The Problem With Cutscenes – Mike Matei Blog

Different people want different things from video games, which is why there are so many different game genres.  There are people who want story-driven gameplay, people who don’t, and the rest who fall somewhere in the middle.  I feel like I’m in the middle leaning towards preferring more gameplay and less story.

I think it’s perfectly fine to be a person who likes heavy story in games, but I think I’m not being unfair when I say people who want lots of story in their games have been generously represented since the 90s.  Story in video games is ubiquitous by this point, and there’s an abundance of games to choose from that involve lots of story and cutscenes.  And games that are “pure-gameplay” experiences without story are the minority.

I’ve certainly enjoyed cutscenes and story before, I’m not made of stone.  However, after playing so many games, cutscenes really start to wear you down.  They’re fine to put up with when you’re younger, but as you get older they start to feel like a nuisance.  I ultimately just want to play a game, and I’ve never once felt in my life that a game had too few cutscenes.

That being said, I don’t want to make the case that we need to start ripping all the cutscenes out of games.  If you’re reading this and you’re the type of person who wants a lot of story in your game, I think your preference is perfectly valid.  My point with this article is, if the majority of games are going to have story elements, they can be done in such a way that is unintrusive to people who don’t care about story.

I think there’s some improvements to cutscenes that can happen that will make life better for everyone, without annihilating a big part of games that so many people get enjoyment from.

Suggestion 1: All Cutscenes Should Be Skippable

Why is this game’s story so important that it has to be mandatory?

I think this could be the easiest one to get everyone on board with.  You should always be able to hit a button to skip the cutscene and immediately jump to the next gameplay portion.  The simplest justification is, what if you’re playing the game a second time?  Should you have to watch the entire story again if you’ve already experienced it?  If the cutscene is a tutorial, shouldn’t you be able to skip it if you already know how to play the game?

It’s amazing to me how many games exist with unskippable cutscenes.  There’s a lot of them.  Worse, so many of them don’t seem to have a good justification for being unskippable. Why is this game’s story so important that it has to be mandatory?  How often is it the case that a player can ruin their own gameplay experience by skipping a cutscene?  I’m sure there’s cases where this is the fact, such as the story giving a clue how to solve a puzzle or explaining mission objectives, but I don’t think it’s that common.

Cutscenes should be optional, and there’s many reasons why they should be.

Suggestion 2: Gameplay Should Begin As Soon As Possible

I spend a lot of time combing through console catalogs trying to find good games, and the biggest roadblock is games that have excessively long story segments before the game even starts.  I’ve played games with about an hour of long, unskippable dialog before you even get to see what the game is even like.  And believe me, there’s absolutely no shortage of games like that.

Even though Magi Nation has witty, well-written dialog, wandering around talking to people for 30 minutes before you can get to the first fight is tedious.

It’s a lot easier to get into the story of a game if I know I like the game.  I’m willing to invest at that point.  But just reading or sitting through story when I haven’t even built any affection for the game itself is a chore.

Let me see if the combat is good.  Give me a taste of my character’s moves first and I’ll be in a more receptive state for you to start telling me your story.

Suggestion 3: Minimize Cutscene Repetition, Eliminate Entirely If Possible

One of the most common repetitive cutscenes in lots of games involves traveling.  It’s the little movie you have to watch when your spaceship is ferrying you to a new area, or you have to watch your character embark and disembark from a boat ride.  And in some games you have to watch it every time.  Watching an airship slowly take off and fly away is bearable the first time, but as the game subjects you to it more and more, the strain you experience increases.

Other examples are movies you have to watch when your character does a special ability.  Final Fantasy 7 is probably the best example I can think of.  How amazing are these cutscenes that I have to watch them so many times?  And a lot of these involve me staring at a slowly rotating dragon while he very slowly contemplates opening his mouth to fire a laser… it’s not so interesting or deep that I’ll get a new experience when I watch it again.

Some games kill you with a thousand tiny cuts too.  Zelda: Breath of the Wild makes you watch a short cutscene every time you want to cook food.  There’s no way to cook things in bulk, so you have to watch this for each and every item you make.  You can even skip the cutscene, but it takes a moment before you’re allowed to skip and it fades out slowly.  And the cooking cutscene is actually entertaining, and is enjoyable to watch more than once.  But 50 times?  100?  Even your most favorite YouTube video will have a difficult time surviving 100 watches.

