Cutscenes are a contentious aspect of mainstream gaming, past and present. They’re frequently considered a roadbump to gameplay, marginal to the real meat of the game at best, and even evidence of ‘cinema envy’ on the developers’ part. They’re positioned as an intrusion of film into the ‘pure gameplay’ of the medium and a shallow attempt to gain the perceived acceptance and acclaim film as a medium has, and videogames apparently lack. The criticism of cutscenes, not only from this academic perspective but also reviewers and enthusiasts can be extremely harsh. Some go so far as to have hard limits of how long a cutscene should be, regardless of content or function within the story. Looking at games from a formalist perspective focused on the mechanics of gameplay, cutscenes would ideally be unobtrusively brief or non-existent. But the flavor of a game like Metal Gear Solid 3, part of a series frequently criticized for overlong cutscenes, would be completely different if not for the History Channel documentary style exposition that opens it.
Regardless, the pushback against cutscenes has led to a variety of strategies for working around non-interactive cinematics becoming increasingly common in AAA games. Environmental storytelling, in the form of visual details such as graffiti and signs, overheard spoken dialogue from nearby NPCs, and level designs that guide the player through realtime checkpoints serving to reveal plot has been described as post-cutscene game design. However, especially in AAA games, many of these attempts seem embroiled in an anxiety about the inherent intermedia quality of videogames. A videogame is not simply a game in the way that a painting is simply a painting. It’s a complex mix of programming, art, sound design, writing, and often cinematics, or at the very least event pacing, frequently taking cues from the moving image. The supposed integrity of the videogame as a medium that stands alone relies on refusing to engage with these other parts of its material reality, or at least minimizing them in favor of an experience where the player must always be focusing on mechanics. However, like collage, the meaning of games can’t be divorced from their intermedia quality.
While postmodernism was a movement in the arts that embraced intermedia and pastiche approaches, post-cutscene attempts to hide these elements in videogames. Cutscenes are not simply a lazy shortcut to provide context and flavor for the gameplay. They also create a rhythm, and allow for breaks between active play and the payoff, not only of plot development and cinematics, but the release of the tension that builds up during play during to the non-interactive period. Games insistent on not using traditional cutscenes, or littering them with the looming threat of a sudden quicktime event, break this flow of energy, with, presumably, the potential for a radical break with the pacing and play styles of games using traditional cutscenes.
Postmodernism was initially conceptualized as a break with the dominance of Modernism in the arts at the time. The language of breakage and disconnection continues through its vocabulary of the fragment, the rejection of grand narratives, and so on. However, under Postmodernism, the art world kept spinning, and aside from some differences in subject matter and interpretation, much in the same way. Postmodernism was less of a break and more of a comfortable continuation of Modernism, perhaps one better suited to the intense pace of late capitalism. Postmodernism, and by extension the ‘post-‘ prefix, have become a deeply ingrained part of theory and analysis cross-media. The way it’s used can imply a break or continuation, and also actually represent either of these positions, or both.
Which brings us back to post-cutscene. While the initial experience of environmental storytelling or even QTEs can be novel, over the course of an entire game or even as it becomes the norm for a greater and greater portion of AAA games, it becomes clear that no real revolution in the mechanics of a game or how it delivers narrative has come about. The game still essentially functions as a series of checkpoints you have to work through, only this time, mechanical finesse is demanded even while exposition is happening. There is no chance to rest and release the built up energy from play. And these techniques, while changing the rhythm of this progression, don’t necessarily increase the realism of these games. After the needed conversation has been overheard, NPCs repeat themselves or mill about listlessly, and over-engineered environments that direct the eye don’t radically differentiate the medium of videogames from the medium of film, and perhaps brings them closer.
What post-cutscene does do is remove or at least reduce the downbeats of the rhythm, where the tension of gameplay is released temporarily and can be reflected on. It’s another step towards unreflective immersion as a virtue, but immersion hides the material facts of a medium, rather than facing them. Videogames are inherently intermedia, a postmodern medium that is a combination of many mediums, techniques and referenced histories, no matter how much some designers and critics may try to reduce them to their interactive mechanics.
While mainstream post-cutscene techniques deliver narrative in a slightly different way, they don’t critically impact the structure and experience of playing games, instead moving towards greater and greater percentages of game time devoted to immersion. When I think of games that reject the traditional AAA model of cutscene-gameplay-cutscene in more effective and interesting ways, I think of games that avoid linear narratives altogether, games that my imagination filled with narratives beyond what explicitly happened onscreen, like SimCity, where I wondered what it was like to actually live in the place I created, or Animal Crossing, where I filled in what happened while I wasn’t playing. There are also indies that, due to the time and technical or budgetary demands elaborate cinematic sequences demand, don’t use cutscenes, or even other NPC character models at all, such as Eidolon. These games, in my opinion, are examples of where a post-cutscene practice with potential lies.