This is part 2 of an ongoing series on the techniques that game designers employ to tell stories in video games. If you haven’t read part 1, I’d suggest doing so for some background and context, because I’m diving right in with a major example of cinematic exposition… and an unexpected but nostalgic detour into interactive narrative.

I. Exposition (continued)

“The application of film theory to games can seem heavy-handed and literal minded, often failing to recognize the profound differences between the two media.” —Henry Jenkins, Game Design as Narrative Architecture.

Cinematic exposition

When video games use non-interactive filmic techniques to tell stories, these sequences are usually referred to as “cutscenes.” I suspect that the term evolved from the fact that such scenes were usually interspersed between levels, as a “cut” from the action. I choose to call this technique—which falls within the general category of expository narrative—”cinematic exposition” in order to more clearly suggest the origins of this technique, which obviously borrows liberally from movies.

Metal Gear Solid

The Metal Gear games, which hail from Japan, are interesting to examine from a narrative perspective for two primary reasons: first, the series has from the start been “authored” by a single individual, Hideo Kojima. Kojima is clearly very interested in telling stories in his games—he began as an adventure game designer, and has repeatedly expressed interest in filmmaking—and he has been successful enough on a commercial level that he is afforded an unusual degree of autonomy in making his games. In other words, Kojima is an auteur in an industry that more often produces works by committee—we can assume that his vision is the primary driving force behind what we play on our screen. The second thing that makes Metal Gear interesting is that, although the series has endured long enough to showcase several successive generations of video game technology, the basic gameplay ideas have remained the same, while the method of presentation for the (ongoing, very complex) narrative has changed a great deal.

Circa 1990, an unofficial translation of the prelude to a boss fight in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake:

Circa 2008, a cinematic sequence from Metal Gear Solid 4: The Guns of the Patriots:

That cutscene is so bad it’s embarrassing to watch. The two characters on the ground are bizarre and hideous, and the dialogue is stilted and melodramatic to well past the point of absurdity. The action choreography also suffers terribly from a sense of unreality, something that can also happen in movies which rely heavily on computer graphics. Our ability to interpret filmic sequences as “realistic” develops through exposure to movies. Movies have always relied on special effects—visual tricks—but the rise of CG has divorced them from the requirement of being technically filmable. For a certain kind of movie, therefore, realism is no longer an accidental byproduct of filmmaking. Many filmmakers, and obviously many game developers, have not yet figured out that it must become a deliberate goal instead. (If you want your movie to be realistic, that is; sometimes we don’t, as either audiences or filmmakers.)

There is one major narrative technique that has remained present in Metal Gear through the years: the “codec,” a radio that allows the games’ protagonists to communicate with support staff remotely. Originally, the codec was represented by a screen showing the faces of the two people speaking, and scrolling text showing the conversation. Now, the codec is… well, it’s exactly the same, only with audio, and conversations that last three-quarters of an hour. (Actually, that’s not entirely true. The most recent game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 4, made the dramatic change of showing only the face of the person you’re speaking to, presumably since you know what your own character looks like.)

I wasn’t joking about the long conversations. While the codec might not be a traditional cinematic presentation, Hideo Kojima’s basic storytelling philosophy is filmic: you watch a Metal Gear game as much as you play it. In fact, the balance of play time to viewing time in Metal Gear games has shifted toward the latter with each successive installment. This singleminded focus on non-interactive narrative has made Kojima somewhat controversial amongst gamers, who tend to either love or hate his work. I’m as close to a middle ground as there is: I both love and hate it.

Kojima’s singleminded dedication to telling the story that he wants to tell has led him to moments of genius, but like any talented and creative person unfettered by an editing hand, it has also led him to (perhaps more) moments of excess. (I understand excess, and I can sympathize; look at how I use parentheses, semicolons and em-dashes.) The Metal Gear games are emphatically not the best examples of cinematic storytelling in games in the sense that they tell the best stories, or tell them in the best way, using cinematic techniques. They are undeniably among the most iconic examples of this narrative approach, however.

