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In what will hopefully be a semi-successful form of enlightenment and discussion, “Developers, Stop:” will be a regular editorial series wherein Michael Urban talks about particularly irksome modern gameplay flaws that are trending for all the wrong reasons and should probably be stopped.

You’re walking down a cold, dark hallway where the metallic walls are caked with rust and long strands of water drip from the ceiling. You are encapsulated in an oppressive ocean of shadow, armed with only a flashlight whose battery is waning and a revolver with only two bullets. As you turn each corner, a feeling of dread clings on to you as you frantically scan the environment with your eyes. Then you hear a shrill noise; a scream, possibly. Gulping, you turn the next corner.

Suddenly, before even completing said turn, you find yourself locked into place, unable to move. Then your eyesight seemingly exits your head and proceeds to hover over to the end of the hallway, where an alien egg lays. The egg slowly peels away to reveal an alien beast, who slowly grows an extremely obvious red weak point on his chest on proceeds to swipe at the air and scream at nobody in particular. It is at this point that he looks in your direction and starts walking over to you.

Then and only then does your eyesight come back to your head. Having memorized the layout of the hallway, where the beast is standing, and where his weakpoint is, you quickly aim at his chest and shoot it with your revolver. He is now dead, and your face is a fusion of blankness, bewilderment and unsatisfaction.

Chances are you’ve witnessed a scenario like the one I just described. It’s when the first enemy of certain type is introduced via a prolonged cutscene that interrupts gameplay and takes away control from you, the player. And I can’t be the only one who’s annoyed by it.

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The problem here is simple: it saps any sense of tension or mystery from the proceedings. See, as gamers, we’re not stupid. We know that we’re completely safe when a cutscene starts. We know that nothing will happen to us while the cutscene occurs, and we also know that we’ll have to wait until the camera pans back to our character before we can retain control.

Revealing an enemy within these safe parameters, where no harm can happen to us, robs the game of any surprise it may have had during that particular sequence. And without surprise, how are we supposed to find the arrival of a new enemy engaging? Worse still is the fact that these cutscenes simply break the flow of gamplay, severing you from your role and lessening the sense of immersion. You’re no longer ‘there’ as a character; you’re just a spectator who has no say in how the next few seconds unfold.

It could be argued that such displays of overly cinematic intrusions act as a sort of ‘tutorial’ for the enemy type, showing the player how to defeat it so as to properly prepare them and alleviate any clueless frustration. That’s all well and good, but cutscenes strike me as an incredibly lazy method of achieving this. There was never I time where I saw an ‘enemy cutscene’ and thought “wow, this guy totally couldn’t have been revealed during actual gameplay!”

I want you to watch the video below. It’s a short clip of the first time you witness a Barnacle in Half-life 2. Go on, watch it and educate yoursef! I promise it’s short.

Have you seen it? Good. Notice how all of that was gameplay. Not once did the player lose any control during that sequence, and yet it clearly conveyed what the Barnacle was capable of: reeling you in with its ‘tongue’ should you touch it.

Valve designed that part very smartly. They made it so there was only one way to proceed, during which you were facing the direction of the Barnacle and couldn’t miss the demonstration. They made it so the crow screeched so that you noticed it, and flew up from the ground so that you knew where it ended up. They made sure it was a crow so that you couldn’t miss the black bird being stopped dead in its tracks and hoisted up into the Barnacle’s mouth. I could talk for hours about why I love this sequence, but I think you get the point.

How come we don’t see that anymore? Nowadays, we get our hand held while the developer shows us their enemies in the most unimaginative way possible, either because they’re afraid we’re stupid or because they felt like showing off the lighting engine. Let’s take a look at just a few notable examples of recent games where this insipid technique was used:

–          Dead Space 3 – This is done on several occasions, including the first time you see a necromorph and the first time you encounter a regenerating, invincible ubermorph. So much for suspense. And since it’s supposed to be, you know, a HORROR game, this is doubly egregious.

–          Red Faction: Armageddon – After you break the mystic seal and release the monsters, they’re introduced in cutscenes.

