Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Thoughts on Interactivity and Cutscenes

A short dialog on balancing storytelling with gameplay.
Thoughts on Interactivity, Stories and Games

Often I find while playing a game, I am interested in learning what story it has to tell. I have narrative motives to my game play. But games are not really a story TELLING device, but a story PLAYING device. What I mean is that games are interactive. It should respond to player input, unlike a movie where no matter what you do the story will not change.

In the Game Design Review blog, it had a section that struck me as gold! It was comparing a remake of a game with the original. The original version of the game, you arrived with your female companion at a regular looking castle only to have your companion kidnapped during the night. It came as a surprise to a player that their companion was gone and provided motivation or guilt. In the remake, the inn was surrounded by an ominous gate and even had an NPC mention that sometimes guests go missing.

The remake used a film technique of setting the mood. What would happen to the characters was inevitable. Only in a game, a player is not passively watching their character march into a haunted inn. The player is actively moving that character. So now I will write a bit about player choice and linear stories.

LINEAR STORIES
The idea of a linear story is that there is a beginning and an end. Events lead the character from point A to point Z in a chronological or logical order. In this type of game story, the designer is leading the player along. The trap is to be like a film director that drags a viewer along. No amount of input from the audience will change the outcome of a film. It is a finite medium.
Games are not necessarily AS finite. You can replay a game differently than you did the first time.

So now the discussion is, how does a game designer LEAD or GUIDE a player down the linear path? Is there only ONE path to the end?

HOW STORIES WORK WITH GAMES
In RPG adventure games, a story makes the game different from any other in the genre. Most of them have the same style of gameplay, so it would seem that people do not buy the games for new and exciting systems, but for characters and stories.

The story or drama in the game provides another layer of entertainment value. Because although the designer may have a story to tell, the player can be co-author of their own adventure.

Let’s take for example Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There is no pressure to get through the main story. There is nothing stopping the player from exploring various parts of the world, finding hidden holes, taking side quests or playing mini-games. It only tells the story during cut scenes before and after major dungeons. While the cut scenes are a drama to the story, it is also instruction for the player. It is presented in such a way that the player is entertained but they still have a choice to go forward or go fishing.

CUT SCENES STRATEGY

Cut scenes and dialog exchange are the only methods games have of presenting story elements to the player. In more recent games they are becoming more and more cinematic. Here are some methods, using game examples.

Chapter by Chapter method
This method is most like a book. Sometimes the game itself is divided up into Acts or Books to emphasize this point. Basically what happens is you get your opening cut scene, then you play for a bit, when you reach the end of the action you get another cutscene.
My example for this would be Odin Sphere. You are playing characters in a story that a girl is reading. A cutscene happens before the level, before the boss battle, after the boss battle, and sometimes again after that. There was very little time to actually be playing.

This is good if you want to lock your player into one linear path. However, it does not give the player much freedom. You have boxed their playtime between cutscenes.

Plot Point Method
This is only slightly different that chapter by chapter. It is a still a stop and go method. There are still cutscenes before major battles and dungeons. However, it allows more exploration. Unlike chapter by chapter, once you watch the cutscene you are free to explore the dungeon or go back to the overworld.
There are many examples for this method. My Legend of Zelda example is one.

This method is probably the most used. It is a good method if you are trying to portray a plot but still give the player freedom to act. You are only guiding the player towards an action.

Random
I’ve only seen this once where you found triggers and an optional cutscene would play giving more character interactions that had nothing to do with the story but COULD affect outcomes in the game due to relationships.

PLACES TO PUT CUT SCENES

It is important to keep in mind where you are placing cut scenes. Any situation that needs an introduction is a suitable reason for a cutscene. Some games, this happens before a boss fight. This is expected but it can become an annoyance if the player as to replay that cut scene every time he/she fails to defeat that boss. This can be forgivable if the cut scene is short, but in particular scenes before battles should be only viewed once. Having a save option right after the cut scene or having a skip feature can help with this.

Introductions is one reason for a cut scene, explanations is another. Aftermath seems to be pretty popular as well. Aftermath is something to be wary of since it only happens after a battle or completing a dungeon. Is it a restating of things the characters have already done or is it an explanation for the next step. Restating the obvious is a waste of the player’s time.
Hero: "We have defeated the Evil Lord".
(yes...we know...we were there. We actually did it ourselves you mindless dweeb!)

Remember cutscenes should be used for: Introductions, explanations, and results of actions that are not apparent.

STYLES OF CUTSCENES

Many commercial games have gone very cinematic in cutscene presentation. They are high-definition graphics meant to dazzle the player. Recently, the characters in the cinematic scenes are translated directly as the playable game character. Not too long ago, there was a visible different between the playable graphics and the cutscene graphics. (Make note on Tidus' hair, face, and chest.)

The trend is to use the playable graphics in cutscenes which makes sense especially for an indy game designer.

In commercial games, there are also instances of full-blown cutscenes and minor cutscenes. The major cutscenes are dramatized 3D animation spectacles with voice acting. Minor cutscenes may just be word bubbles or screens. NeverWinter Nights 2 ToolKit program offers such differences in how dialog is presented. One uses the NWN2 Engine which allows control of the camera angle, character animation and expression to be associated with certain lines of text. The other uses the NWN1 Engine which appears as a block of text with the characters avatar in the corner (optional). It did not really allow for a flexible camera control.

RPG Maker Cutscenes
Rpg Maker, regardless of the version, limits you to using 2D pixel graphics and one camera angle. This is one limitation of the program. But you can still make delightful cutscenes with it. Older 2D games provide good examples. One of my favorites is the Sailor Moon RPG. The sprites had various expressions and moved around the screen during a cutscene.

Another good example is Summon Knight Swordcraft Story. The sprites not only animate but the avatars of the character's change expressions. This makes up for limited sprite movement on the screen.

Here are some key things to remember about Cutscenes in RPG Makers.
  • Visually appealing - since you're using in game graphics this won't be hard, but make sure the scene as a whole is not "too busy".
  • Movement - make the sprites animate and move around a little. Make it interesting to look at.
  • Signify the Speaker - Using an avatar or the character's name in the text box clarifies who is speaking during a cutscene. It's hard to tell if there are no mouths moving.
  • Make Scenes Skipable - This makes sense if you have scenes before or after boss battles that you don't need to sit through.
CLOSING THOUGHTS
Cutscenes are not interactive. It stops the action of the game and takes control away from the player. However, it is the easiest way to tell a story in a game. It use to be that if you wanted back story, you read the manual. For example, the original Legend of Zelda, you receive a wooden sword and shield from an old man in a cave at the beginning and that was all the back story you got in-game. The player was give no direction on where to go or any motive to complete actions. The manual that came with the game told you where to go first and why.

Obviously, this method was not very appealing. Players do want a little direction, they do expect a bit of story. How much freedom you give them after the main introduction is up to you.

Having options within the cutscene that affect the storyline is very popular and a way to make cutscenes more interactive.

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