Final Fantasy

If there is a single game genre that can be said to exemplify cinematic exposition as a narrative technique, it is the Japanese role-playing game (JRPG). Without delving too deeply into cultural history, suffice it to say that, though Japanese role-playing games were heavily influenced by early Western RPGs like Wizardry (which were in turn based on tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons), most Japanese developers have abandoned the free-roaming, open-ended, partly player-constructed narratives of those games. Instead, they tend to favor a more linear, controlled approach to storytelling, one in which the personality and actions of the player character is defined by the game developers rather than by the player herself, and in which the structure and events of the story are predefined and immutable.

Many JRPGs subscribe to this narrative philosophy, but the Final Fantasy games are probably the best example. Like the Metal Gear series, Final Fantasy has been around for a long, long time—the first installment appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System. If you’re new to video games, go ahead and have a laugh about the irony of the series’ name; in fact, it started out as a bitter joke, since developer Squaresoft was in serious financial trouble and would have gone out of business had the game not been a massive hit.

The complexity of the games’ plots has increased over the years, as has the style in which those plots are presented. Cutscenes in Final Fantasies have always featured characters talking and/or fighting, but in the first through sixth installments of the series, technological limitations mean that these sequences were presented in the same abstract 2-dimensional pixel art graphics as the rest of the game. Since they weren’t particularly graphically impressive, those earlier cutscenes tended to be short and to the point, focusing on character development or plot progression (or the occasional silly joke).

The end of the world, which occurs halfway through Final Fantasy III, circa 1994. Ignore the last bit, which is not from the game:

Starting with Final Fantasy VII on the CD-based PlayStation console, however, developer Square became intoxicated by their growing technical prowess, and began to focus on action sequences and visual splendor. The opening cutscene of Final Fantasy XIII, circa 2010:

Cutscenes are the heart of the Final Fantasy games: they are used to introduce settings, characters and questions, encouraging the player to proceed with the repetitive gameplay (exploration and battle, ad nauseum) to earn answers or new plot developments; these rewards come in the form of more cutscenes.

The structure of the main Final Fantasy games (excluding side series and MMOs) is awfully staid. Final Fantasy on the NES offered exactly two optional quests—everything else was required. Later games experimented with non-core story content to a greater degree—Final Fantasy VI let you save a couple of characters from death, or not, and Final Fantasy XII offered a hunting guild with various “marks” to take down—but these side-quests never impacted the main story, which was communicated to the player through the same cutscenes in the same order at the same critical junctures.

Surprisingly, given the above, Final Fantasy is famous for being an experimental series: the games’ characters and setting are almost always completely different from one game to the next, and new iterations frequently implement new gameplay systems. Even fundamental mechanics like those governing quests, battle and character growth are tinkered with, or thrown out completely. The plots may boil down to the same flavor of broth—a ragtag team must save the world from ultimate evil—but the experience of playing the games and fulfilling that narrative is always different. Varying plot details, new personalities interacting on stage, and contrasting atmospheres serve to differentiate each entry.

Is cinematic exposition effective?

Cinematic exposition is an efficient way to move a story forward. Pacing and causality is difficult to get right in video games because of the open nature of the medium—you can limit a player’s options in a given section of the game, but even if you leave her with only one available action, she can still fail to perform it (leaving the narrative hanging) or fail to execute it successfully (leading to a fail state). Showing a cutscene sidesteps this challenge by simply removing interactivity from the equation.

However, when you adopt the techniques and grammar of another medium in order to tell stories in games—in this case, the techniques and grammar of film—you must first be conversant in that medium. Novels have had centuries to evolve sophisticated ways of telling stories. Films have had more than a century. There are ways of working within these media which either are or are not effective; ways of conveying certain kinds of information—motion, emotion, the passage of time, physical space—which do or do not work well. Readers and viewers can reasonably expect a high level of coherence and polish from stories told in these formats. There are people who argue that games should never tell stories with cutscenes (and presumably, by extension, with words) because games “are not movies,” and need to develop their own narrative language. I don’t go so far as that, but I do judge games which tell stories using versions of established narrative media according to the more highly evolved standards of those media. Modern entries in the Final Fantasy and Metal Gear series fall short for me for this reason.

What is more, cutscenes in games must not only succeed as films, but also as elements of the game in which they exist. Games like Final Fantasy XIII and Metal Gear Solid 4 (and others, like Halo) are often criticized for showing characters performing actions that the player is never able to perform themselves. In other words, the games change the rules during these sequences. This can make for “cool” sequences, but it can also break the player’s investment in those rules and the world they represent.

