While I’m notorious for nit-picking game stories to a seemingly obsessive degree, I’ll be the first person to admit that not every game needs to have a story. And not all stories need to make sense. But I am a big believer in the idea that if you’re going to try to cram a movie into your videogame then you should be prepared to have it judged as both a movie and a game. If you’re going to make me stop playing to watch your movie, then the interruption should be entertaining and worth my time.
And sometimes this works out. The Last of Us is a fairly pedestrian game with an extraordinary movie wrapped around it. But not all “cinematic” games nail the “cinema” part so well. It’s bad enough when your fun videogame keeps getting interrupted with something not worth watching, but the real crime is when the developer starts harming the gameplay in service of the movie.
Don’t mistake this column for a “Top Worst Game Stories” list. I didn’t pick these games because they were the worst. I picked them because they show off a bunch of really annoying mistakes that developers keep making again and again.
And before you rage out at me in the comments: No, the modern military shooters didn’t make the list. I realize they’re trying really hard to embrace the aesthetic of Michael Bay cinema, but that’s pretty much why those games exist. It’s not like they were once mechanically deep and complex games that were stripped to make room for a movie. They’re linear content-munching shooters and they always have been. Love them or hate them, the games pretty much succeed at what they’re trying to do. And no, Hideo Kojima’s works aren’t on this list, either. I’m not interested in the whole “his work is crap / no you just don’t understand the satire” debate, since that argument would overshadow the point I’m trying to make here.
So let’s talk about some games that were harmed by their cinematic aspirations…
About a year ago I explained how this game was harmed by putting so much time and money into the story. The old Thief games were very much focused on the mechanics, and the storytelling was brief and minimalist. The story was there for context and flavor, not to build some action-packed blockbuster for players to watch. But in the 2014 reboot the flavor of the world had become the focus, and the gameplay suffered for it.
How this hurt the gameplay: Far too much of the plot happened in cutscenes instead of allowing the player to do things. Instead of stealing a thing, I get to the end of a maze of guards and watch the main character steal the thing in a cutscene. (Or just as often: fail to do so.) Yes, it sucks that the cutscenes were dumb nonsense, but even if they had been brilliant it wouldn’t have changed the fact that the writer was the one having fun, and not the player.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Square Enix makes the list a second time. I really liked Human Revolution. A lot of people faulted the game for the horrible boss fights. But even if those fights had been balanced, fun, and supportive of different playstyles, they were still there in service of cutscenes that were tonally wrong and logically incoherent. Note the panic room scene, which is just as stupid and frustrating as the lead-in to the boss fights. When Human Revolution stopped being a game and tried to be a movie, it fell apart.
How this hurt the gameplay: Obviously the boss fights were a major problem, and probably the biggest issue with the game. Beyond that, there’s the annoying thing where the game seemed to take control away from the player just so that the protagonist could do something really, really stupid. Getting ambushed by clever foes is fun. Getting ambushed by dumb people because my character is even dumber is less so. The cutscenes weren’t just boring, they were frustrating and often directly negated or opposed the player’s decisions and playstyle. In another game you could argue, “Bah, just skip the cutscenes.” But in a game about choice and consequence, negating player decisions in a cutscene is shockingly out of place.
Grand Theft Auto IV
This has been a long-standing problem with the series. It began as a very arcade-y style sandbox of chaos and mayhem. But with each installment the story became more “cinematic” and the gameplay became more grim and maudlin.
They dialed the grimdark angst back for GTA V. It still probably takes itself too seriously most of the time, but it does remember how to have fun once in a while.
How this hurt the gameplay: In the old games, the player was given a winking acknowledgement that while the story was there, the game pretty much expected them to explore and cause mayhem on their own. Outside of missions, death was completely painless because the fun was all about pushing your wanted level up and seeing how far you could go and how much insane destruction you would cause. In GTA IV, this is no longer the case. The weapons are more realistic, the combat pacing is slower, the graphics are grittier, the chaos is tamer, and the punishment for death hurts a little more. Compare this to San Andreas or Vice City, where you could swing by your safehouse and re-arm yourself right away. In GTA IV, you have to buy each weapon one at a time. And due to the gritty realism, it feels less like fun, manic combat and more like nihilistic mass murder. The game has stopped winking at you and begun scowling. Stop screwing around and get back to playing through this movie we designed for you.
Metroid: Other M
I haven’t played this one, but I know I’d catch hell if I left it out of this particular list. Judging strictly on what I’ve read and seen of the game, Other M might be the poster child for the problem of the “movie” part of a game destroying the “game” part of a game. But since I’ve never played it, I’ll leave the scourging to people who are more qualified.
And so Square Enix makes the list for the third time. For the sake of people who follow my blog and video series, I don’t want to hammer on this game too much in this space. Many of you have heard this before. But for those who just know me through this column I’ll give you the short version: The story of Hitman: Absolution is shockingly childish and awful. It’s not bad in a fun, playful, self-aware kind of way like a B-movie, but in a boorishly sophomoric and incoherent way.
How this hurt the gameplay: Assuming you play the game “as intended” and don’t just gun everyone down, the Hitman games are about observing your target, solving puzzles, acquiring disguises, and orchestrating events to assassinate your target without raising any alarm or drawing any suspicion. The big reward is when you finally master the environment and pull off the perfect crime.
In Absolution, most of the targets are “dealt with” in cutscenes, thus robbing the player of involvement in the very core mechanics for which the series is known. Imagine a Dark Souls game where you defeat the boss in a cutscene. Hitman took the one thing that made it special and got rid of it to make room for a horrible movie that nobody wanted or asked for.
I get it. Movies are cool. Fancy cinematics make for strong trailers. Famous voice actors sell games, and if you’re going to hire someone famous then you sort of feel obligated to make their appearance “worth it” by making the cutscenes big and important. I’m not saying you should never make in-game cinematics. But those cinematics should be able to stand on their own merits, and they should never trump gameplay.