–          God of War series – There are many cases of it in this franchise.

–          Resistance 3 – It seems we can’t fight long-leg Chimera without first seeing him land and subsequently crush someone in a cutscene.

–          Dead to Rights: Retribution – EVERY SINGLE new enemy type is introduced via cutscene in this one!

–          Doom 3 – The first imp you find is shown crawling through a vent in a cutscene. Other enemy types are also introduced this way. Again, this is supposed to be scary?

–          Army of Two: The 40th Day – When you encounter the minigun-toting boss, a cutscene lasting around 30 seconds of him blowing up cars plays. So, his minigun is dangerous. Thank, Sherlock.

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I remember witnessing my first skaarj in Unreal. I remember seeing a headcrab zombie for the first time in Half-life, shambling towards me down that hall. I remember fending off the attacks of the red-robed assassins in Oblivion. I remember the pirates first boarding my ship in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. I remember when the ubermorph first busted through a vent and reared its ugly head my way in Dead Space 2. I remember fending off the Empress’ assassins in Dishonored. And I remember first exchanging uneasy dialogue with enemy militia in Spec Ops: The Line.

That’s because all of the enemies mentioned above were unveiled through smartly constructed gameplay sequences that allowed them to make eventful and unexpected appearances while keeping players firmly in the action. I encourage you all to start looking out for instances in modern games where developers have lazily rendered a cutscene to set the stage for an enemy. Maybe once we start noticing these cases, we can start calling the devs out on it, and maybe then we’ll begin to experience exciting reveals of our baddies again.

Michael Urban
Now an occasional contributer, Michael Urban is the former Editor-in-Chief at OnlySP and has the nickname "Breadcrab" for reasons his therapist still doesn't understand. From the moment he first got hacked in Runescape, he's been uninterested in multiplayer games and has pursued the beauty of the single-player experience, especially in terms of story and creative design. His hobbies include reading, writing, singing in the shower, pretending to be productive, and providing info and feedback regarding the games industry. It is an industry, right? You can ask him a question or send him spam at michaelurban@onlysp.escapistmagazine.com. Also, follow him on Twitter or the terrorists win. (@MichaelUrban1)

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4 Comments

  1. Honestly, it seems a bit nitpicky and pigeonholed. There have been awesome.cutscene intros. In Resident Evil, you’re in a hallway and all of a sudden the camera switches outside, and from the perspective of an unseen enemy, the camera suddenly starts rushing towards your location at a tremendous speed. Now maybe unseen aspect makes it suspenseful, but you didn’t specify that. Half Life has no cutscenes so the barnacle had to be introduced that way. Equal praise could be given to the Call of Duty series, which didn’t have any cutscenes in game until Black Ops 2, especially the scene in the shower room in the Gulag when the enemy laser sights break the darkness. Oh wait, COD praise, that’s not ‘cool’ is it? Back to the cutscenes, I think it can be great to show an enemies’ extreme danger and then throw back control to the player to encounter. Maybe a bit overly cinematic, but to deem developers ‘lazy’, it’s a bit much.

    1. You make some good points.

      Also, I do realize that this issue is definitely a bit small in scale, and maybe something that annoys me more than others. Hopefully I’ll touch on some grander problems in future ones, then. :D

    2. Personally I don’t mind cutscenes if they’re done well, like the ones in God of War, those are always very well done. But other bosses, can be introduced right in the gameplay. One video for Metro Last Light has a boss in the game bursting through the wall as soon as you walk into the room, with no cutscene. Stuff like that, I like.

  2. i like cutscenes as long as they serve a purpose *not introduction for bosses or enemies* or enhance the experience. *ala bioshock* sometimes i like to watch a cutscene say after a long and tiring boss fight and i just want to put down the controller and watch handy my work. but games with waaaay too many cutscenes *COUGH* MGS4 SNAAAAAKE!! *cough* i dislike there should be a even balance between game time and cutscenes or no cutscenes at all in my opinion.

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