Side note on interactive narrative in the Metal Gear series

Ironically, Kojima’s genius is really for interactive storytelling, something he does sparingly but brilliantly. I can’t resist an example, although it’s out of place. Here’s the legendary Psycho Mantis boss fight from Metal Gear Solid 1, circa 1998:

What’s going on in that scene I find so incredible? Aside from the effective use of music, character animation, voice work and camera techniques—which were well done for a game of the era, but not unheard of—Kojima is doing several things to demonstrate Psycho Mantis’ power.

First of all, notice the moment after Snake and Meryl enter the room, when the view quickly zooms in to focus on Snake, and the image has a green tint? That’s because the player pressed the button for the first-person view. Normally, this lets you see from Snake’s perspective. In this scene, it shows you Snake from Meryl’s perspective, reinforcing the suggestion (already communicated through the cutscene) that something is wrong with her. It’s a small point, and one that the player could easily miss.

The next unusual gameplay element occurs when Psycho Mantis says that he will read Snake’s past. What he’s really doing (aside from breaking the fourth wall by conflating the character of Solid Snake with the player) is reading the save file for the game on the player’s PlayStation memory card. The player’s behavior earlier in the game—fighting well or poorly, running around willy-nilly or hiding carefully—determines what Mantis will say. Again, this isn’t a unique trick; I first saw it back on the Super Nintendo, when my character in Chrono Trigger was put on trial for his past actions. But it’s so highly effective that I just accidentally described it as something done by Psycho Mantis—a fictional character—without even meaning to.

Kojima even includes narrative commentary on gameplay that occurred outside the confines of the game being played. When Psycho Mantis reads the memory card, other saved game files from Konami, the company that Kojima works for, are recognized and commented on. The player who uploaded this video, had no such saves, which is why Mantis says “Hmm… your memory is completely clean.”

The next interactive narrative trick Kojima pulls probably doesn’t come across in the video, unless you’ve played the game. The original PlayStation was one of the first game consoles to include “force feedback,” in the form of a small motor within the controller. Usually, this motor was used to make the controller vibrate when something happened within the game, such as the player character taking damage, or a car motor starting up. In this case, Mantis uses the feature to demonstrate that his power can even reach the player. As a game player, I normally feel safely removed from the danger faced by my in-game avatar. A good game will sometimes make me identify so strongly with that avatar that I feel real emotions (usually fear and relief), but that is because those games are successfully encouraging me to inhabit the character. In this scene, Metal Gear Solid accomplishes something different: it makes the player feel fear because the game is reaching out to her, rather than the other way around.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that during this portion of the sequence, the player is viewing Psycho Mantis in first-person, as Mantis directly addresses her. Simple but smart cinematography which reinforces the effectiveness of the (for now) dominant interactive narrative.

It has been years since I played this game, and looking back on it now, the sheer number of great ideas in this boss fight astounds me. Remember Kojima’s first name? Do you see it anywhere? That’s right, it appears onscreen in that odd little moment at the start of the actual battle, when the screen turns black and the sound disappears. Kojima is trying to trick the player into fearing that the channel has been accidentally changed (to “Video”), or that the console has somehow shut down or become disconnected from the television. He’s once again stepping outside the traditional bounds of a game to reference the ways that the player is accessing the experience of that game: the technology that makes the experience possible, something that normally exists only in “real life,” that time before the power button is pressed and the game disc begins spinning in its tray. It’s meta-interactive narrative.

Unfortunately, this video spoils the ultimate payoff of the boss battle. Normally, Psycho Mantis is impossible to damage, since his “psychic abilities” allow him to “predict the player’s actions.” In other words, on a game design level, the artificial intelligence controlling Mantis is set to respond instantly to the player’s offensive and evasive maneuvers. Only after taking some hits will Snake’s commanding officer contact him over the codec radio and offer a possible solution, one that plays (as it must) on Mantis’ confidence and on his familiarity with video games: the player must physically unplug her controller from the player one port, and plug it into the player two port. Only then is Mantis’ psychic ability nullified, allowing the player to regain… control… of the situation and defeat him in the usual manner. (The player in this video, who appears to be playing the game on a PlayStation 3 console, avoids that section of the battle by setting the controller to port 2 on a software level as soon as possible.)