Cut-scenes aren't always Metal Gear length. Au contrair, most cinematics are quite short. But they don't get a lot of discussion. And this needs to change because these shorter cut-scenes are extremely annoying and, worse, immersion-robbing.
I've been playing three games lately: Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Journey, and Darksiders. All of these titles make frequent use of brief camera theft. For various reasons, the developers of each game felt it necessary to hijack the camera for a short time and show players certain scenes or elements in the immediate enviornment. The sequences last for only a few seconds, but the effect is always jarring and neither necessary nor desirable.
In Hot Pursuit, like in every Burnout game since Takedown, each time you wreck an opposing vehicle, you are rewarded with a short cut-scene highlighting the calamity. They last about three or four seconds, and during this time, the A.I. takes control of your' car — hypothetically keeping it on-road while you are in absentia.
Normally, I don't like to assume intentions, but in this case, I will because the presumed intention is counter to its effect. Criterion's intention is to reward players with instant and direct footage of their skill and success. Wreck a bounty? Swish! Rolling, tearing, flailing speedster flailing, tearing, and rolling. Swish! We're back — ready for round two.
The excitment is there. It is cool to see the seeds of your aggression sown. However, the camera theft is jarring even though we know it's coming. You are robbed of the flow you had been so greatly enjoying until the involuntary hijacking of control. It reminds me that I'm playing a game that believes it has the right to steal just a moment of control, experience, and immersion. Until then, I was cruising down the highway spike-stripping the fuzz like they deserved it. But the crimes don't end there.
Possibly worse, when the camera whisks back to your car and control is returned, the car is frequently off-road or heading straight for a rail-guard. And I do mean frequently. I wouldn't be making a fuss about this if it weren't true. Often, control will be returned to you right as you slam into a wall, significantly slowing your progress. Occasionally, you'll involuntarily wreck into a vehicle-bystander. This is extremely frustrating. Robbing control is bad enough, but causing players to make mistakes or lose is unacceptable.
I'm positive the A.I. engineers worked very hard to make sure your car drove straight and true and avoided walls and bystanders with a desperation. Unfortunately, I cannot speak to their efforts, only the results. And if all of the work I assume that went into this feature can't accomplish the desired effect, then I'm not sure it's worth keeping.
(As an addendum, despite these complaints, allow me to say that Hot Pursuit is freaking awesome, and you should play it.)
Darksiders and Journey rob the camera for entirely different reasons. Darksiders makes me feel like an idiot. I'll walk into any old room in a dungeon, expecting enemies to crawl out of Hell per usual. But every freaking time, the controls will pause and the camera will cut away to cerimoniously show every single doorway become sealed off with a magical gate and show groups of enemies spawn from the floor. The idea is to marry the two events: Enemies appear and doors are blocked, so make enemies go away and gates will open. Is this really necessary? Hell no.
I don't at all appreciate my controls being frozen, and my camera is perfectly fine where it is, thank you. I have eyes, ears, and a brain of my own. I can hear the gates appear. And chances are good I can see them appear, too. Even if I don't see them appear, I'll see them soon enough. I can rationalize for myself. Can't get out? Guess I'll fight this dude swinging away at me.
You arguably don't even need to understand that you need to fight to escape; you'll fight anyway because you don't have a choice, and you will escape regardless. Considered seperately, showing enemies spawn is wholly unnecessary. Again, chances are really good I'll see it naturally since it happens three feet away from me every time.
Reading the above paragraph is strange because the arguments sound so ridiculous. These things seem so obvious that the fact these short cut-scenes exist at all is astounding.
Journey is the worst offender of all. I love Journey. It's one the best games I've ever played. But this whole cut-scene thing is absurd.
For a development team that goes to great lengths, frequently, to tout the importance of flow in video games, they sure contradict themselves with their own design. Flower's brief cut-scenes were bad enough, and I really thought that they would have learned a lesson for Journey, but I guess not.
Every time you activate a strip of ribbon and cause a game event, the camera flies away to show the result. This event may be nearby or far away. The game is trying to show you what you just did and tie effect to action. It'd be as if every time you landed a magic doorway in Portal, the camera panned forward to fill the screen with your newly made hole, signaling, "Good job! You made a portal! Here it is!"
But Journey is a simple game, mechanically. There's only so much going on, and there aren't too many ribbons hanging around, either. So I'd like to argue that you will figure it out for yourself. And I think that would be the only excuse for using these cut-scenes: if you frequently simply could not figure out what happened or what to do. Then, maybe the developer has no alternative or least any that I've considered.
But otherwise, the short cut-scenes are completely counter to the concept of flow. Techncially, the controls are never forzen in Journey. You can still move and jump as the camera whips around, but you can rarely see yourself, so the point is moot. You're having a good time, surfing down dunes and gliding over ruins when the camera unjustifiably abandons you and robs you of the immersion you'd been enjoying until that moment. It's just so hypocritical, and it's easily the greatest flaw of the entire game.
Short cut-scenes are an archaic feature. They've out-lived their welcome, and it's time for them to go.
[Image credit: Gamespot]