Let me take a moment to talk about one of the most notorious pitfalls in all of video game narratives. It’s a technique that’s been around since the advent of story-based video games, one that’s clearly defined as a uniquely poor method for communicating an interactive story. It is a pitfall that comes in many forms, but almost always behaves in the same manner: as a cheap bait-and-switch. It’s an unconvincing, unwarranted shaft to the gamer’s immersion and the game’s plausibility. It is the reason cutscenes are so despised and universally, if somewhat subtly, cautioned against. I call it the Dishonest Narrative Event, and it is my single biggest pet peeve in video game storytelling.
The Dishonest Narrative Event is any time the video game’s reigns are ripped from the player’s hands in order to serve a specific plot’s agenda. In some cases, it is simply irritating or otherwise forgivable. Other times, it is the exact reason why a game’s narrative falls apart due to its own self-obsession. It is often cheap, nonsensical and otherwise totally unwanted. And, what’s worse, it’s a flaw that is easily fixed. Yet it’s often overlooked because it’s also the easy answer to a complex, often poorly justified plot twist.
To fully illustrate the idea, let me present a common video gaming cliché: After a long, arduous boss fight, the player finally overcomes his opponent. Yet, after the fight is over, the action is placed on hold as a cutscene rolls. Here we’re treated to an insulting, needless gut punch; the in-game character is, somehow, dispatched by the opponent, despite a victory only seconds earlier. Not only does this devalue the entire boss fight, it also could have been presented in a manner that still retains the player’s sense of immersion and understanding without a bait-and-switch. It’s dishonest on several levels. It lies to the player, delivering an opposite outcome than expected based on play. It devalues the gameplay and removes interactivity from the table as a manner of storytelling. This says to the player “the story is not tied to the gameplay, but is instead parallel to it,” creating a paradoxical situation–one that creates a jarring amount of dissonance and breaks suspension of disbelief.
Without opening up another conversation entirely, I would like to make it clear that I do not think that cutscenes are necessarily bad. They can heighten the mood of the scene through controlled cinematography and sound. However, if it is ever possible for a player to simply “act” or “play” through a specific event, that’s always the best answer. In some sense, the idea of the Dishonest Narrative Event flies directly in the face of what makes a video game enjoyable.
A fantastic example of this kind of weak storytelling comes from video game F.E.A.R. (Spoiler warning, of sorts). In the opening moments of the game, the player is chasing the antagonist on the top of a building. The enemy runs around a corner, out of sight, so the player is left to chase him down. Yet, out of nowhere, the player’s controls are wrestled from them and the game takes over. The in-game character wanders up to the corner the enemy just hid behind. As he approaches it, he is swiftly dispatched by the antagonist, who was simply waiting behind the object to knock his lights out. The choice of playing carefully is robbed from the player, and they’re led into a stilted cinematic. The game presents you with a situation, asks you to solve its conflicts, and then slaps you out of the experience to serve a needless plot twist.
Not only was that particular example jarring, it was also infuriating. It didn’t serve its original purpose (as a release of suspense or a quick scare), but instead removed the player entirely from the action.
Yet it isn’t always player action that is thrown under the bus when a narrative becomes dishonest. To use a very recent example, there is a specific point in the recently released Deus Ex (again, spoilers) where Adam tracks down a particularly important antagonist. Upon arriving at her office, a cutscene plays out in which she tricks Adam, grabs him by the arm, and leads him towards the door, then kicks him out of it. This scene was just jaw-droppingly dumb in the context of the game. Adam, a man who seemed to have a real understanding of human interaction and at least some inkling of psychological insight, is not only totally unraveled by a person he knows to be untrustworthy, but is then manipulated and physically removed from the room. This is entirely out of character, and should have been handled in a manner that kept the player in control at least to some degree.
This sort of narrative device is a symptom of bad writing. It has existed for years, and there are countless examples of the game “showing” a character’s action, rather than allowing play. The event only becomes totally invasive when it defies player choice or rationality. It totally undermines core concepts of “play” by lying to the player about cause and effect and the player’s interactions. There is a specific way to create the illusion of cause and effect within a game’s universe, one that is reinforced by player action. If a player shoots an enemy and hits them, then they are expect that enemy to be eliminated. Or, if the player sees a crossable gap, it would be cheap and disorienting for the game to defy those expectations and cause the player failure for narrative alone. And if these expectations are meant to be defied, then let the decision be rationalized. It should not be considered overkill to explain through either further play or interaction why the player failed something seemingly mundane, so long as it can be made sense of.
So when two characters miss a jump in a cutscene, or are defeated despite winning the in-game fight, it is poor form. In cases such as these, it’s simply best to present the player with a situation that is clearly “unwinnable.” A great example of this is the first major demon in Demons Souls, who easily tramples your character but is explained away, logically, through in-game storytelling. If Adam Jenson is meant to be tricked, develop a situation that tricks the player. If a man is meant to be overwhelmed or ambushed, create a situation that allows the player to play through the event. Not only is this “honest,” but it puts the illusion of choice into the player’s mind and reinforces a stronger emotional response. Plus, it is honest and consistent in its intentions, at least from the perspective of gameplay, because it allows the player to make their own decisions (even if they are stilted). It tells a story through play, rather than through cheap, unrealistic cutscenes.
Another example of an honest, unwinnable event is in Amnesia: The Dark Descent (again, spoilers). During the later portion of the game, the player will walk through a doorway towards an area that was recognizably safe, only to be surprised, overwhelmed and chased down. The player is apparently killed, yet they find themselves awakened at another location moments later. In that way, the emotional response is much stronger, as self-perseverance and fear drive the player to sprint away from a situation. Had the player simply been put on rails and shown the action, the game would have lost emotional power.
Ultimately, what it all comes down to is being consistent and honest with the player. The moment that you rip the power to “act” out of the player’s hands, the suspension of disbelief is broken and some emotion is lost. That isn’t to say that these techniques can’t be used well. If control is going to be taken from the player, there should be some kind of explanation and in game rationalization. A great example of explaining it away, or using the on rails method appropriately, is in Bioshock (spoilers), at the moment where Andrew Ryan and the player confront each other. At this point, due to the very important plot device, the player finds himself unable to control his actions. This moment works both narratively and thematically, and even pokes fun at the very mechanics it employs.
All I ask to developers is if you can’t think of a way to place player action onto the player at a key point in the story, that point’s presentation needs to be reevaluated. The old, dishonest, bait-and-switch techniques are totally ineffective and only hurt presentation at the cost of a forced plot point. The golden rule still holds true: Always play when possible, and only show when absolutely necessary.