If you’re cooking one meal, this wait seems reasonable. It’s when you have to make a lot of food that this starts to become agonizing.

Players shouldn’t be forced to watch the same thing over and over.  There’s better ways to make games than that.

Suggestion 4: Put Cutscenes In The Right Places

I really like the cutscenes in the NES Ninja Gaiden games.  They’re fun and they feature great artwork, not even just by NES standards.

But, the best thing about Ninja Gaiden’s cutscenes is they always appear when the player is ready to take a break.  All Ninja Gaiden games are difficult, and the stress the player experiences builds to a crescendo on the boss fights.  Usually you’re holding your breath right up until the boss’s health is depleted, and you’re so wound up that you’re ready to set the controller down for a bit.  That’s when the cutscene starts playing and you find yourself in a good mood to sit and watch the story.  It’s a great flow, and I think it’s the chief reason why Ninja Gaiden cutscenes have such a good reputation.

These cutscenes are placed between levels and flow with the gameplay very well.  You can skip these cutscenes, but I usually don’t want to.

Bad timing of cutscenes causes a lot of friction with the player.  It can really be boiled down to those moments when the player wants to go, but the game is forcing them to stop.  There’s a way to find places in a game where a cutscene fits in nicely.

I’ll never complain about endings, because everything is over and there’s no more gameplay to interrupt.

Suggestion 5: Limit Cutscene Length and Frequency

I think it’s a good idea for game designers to treat a player’s time as valuable.  A cutscene, no matter how bad, isn’t that big of a deal if it’s brief.

Every film director has to always keep their film’s total running time as short as possible with every decision they make, but game developers don’t usually have that creative restriction.

I think a big problem with game cutscenes is they aren’t put under the same time scrutiny as film or television.  Films have to be edited down because ticket prices are fixed, and theaters can squeeze in more showtimes per night if the runtime is shorter.  Television shows have to fit into predetermined blocks of time, so editing down is necessary.

Video games don’t have these restrictions, because they can be long or short.  Even worse, games are influenced by an economic pressure to take longer to beat so the customer feels like they get more value for their money.  I’ve definitely gone through long story stretches in certain games that really feel like they’re trying to “water down” their product to stretch out the playtime.

This results in cutscenes where the player can think to themselves things like “this scene is unnecessary,” “this dialog could be more concise,” “this establishing shot for the scene is too long.” Every film director has to always keep their film’s total running time as short as possible with every decision they make, but game developers don’t usually have that creative restriction.

Going forward, I’d really like to see more games with tighter, concise cutscenes.

Suggestion 6: Consider The Possibility That Your Game Doesn’t Need Story

Mega Man Zero and the subsequent Mega Man ZX games absolutely baffle me.  They have long stretches of dialog in the middle of an Mega Man game, and it just feels like chewing gum with peanuts in your mouth.

Ciel, I appreciate your help but do you think you could shut up forever please?

Sure, this is a subjective opinion of mine that a lot of people would disagree with, but does a Mega Man game become worse if it doesn’t have long JRPG-style text dialog scenes?  Would Robotron 2084 be better if in between levels you got to talk to the people you rescued, or is it just fine that the next level starts instead?

I’m not entirely sure something like this would be better.

Most players don’t get upset when there’s too few cutscenes, only when there’s too many of them.  You don’t miss them when they’re gone.

If you want story in your game, that’s fine.  And I do absolutely believe there are games out there that would be ruined if you removed all story and cutscenes from them.  But, I think it’s worthwhile to at least take a moment to consider the possibility that your game doesn’t even need any kind of story at all, because it’s very possible it might not.

Most players don’t get upset when there’s too few cutscenes, only when there’s too many of them.  You don’t miss them when they’re gone.

There are many games that made the bold decision to just drop the player in with no tutorials or story at all, and they ended up selling well and being critically praised.  It’s not something all games should do, but more should.

