We remember the worst examples
Every time someone starts in on another rant about how terrible cutscenes are in video games, I think of two games. I think of Half-Life 2, and I think of Final Fantasy VI.
When I played Final Fantasy VI, it was early in my career of playing console RPGs, and I would be lying if I claimed it didn’t have a profound effect upon me as a person. Sure, the cutscenes contained therein were not the elaborate CGI sequences that would come in later games, but for the first time in my life I found myself feeling affection for the characters on the screen in ways I hadn’t thought possible. I remember feeling Celes’ pain in a musical sequence speaking of a love that she hadn’t ever experienced, Terra’s fear at being nothing more than a weapon, the slow pan into the town of Narshe for the first time.
I also remember Half-Life 2‘s complete lack of cutscenes, and how they made the game feel at once less interactive and less narratively linked. Sure, I could move Gordon around during the not-technically-cutscenes, but I couldn’t interact with anything. I couldn’t affect change. I was talked at, not to, and in response I was a mute. And it strikes me, not for the first time, that when we talk about these things we’re only really internalizing the worst parts, not the whole thing.
There are, to be fair, games that make horrible use of cutscenes. There are games that have extensive cutscenes that should not, in fact, have any, because the story is not a very good narrative and it’s only made worse by throwing characters into incongruous situations in which you just watch a movie. Not much more needs to be said about the Metal Gear series overindulging in this, but it’s hardly the only offender; Remember Me has several cutscenes that run too long with too little information, characters randomly changing sides for no apparent reason, and a few novel concepts buried beneath a profoundly unambitious narrative thread.
But then there are games that make marvelous use of cutscenes. Tomb Raider uses them to rob Lara of agency in places, yes, but they heighten the stakes, let you see and feel as Lara pulls herself upward with sheer willpower. DmC has its narrative issues, sure, but seeing Dante fearfully urging Kat into the position that will hurt her least as the police rush in is a perfect use of the cinematic techniques.
And there are games that tell gripping stories without them, too. Bastion and Transistor both have a handful of actual movies in them, but both of them largely have their story told by a narrator chattering on as you play and explore. I can speak for hours about what Half-Life 2 does wrong by not using them, but its predecessor largely eschewed them as well to positive effect. Portal and Portal 2 don’t use any cutscenes, and they work quite well from a narrative standpoint.
What we remember are the times when this stuff doesn’t work, not the times when it works. Because by definition, the times when these narrative devices work are times when they fade nicely into the background. They become invisible.
It’s hardly limited to narrative features, either. It’s easy to point out the FPS games where regenerating health makes every firefight into a joke and blame that mechanic instead of the way that fights are designed (several fights through the Mass Effect series and Saints Row the Third are quite tense even though you have a regenerating health meter, at least in part). Games like Wings of Vi make it clear that it’s very possible to do brutally precise and difficult platforming without being unfair, cruel, or arbitrary. There are very few mechanics that are universally bad, but there are ones that are almost universally ill-used.
The result is that we tend to associate mechanics with use of those mechanics, which would be a bit like hating hammers because your least favorite bit of furniture was made with nails. Sure, that might have some influence on why the furniture was so bad, but it wasn’t the nail’s fault so much as poor use of tools.
And, unfortunately, the inverse is just as true. We’ll praise games for their stellar communities, disregarding the fact that the community is not a feature that the game itself is necessarily indicative of. Sure, you can make games more or less useful in growing that community, but the addition of more social features wouldn’t make League of Legends‘ playerbase any less toxic. Games are going to attract certain sorts of community, but they’re not a feature of the game, just of what grows up around it.
It leads to this odd sort of viewing of games not as complete pieces of art, but as a sort of amalgam, pieces stuck together in the right configuration that gets judged more on shape than on overall capability. Sure, I can build you something that’s shaped like a duck out of Legos, but it’s not going to be a duck, it’s just going to have roughly the right shape. It’s what has led to countless games being technically solid and functional but lacking the spark that made them resonate in the first place. Every sequel to Call of Duty puts all of the pieces in the right order, but it loses the meaning of what made the original resonant – if, indeed, there was ever a meaning.
When we critique mechanics, we remember the parts that don’t work with more clarity than the remember the times that they did, because when things work fine you don’t see these mechanical bits as distinct entities so much as parts of a whole. And that means we’re forever railing against a terrible mechanic because it was terrible in one game, never asking if that was the fault of the mechanic itself or just a result of using a nail where a screw would serve better.