Tuesday, June 24, 2008

But the thing is, the cutscenes are really long

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.


Korey said...

I haven't played MGS4, but my first thought when I heard about the lengthy cutscenes was exactly like the situation you described. I find that my gaming time is often interrupted. I don't want to be trapped in 30 minutes to and hour of cutscenes, and have to pause to do something else. Similarly, I can't stand having to pause in the middle of a movie. But I haven't played the game, this is just how I expect I would feel.

Anonymous said...

As I've said before, I've always enjoyed watching the stories from the old MGS's, but I see your point. I'm sure you didn't spend sixty-something dollars to watch a string of movies. I would get a PS3 and try it out, but I'm trying to save up and all the game stores around me no longer have the 80gig PS3 in stock anyway.

Anonymous said...

Well if you are 3/5 of the way through the game then I'd try and get comfortable as there is a much greater density coming up.

While I am a tremendous fan of this series and find the cut scenes for the most part to be a blessing, I can understand your frustration. The idea that Kojima needs an editor is definetly true and MGS4, more so than the other games highlights this problem.

Still the ratio provides for interesting conversation. I hope that in subsequent future release that the younger staff can focus on a more progressive way to narrate the story.

Mitch Krpata said...

Daniel, your warning came too late! By the time I finished the game, my overriding feeling was one of frustration. I felt like I didn't play at all in those last couple of acts, and I was really disappointed in most of the boss battles (only the Mantis fight seemed to show a flash of the ingenuity Kojima has been known for).

The fourth act in particular should have been a lot more fun than it was. The high point of the whole game, in fact, was probably the dream sequence right at the beginning of it.

Michael Abbott said...

I've followed your MGS4 posts with great interest, partly because I'm genuinely interested in your take on the game, and partly because I'm struggling so to formulate my own.

I've never played a game that tugged at me in so many directions. I can't say I disagree with any of your issues with the game...and yet, I'm still drawn to the experience of playing it, and I admire its ambitions (including the failed ones).

I so very badly want the writing to be better than it is. The sermonizing really is way too much. And yet, there are times I've felt genuinely moved. At other times, such as the lame effort to depict "romance" between Naomi and Otacon, the results are laughable.

Aaahhhh!!! Soon this will be over and I'll be glad...and just a tiny bit sad too probably.