In Defence of Cutscenes (Eventually)

November 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Any narratalogical purist will vehemently insist that there should be no separation between protagonist and player. Every shot, every step, and every movement of the head should originate from the player and the player alone. In return the protagonist acts as a vessel for the player, their experiences merge and, if done well, the player becomes completely immersed in the game world.

As clichéd as it’s become to mention Half Life in an article like this, it’s worth doing since it’s such an absolutest in this regard. It’s hard to claim Freeman is a character at all such is the level of control the player has over him.

At first glance this approach to storytelling seems ideal. After all if we wanted to watch someone else’s story, would we not just watch a movie? It’s jarring to have choices made outside of your control and in effect we become what I can only think to describe as a fourth person to proceedings; too in control to be a third, and yet a little too impotent to truly be first.

The more you think about it however, the more you realise how few games actually go down this route. Half Life and Bioshock are literally the only two recent examples I can bring to mind (although of course feel free to bring up more in the comments). Some might argue that their rarity is as a result of a deficiency in a developer’s skill, but in this writer’s opinion the problem is actually far deeper.


Having a protagonist which can only act through the will of the player is constricting because it doesn’t allow for a very strong lead character. You’re always following someone else’s orders, always a part of a group, but never in control of its direction. It would be impossible for a game to allow you to do anything you wanted, and thus when it can’t take control away from the player and place it in the hands of a protagonist it’s forced to delegate this to an NPC. It limits storytelling in a medium which already struggles to weave unique tales of its own.

More quantitatively it also forces games to be experienced from a first person perspective. This might seem like an odd statement to make at first, so allow me to explain. Utilising a third person perspective involves having a character on screen, this much is obvious. This character needs to react to the world around it, the events that it sees, and the feelings that it has. It needs to shiver when it’s cold, gasp when it’s surprised, and get fidgety when you leave it stationary for too long.

If it doesn’t do these things it breaks the immersion. The first Dead Space struggled with this a great deal. Isaac Clarke what a completely human controlled protagonist, which meant that when he started seeing apparitions of his girlfriend he didn’t respond at all. The fact that it left me as a player confused was perhaps intentional, but it didn’t change the fact that at these moments it just looked plain weird.

Conversely the moment it does do these things you have an action which the protagonist is performing which did not originate from the player’s control. The protagonist becomes a character in his own right, and no matter how small an action, that fundamentally alters the structure of the narrative. A ‘dual-protagonist’ has been created, if you’ll excuse the attempt at phrase-coining.

Once a dual-protagonist exists, does this then excuse the use of cutscenes? After all, the character is already acting outside of your control, so would them doing any more be crossing any other lines? Since no matter how hard you try there’s going to be both a player and a protagonist as separate entities, why not reap all the benefits of having control over the pacing and presentation of a storytelling moment.

I’d also personally be very interested in a game which visibly runs with this trait, by perhaps having a protagonist who’s aware of the fact he has no control over his own actions. Such a game has the potential to be very comic, with a character who’s taken places by the player whilst simultaneously through dialogue making his opposition to this very clear. There’s more to be done with this idea, and I’d love to see it explored.

So does it bother you when a character makes choices which are beyond your control, or are you prepared to live with it if it leads to a better story?

Comment like your lives depended on it people!

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