Conclusion

You might have noticed that some of these suggestions solve the problem with cutscenes without needing the others.  Repetitive cutscenes aren’t bad if they’re short.  Long cutscenes tend to be no big deal if they’re able to be skipped or disabled.

Like I said up top, if you like story in your games, I think your view is perfectly valid.  Everyone likes different things in their video games, and your preference for cinematic, story-heavy experiences is awesome and I respect it.  I just think if games make a few quality of life adjustments to cutscenes and story portions, everyone can coexist a bit easier.

Please let me know in the comments how you feel about cutscenes!

21 thoughts on “The Problem With Cutscenes – Mike Matei Blog”

  1. yes, i totally agree on all accounts, before Breath of the Wild, i was not a Zelda fan, the lengthy introductions were so off-putting, especially TP and SS, and the handholding, my God the handholding in Skyward Sword, it was frankly insulting.

  2. 1. All Cut Scenes should be skippable — YES x100! How self-important are you if you don’t think your cut scene should be skipped?

    2. Gameplay Should Begin as Soon as Possible — Agreed. I can understand how they want to setup the story and all that but I just wanna experience the game, not watch a movie. Same goes with excessive tutorials. Let me learn by designing levels that force me to use different things without onscreen prompts, kind of like Mega Man X’s intro level does.

    3. Minimize Cutscene Repetition, Eliminate Entirely If Possible — For cutscenes in RPG battles I think they should just be skippable by pressing ANY button. What really chaps my ass, though, is when you die on a boss fight, continue and have to rewatch the boss’s cutscene that leads up to the fight again. Some games get this right by just putting you back into the fight immediately. But nothing ruins my groove more than having to wait any longer to try that fight again that I just lost, even if I can skip it. It just shouldn’t be there.

    6. Consider The Possibility That Your Game Doesn’t Need Story — THANK YOU. A premise or background story (as explained on the back of the box) is fine but every game doesn’t need to be a movie or a novel.

    Bottom line: I kind of liked 16-bit style cut scenes because they had style and didn’t last very long. Some of them were kind of tedious though now that I think bout it. I just want my games to be games, not movies.

  3. on “freedom planet” or “rosenkreuzstilette”, you have the option to play the story mode with cutscenes, or the arcade mode with no cutscenes at all.

    1. This was a huge deal for me! I started Freedom Planet in story mode, and the cutscenes drew me so far out of the experience that I put the game down for several months. When I tried it again, I played without and found the game an amazing joy to play.

  4. I think they’re fine as long as you can skip them and they shouldn’t be super long, the only time a long cut-scene is acceptable is at the end of a game.

    Ideally though like anything they need to paced well.

    I prefer cut-scenes over forced narrative in games though, the stuff that forces you to walk or carry out an action. That’s way too intrusive for me.

  5. This is why I think Super Metroid and Metroid Zero Mission are better than Metroid Fusion. Fusion is not a terrible game, but there is a lot of cut scenes and hand holding, and the Computer AI character in the game will sometimes lock doors on you to prevent you from exploring. By comparison, in Zero Mission and Super Metroid, you are immediately dropped on Zebes and are free to go exploring. In Super Metroid, instead of cut scenes or tutorials, you learn about wall-jumping and the shinespark technique by imitating animals (some monkey creatures and some kind of ostrich).

  6. Totally agree! And I liked the comparison to movies. Unnecessary scenes, which don’t take movie forward, should be cut off; similarly in games, cut scenes, which are not meaningful, should be at least skippable, if they really must be there!

  7. I agree, but it’s funny how people can differ. I actually knew a guy who was only interested in the story/cutscenes. Always played on the easiest difficulty and used cheats whenever he could. He’d rate a game purely on the quality of the story; gameplay was irrelevant. Companies seem to be catering much more to that guy than to Mike these days.

  8. Cut scenes in games are a medium to give a game an over all quality to story driven elements. I’ve seen every form of game medium out there (video game related) and I can tell you that even though there are games out there, that will cut in more story and lax game play. I’ve seen others with more game play, then elements of story. I’ve seen them go 50/50 and the gameplay and story is horrible (or good depending on the game.) Game play nowadays is a horrible design. And gamer’s refuse to admit it because they are sucked into a reality of cashcows.

