There was a period where it seemed fashionable to bash the cutscene. What are your views as writers?
Justin Villiers: There’s a kind of notion in the press that the cutscene is dead; that we can potentially move forward from that as an industry. Hopefully, the more writers that are brought in to the industry, the less cutscenes we’ll need – because personally, I think the medium of games is much better without them.
Rhianna Pratchett: People don’t hate cutscenes, they hate bad cutscenes, ones that are badly written, badly timed and come too soon after other cutscenes. I don’t think the cutscene is dead, I think it just needs to evolve a little bit more. It’s probably the place where the immaturity that the medium has had in the storytelling space has shown – which isn’t surprising, given it’s still young. I don’t think anybody minds a well done, well-timed cutscene that doesn’t interrupt gameplay.
JV: I disagree – I think that there’s a lot of gamers that hate cutscenes.
Tom Jubert: I think it’s a matter of principle. We’re a medium that’s all about interactivity, and cutscenes defeat that point. It serves a purpose, but I don’t think it’s a purpose we should be pursuing.
Maurice Suckling: I think there are times in which they serve a function. If, in order to set up three hours of tremendously exciting motivated gameplay, you need a fourty-second cutscene, and that’s the best way of doing it, then to me that’s fine. I think it’s dangerous to have a mantra of ‘no cutscenes,’ because there may come a point where you need them. I’m not saying we should be using them all the time, but I’m not saying you should throw them away.
Jim Swallow: I agree with Maurice – it’s the right tool for the right job. What a cutscene does is immediate delivery of information to the player. Ideally what we want to do is to deliver that information seamlessly – but unfortunately in a game you can’t always do that, and it may be the only way of delivering certain data.
JV: There’s a particular developer which is specifically working on the technology to have interactive cutscenes. They partly exist today, but I think that’ll solve the problem.
JS: But when you give the player the agency to do whatever they want, you can’t trust them to be in the right place to listen to the story. So how do you set up the environment to make sure that the data is delivered to the player without forcing it on them?
TJ: Cutscenes are kind of an unpleasant necessity at the moment, but I think with time that’ll go. It’s a bit like voice-over narrations at the beginning of films. If you go back in time, all films started with this massive narration to set the scene – but as the medium progressed, people realised that you can show it instead.
MS: But there are still some times when you absolutely want that still. I just don’t think it’s as straightforward as that. American Beauty is an example of where that was used stylistically but beautifully. It’s horses for courses, the right tool for the right job.
TJ: Yeah, but I don’t think cutscenes are used stylistically – I think they’re used because it’s the only way they know how to do it.
RP: I think Westwood’s use of them in the Command and Conquer series was always pretty stylistic, as were the Wing Commander games with Mark Hamill. This is another argument for having writers and narrative designers in from the start – you really have to design structure so well to be able to tell a story without cutscenes, or with very few, or with interactive ones. It’s a really high bar for developers to reach, and I think the cutscene, while it has become overused, definitely can be blended with other storytelling techniques.
TJ: It’s a crutch!
So on the other end of the scale, there are quite a lot of people with grand ideas about games where people tell their own stories. Do you think that’s viable?
JS: I think the truth is that most people want to be told stories. If you want to make up your own story, why play a game? Why not write your own book? When you come to a game environment, you want to be part of it, you want to experience it. You don’t want to have to walk in and do all the work yourself. I think that in open-world situations, there’s definitely the need for a strong story skeleton that players can then hang their own experience on.
JV: I think it’s a little bit of a myth that a player only wants to create their own stories. Imagine if GTA IV had no overarching narrative and you just did whatever you wanted – people would be dissatisfied, I think they need the guidance. It’s escapism, it’s putting yourself into someone else’s shoes.
Finally, what would you suggest to help improve the synergy of story and game, of writers and developers?
JV: I think we’re often brought in too late in the day to improve games, so starting at the top and being involved at that initial stage.
RP: Better integration throughout the whole project – making sure you keep that writer up until the very end, even if it’s just a few days here and there. In the last few months of project hell, when everyone’s flapping and they’re just trying to get things done, there’s nobody there making sure the story’s intact; it’s probably far from people’s minds. Having someone there at the end still holding on to the narrative strings is really important.
And, as I’ve mentioned, better integration into the team: letting writers talk to artists and designers and come up with ideas. Just general integration – I think there’s a lot developers could learn from writers and a lot that writers could learn from developers about what is needed and how they can best serve the project. A writer can be a very valuable member of a team when they’re allowed to be.
JS: I’d agree with all of that – I’d ask developers to try and learn to understand what a writer can bring to the party – bring them in early, integrate them into the team, but learn what they’ve got to offer you. In the end, having another creative person in the room is just going to make things better. If you’ve got someone who knows games, and who knows writing, they can bring an extra level of energy into the project which can make a good game great.
RP: Oh, and more time! Developers often underestimate how long it takes to write.
JS: Accreditation, too – every time I work on a game project, I have to remind them to give me a credit. As writers, we live and die by the work that we do.