I recently read a rumor that Assassin’s Creed 2 might have three hours worth of cut scenes. Unlike a lot of gamers, I don’t mind most cut scenes. I remember when games would advertise “X hours of realistic CG cut scenes” as a good thing. I understand the common complaint against them, but I also think cut scenes are a fine way to tell a story in a linear game, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is proof of this.
Cut scenes get a lot of hate because they interrupt gameplay. Too often a boss fight will suddenly become a cut scene, and after a quick verbal back-and-forth the protagonist will perform one final action that kills the antagonist. This wouldn’t be so awful if the scene only involved dialogue, but by reserving the death of the villain for a cut scene the game removes some of the satisfaction of winning. Technically the player never gets to kill the main bad guy as it happens in a cut scene.
One reason these non-interactive sequences work in Uncharted 2 is that they never interrupt gameplay, in fact gameplay sometimes interrupts a cut scene. During a couple movies, just when the player thinks the action is over, an enemy attacks a nearby companion and suddenly we’re in control again, shooting the attacker. As soon as he’s dead the cut scene continues. Action always happens to the player, Nathan Drake only fires his gun once in a cut scene, every other time he shoots it’s because the player has pressed the R1 button. When a building starts to crumble with Drake in it, we’re in control; when a stone platform begins sliding down a hill with Drake and company on it, we’re in control; when he has to jump from car to car during a high speed chase, we’re hitting the button to make him jump. By making these grand set pieces interactive, it feels like they’re happening to us, not just happening to him. We become more invested in the character and his struggles because we’ve gone through them as well.
Since a good cut scene doesn’t have much, if any, action in it, it relies on the plot to keep players interested. These moments of calm have to move the plot forwards while setting up the next action scene, but these are also fitting moments for character development. Characters can be developed during gameplay through animation, voice over, or by having a unique skill set, but cut scenes are by far the easiest method for doing so because of their similarities to film, a medium with several standards already in place regarding proper character development. But any cut scene, even a well directed, well acted, graphical showcase, is still interrupting gameplay, so it must accomplish these goals quickly, or risk losing the interest of the player.
The Metal Gear Solid games are infamous for their failure in this regard. The high production values of its cut scenes are obvious, but the scenes drag on far too long thanks to endless exposition by various characters describing their personal motivations, their complicated pasts, the current political landscape, or others aspect of the plot. While some may defend these long movies for their high quality and intriguing themes, there are just as many people that hate them for their meandering dialogue and length.
On the other hand, the cut scenes in Uncharted 2 are never more than a couple minutes long, even when the plot twists and turns. In one scene Drake is caught by the villain Lazarevic and makes that classic “You need me so you can’t hurt me” stand, but when he’s searched Lazarevic gets a hold of a map with a giant X on it. The balance of power swings from Lazarevic to Drake and back to Lazarevic within the span of two minutes. The plot is pushed forwards by dialogue that gets straight to the point, there’s no exposition, so the player is constantly engaged by the quick pace.
The cut scenes in Gears of War 2 were successful in moving the plot forwards quickly, but never contained any meaningful character development. The new characters of Tai and Dizzy are interchangeable with out other teammates, personality wise. But since the cut scenes focus purely on the plot, the game give these new characters a distinct look to set them apart. Tai’s tattoos make him look like some ancient mystic, and Dizzy has a cowboy hat; the game then hopes that we’ll get attached to them based solely on their unique appearances.
The second cut scene in Uncharted 2 fully introduces us to Chloe, one of the new characters in the sequel. Within a few minutes we learn that she and Drake have a romantic history, that she’s using Flynn (the other new character) to help get a treasure, and that her and Drake plan to run away together after the heist. Too often in games a women is portrayed as tough by being cruel or indifferent to everyone around her (see Rubi in Wet). We see a little bit of that in Chloe as she casually plans to betray Flynn, but then we see a vulnerable side to her as well: She has genuine feelings for Drake, she wants to run away with him because she actually likes him. She’s not the one dimensional “tough bitch” stereotype that games normally fall back on, she’s a complicated character with complicated motivations.
Cut scenes are a viable way to tell a story in linear games. They provide a chance to advance the plot while developing characters, but the gameplay must always take precedent, and that’s a mistake many games make. The player should get to partake in all the action. Successfully implementing a cut scene is difficult, the many failed attempts are proof of that, but Uncharted 2 is proof that, when done right, cut scenes can add to the depth and enjoyment of a game.