    1 – There is no game play element that is balanced: The concept behind this is that gameplay in most games nowadays just suck, period.
    2 – Story: Most stories in video games are cookie-cutter and predictable it’s very rare to find a game that is a solid gem in terms of plot and development.

    3 – Games period are lack luster and copies of other games that have came before them (hence why I said cashcow).
    4 – Gaming died after the 90s.

    If you’re a player who dislikes story, that’s on you. Your choice, your rules. If you’re a player who likes story line, enjoy it. But the point is, the more you try to find games with ‘zomgawesome game play’, you’re looking at failed models. This is why I stick to the classics. Gameplay in video games has gone down a septic drain. There’s no “new”, out there. People don’t want knew games, with new concepts or amazing story anymore, they just want the same thing, over and over again. An example would been the teeny bopper route the Final Fantasy series went to after VII. Another good example of this would be CoD, Battfield series. Tons of game play, same thing over and over again. Pro’s want to play the maps they know, but are too lazy to learn new ones (or the maps just suck period.)

    Should cutscenes be skipped? If you’re playing through your 2nd, 3rd…etc playthrough, yes of course. You already know the story, and forcing a player (who already knows) how to play the game (understanding its rules…etc) should not have to go through the brutal torture of it again, unless you need a refresher (examp: You haven’t played in quite awhile.)

    My group of friends are more interested in games without story, or just skip the story in all out right (Missing important things such as a tutorial!) They look at my me weirdly because I play a lot of number based games (RPGs/MMORPGs…etc), strategy based (Turn based or RTS), tactical/stealth based games, or very highly driven story. I enjoy the story very much, and sometimes I tend to nerd out on it for some time until I am able to grasp the story fully. 🙂 Depending on the game, I can re-watch a story over and over again without getting bored of it because nerding out, is awesome. But there are times were I will skip the cutscenes because I’ve seen the story and am more interested in the game play (the Metal Gear Solid series for an example).

    So it really boils down to if you like it, or dislike it, or are just a common base player who just wants to quickly pass time with game play, however, game play has de-evolved over the last 10-20 years. Gaming as an art is no more, Indie gamers are struggling (most of them, imo are stupid concepts, some of which are pretty good.) But lack any real imagination because they’re trying to copy a game that’s already been done. The issue here isn’t the consumer, it’s the developer (of said game) prying on the consumer. I wouldn’t even be surprised if another video game market crash happens, but since gaming as an entertainment medium makes more money than Music/Movies yearly, I don’t see this slowing down or stopping any time soon. I could go on this subject forever and add in more key factors, but I don’t want to take up too much of your time.

    GGs

    – stick

  9. I would stress that story is not the same as cutscenes – top of my head, games that have good stories without actual cutscenes (or very, very few): Half-Life 1-2, System Shock 1-2, Portal 1-2. Special shoutout to Doom 2016 for an intriguing story, without cutscenes but optional ways to enjoy it and the lore (when I pieced together it’s a sequel, storywise, not a reboot/remake it blew my mind)

  10. I don’t really agree with the idea of games being more story focused these days like Mike seems certain of. I think it’s more about the traditional action genre (with its top down shooters and side scrollers etc.) being gradually replaced by MP action, mostly shooters. The most popular games these days are PUGB, CoD, LoL, Overwatch, Destiny etc. and sports games. NO ONE plays these games for story, except the odd CoD campaign.

    Mike plays more single player games than the average modern gamer, so he gets overexposed to the one thing single player games can still attract sales with: good story.

    Of course I agree with Mike completely on the technical details like being able to skip cutscenes.

  11. Two things to add. The ‘flying ship to a new world’ cutscene is often covering up a load screen and is better than a mere progress bar.

    The other fact is that cutscenes don’t need to cut out player control. In half life 2 when exposition was occurring, I could bunnyhop around like an idiot, crouch and look at NPC butts or pick up objects and throw them at the conversationalists.
    Best of both worlds.

  12. It’s when platformers have long cutscenes that really grates on me, I can happily sit and watch 1 hour of cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid but having to endure 45 minutes (or at least thats how it felt) at the start of Banjo Tooie, or something like it, is unacceptable and pointless. A waste of time that adds nothing to the experience.

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