Apparently, you're not supposed to complain about the length of the cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4. If you're the game's Associate Producer Ryan Payton, you're not even supposed to acknowledge that they are long.
I already talked about some of the problems with these scenes on a dramatic level. In that post, I brushed aside the question of length, but it's something I want to get back to because I'm getting the impression that it's something people would rather we not discuss -- and I don't just mean Konami's PR department.
Cutscenes are integral to the game's identity. I get that. To remove them would be to make it something else, something not Metal Gear. That still doesn't make them off-limits for criticism. Kojima and company included long, non-interactive narrative sections as a major focus of their game, so logically those sequences should also be well represented in any critical discussion. The question is: Would MGS4 be better if the cutscenes were shorter?
I say yes.
Here's why: At their core, what these cutscenes do is take control from the player. They do so in a couple of ways. First, and most obviously, they simply show events unfolding without any player input. In MGS4, there are several moments during cinemas in which the player can hit a button to view brief, hallucinatory flashbacks, but while that's a cool feature it's really not the same as feeling like you're directing the scene. So these scenes take away one of the most fundamental characteristics of the medium. Whether they add enough in return to make up for that is open to debate.
On another level -- and this has always been one of my biggest pet peeves about games -- they don't let the player control something as basic as starting and stopping according to his whims. When you load up Metal Gear Solid 4, you need to do so with the expectation that you don't know when you'll be stopping. You need to accept that Hideo Kojima will make that decision for you. I do not consider this a virtue, although I'd be happy to hear arguments to the contrary.
Here's an example of when the cutscene length starts to seem silly. I had about an hour to squeeze in some playing time last night, and since I had last saved at the end of some long cinematics, I was eager to get in a little bit of sneaking before dinner. I turned the PlayStation 3 on at 5 o'clock. At 5:50, I saved and turned it off, having not touched the controller once. There wasn't one instance of gameplay that whole time. While some of the scenes I had watched had been entertaining, at about the 20-minute mark I began to feel irritated that I wasn't doing anything, and by the time I was done "playing" I was just this side of pissed off. My only other option would have been to skip the movies entirely, but then I wouldn't have known why I was doing anything. Some choice.
Some games do clever things with the notion of eliminating player control, BioShock and The Darkness being two recent examples. Although Metal Gear Solid 4 is often inventive during gameplay, it fails to break conceptual ground with its cinematics. They're awfully traditional. They're just amped up, loud, and long. The player's actions are the bridge that connects cutscenes, instead of the other way around. This seems misguided to me.
I am trying to remember if the cutscenes bothered me so much in past MGS games. They certainly didn't in the first one, although I remember one afternoon when a particular scene resulted in my being 20 minutes late to work. When I think about that game, though, what I remember are the mindblowing in-game moments: The first fight against an invisible Gray Fox, rappelling down the communications tower under helicopter fire, battling Sniper Wolf across a snowy field.
3/5 of the way in, I don't feel that MGS4 is creating the same kinds of memories for me. That's why, although I'm certainly enjoying the game, I keep writing these long, negative posts about it. There is still a ways to go, though. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.