April 17, 2013 by namaram
What’s the most annoying part about a hard boss? Die. Wait. Start over. Watch one minute cutscene. Die. Wait. Start over. Watch cutscene again. Rage as you die again. In some games it’s this sequence over and over again and while part of frustration comes from dying, it’s more. There’s something about that simple cutscene that not only gets you angry but seems a little out of place. You actually have to stop playing the game. In most cutscenes you end up watching a movie within a game. Some games try mixing it up by adding button presses in between. But do your actions even matter in those games where you have to press a button just to get out of the scene? Heavy Rain mixes the two much more smoothly. Unlike many games, Heavy Rain’s cutscenes merge ludological elements with narrotological elements, but cannot fall into either category.
But you might say cutscenes are scripted. Interactable cutscenes aren’t a new thing. Look back to games like Resident Evil 5 and you’ll find them all over the place. The problem with these interactable cutscenes is that they simply include your fingers as part of the cutscene. In other words it’s only this: You stop controlling character. Platform falls. Giant button appears on screen. You press X. Character jumps off. Then you regain control. The only thing that happens if you fail is that you start over again. Congratulations, you have just become scripted into the cutscene.
Even if cutscenes are scripted, Heavy Rain shows that you can make an interactable script. In fact you’ll find that the only thing that changes between cutscene and other gameplay is that you stop controlling where your character moves. All the other movements that you’ve controlled elsewhere remain here. You still search each of your five pockets manually when you have to pay the clown. You can even choose what your character can say in some scenes.
One of the biggest things that sets apart an interactable script (Heavy Rain) from a script with interactions (Resident Evil 5). Take for example the video below. That one scene below had at least seven death animations alone (plus times you could hear the doctor’s perfect maniacal laugh). That’s only after the player stop handling the controller part way through each sequence. Add in a number of different ways you could survive and the number of different paths possible skyrockets. However, there are still two outcomes to this scene: death or escape. The ludological aspect comes into paths of action. The narratological is the scene’s result. You have no clue which actions will prevent your death, but missing an action is still a big risk.
You could say that since that since Heavy Rain’s cutscenes are so interactable that they should be the perfect merge between narratology and ludology. In a way yes and no. From the ludological side, you miss the full control the available in noncutscene gameplay. You could argue that in Heavy Rain this may seem minor since you do a lot of the same actions between the two. Let’s look at the interrogation scene though. You can’t control the detective and walk to the window if you wanted to. Same for the doctor scene. You can’t pick up the saw instead of the hammer first. Neither can you just run around the table the whole time. Control is still limited to an extent. Actions are directed and funneled into predetermined results which would argue against the ludological idea of infinite actions to a goal.
Neither can you place the cutscenes into a fully narratological perspective. As Klevjer describes in “In Defense of Cutscenes”, cutscenes give the game a release from intense action and allow players to plan in anticipation. In other words, they provide a rhythm to the game by allowing the player to expect. The thin divide between non-cutscene gameplay and the cutscene itself undermines these points in this game. As a whole, these scenes display a narrative as a beginning and an end but the rest is up to the player as he decides what happens. You begin as this point not to so much tell a story but what happens at either ends of it.
Heavy Rain’s interactable cutscenes merge ludological and narratological elements, but are unable to characterize either perspectives. We aren’t talking about the old “Press X and then O to continue” here. Heavy rain lets you choose what you ask the prostitute and lets you use a saw to attack the doctor all within a cutscene too. But we may have to examine these cutscenes from a view somewhat divorced from both of these perspectives. Even more so, this type of cutscene seems to be spreading to a few games and in this way we may need to study these scenes more closely. No longer are these cutscenes simply movies in games but they are part of the gameplay as well.