Modern video games get a lot of flak for their cinematics. Even hardcore gamers have to admit that cutscenes are rife with problems: The plot and dialogue are often cheesy, facial animations tend to give off that creepy "uncanny valley" feel, and half the time the player just hammers the "skip" button to get back to shooting at bad guys. Some people, inside and outside the world of gaming, have simply given up on the idea that a game can achieve the same level of drama that a movie can. But it's not time to do that yet. Here's why.
The idea of telling a story through cinematics in a video game is decades old. Even Nintendo's first huge arcade hit, Donkey Kong, had a vague outline of a plot, complete with brief cutscenes. The big gorilla steals Mario's girlfriend, Mario tries to get her back. Today, with longer cutscenes and better technology, developers have the tools they need to tell deep, gripping tales.
Some game developers, at least, are taking their responsibility to tell a good story seriously. In the current generation, there have been some real successes in this area—games that use voice acting and cutscenes to advance the plot, not just to kill time before you start the next mission. Think Grand Theft Auto IV and its spinoffs, Alan Wake, BioShock, or Heavy Rain.
You might reply that these games are the exception rather than the rule. That's a bad argument for two reasons.
One, it's true of every medium. There are more bad movies than good ones, more bad TV shows than good ones, etc. It would be absurd to expect every video game to have the same quality as Citizen Kane. And remember that with a game, the creators have a lot more to worry about; in addition to acting and plot, they have to refine the gameplay experience.
Two, cutscenes have been improving with each passing year, so we can expect a lot more great stories in the future. One important development has been that studios are taking voice acting more seriously, and in some cases they even hire big-name talent to voice key characters. As this aspect of the industry matures, terrible acting will become less and less frequent.
Technology is another factor that has been improving; someday soon, game scenes might be indistinguishable from movie clips. L.A. Noire was a major development on this front; the developers filmed performances by real actors and used the data to create stunningly realistic facial animations. (Rockstar also hired real talent for the project, including several actors from the hit TV series Mad Men.)
All of this isn't to say that there are no hurdles left. One major problem is that massive RPGs tend to have a lot of dialogue, which makes it exceedingly difficult for the voice actors and animators to polish every single second of every performance. Take the Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series, for example. Like CCC editor Josh Wirtanen, I only recently got around to playing Oblivion, the Elder Scrolls' fourth entry from 2006. I was taken aback by how many characters were obviously voiced by the same actors, how many performances were clearly just rattled off without any "acting" at all, and how the animators made no pretense of making the lip movements match the sound clips. The kicker? These issues aren't a whole lot better in Fallout: New Vegas, a far more recent game in the same vein. (It's a follow-up to Bethesda's Fallout 3, using the same engine as Oblivion, though by a different developer).
Will the next crop of epic RPGs—including Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim—be better? On the one hand, new engines and better animations might make facial movements smoother. On the other hand, nothing but money, patience, and talent can create countless hours of perfectly executed dialogue. I doubt that any studio would find it to be worth the investment. As much as you may wince at bad acting, wouldn't you rather they spent that money making gameplay tweaks and developing more quest lines?
Perhaps that's the bottom line: Game cutscenes have been so slow to improve because we, the gamers, care about other things more. In a movie or TV show, the plot and acting are the main attraction, but in a game, the biggest question is how fun it is to play. At long last, however, those of us who want the best of both worlds just might finally get it.
By Robert VerBruggen
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*