainly true of cutscene design. It just took playing Heavy Rain to realise that even a brilliant game like Mass Effect 3 is not maximising the potential of its cutscenes. The power of interaction is that it keeps the player immersed. The power of immersion is that it makes the detail flood in and stick. Cutscenes are capable of adding to that powerful combination. At the moment they just don’t.

Heavy Rain has ruined the cutscene for me and I couldn’t be happier. It is proof that you you should keep working on your pile. You might find something that turns your world upside down.