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RPGs, Cutscenes, and their Roles in Modern Games

Edward L. Wittlif

Consider a sculptor. His marble statue is coming along very well, but he can’t seem to get the face quite right in three dimensions. He gives up and tapes a sketch of a face to the head of the statue.

Here we have a perfect parallel for pre-rendered cutscenes in gaming. If we can buy into the metaphor of movies as two-dimensional art and games as three-dimensional art, then it makes perfect sense. What separates video games from movies as a medium of expression is interaction, adding a sort of “third dimension” to the experience. However, game designers have scenes that they want to express and can’t find a good way of incorporating as gameplay, so they raise the white flag and insert a handy bit of film technique.

I don’t mean to suggest that cutscenes are in and of themselves bad things. When used as a visual reward or for a scene that can’t be translated into gameplay, cutscenes are great tools for video game design.

But as more and more possibilities for gameplay open up, and as the line between in-game graphics and pre-rendered graphics continues to blur, the value of the cutscene is fading. In fact, I would go as far as to say that soon, video game cutscenes for the sake of narrative will leave games entirely. We can find examples of games with very few cutscenes even today, such as Half-Life. And even games like Metal Gear Solid 3 feature cutscenes with interactive elements.

RPGs are well known for their reliance on cutscenes for the sake of narrative, and many people only play RPGs to experience the story of the game through cutscenes. Ask a casual gamer about why he plays a certain RPG, and he’ll almost certainly tell you that it has great graphics and cutscenes in its story. So if cutscenes really do become less important to the narrative and world of a game, the question that the RPGamer will ask, then, is, where will this leave RPGs?

This question is only valid if you buy into the misconception that RPGs are only valid for their cutscenes, graphics,and plots. We can trace this misconception back to some of the more mainstream RPGs – I’ll use the example of Final Fantasy here. The Final Fantasy series has plots that, while sometimes clichéd, are still comparatively better than many of the plotsof games on the market. People often learn by association, so when they associate Final Fantasy to Plot and Cutscenes, and they associate RPGs to Final Fantasy, this misconception gets repeatedly reinforced in the minds of gamers.

But what sets the gameplay of an RPG apart from a standard game is actually character development! Control over character development in RPGs is what makes the games stand out for lovers of gameplay. Consider the Nippon Ichi tactical games, which featured outstanding character development. (And even item development in the case of Phantom Brave)

If the future of gaming is a future where the gameplay takes center-stage, then we may even see a blur of RPGs and other genres. Even now it’s becoming a trend – how often have you heard the patronizing term “RPG elements?” Maybe RPGs will be fully expressed or blended in innovative ways this editorialist can’t even predict yet.

But in the end, when we wonder about the future of RPGs as one facet of an emerging form of art and expression, we can safely say that as long as people want to develop their own characters and control the gameplay themselves, RPGs will flourish, even if their supposedly “necessary” cutscenes fall by the wayside.

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