Let’s be honest: Video game cutscenes—those moments when control is taken from the user so that story information can be conveyed through a cinema-style sequence—almost always disappoint. Dialogue is often stilted and the voice acting is subpar; character expressions are muted at best and immobile at worst, sticking them firmly in the “uncanny valley” of computer animation, where their almost real appearance makes them instead seem unreal, even revolting; and the blocking and framing is often amateurish. Cutscenes make the pacing of a game uneven, and, above all, they serve as moments of the game that we don’t get to play.
I’ll allow that there are some games with good cutscenes (certainly not included among these are the Assassin’s Creed games, for example), but on the whole, cutscenes exist mostly as skeuomorphs, incorporations of a previous technology that help users understand a new one. Because, by the second decade of the 21st century, we’re used to having narrative delivered to us in cinematic form, as a series of shots edited together, video games include cinematic scenes in order to help us absorb relevant story information. Cutscenes tend to be bad, in part, because their function is primarily to deliver information otherwise missing from the game, in the most efficient way possible. Emotional content or new experiences are rarely added successfully, which, in my mind, is one important function of a scene in an actual film, and the reason film and television were the dominant art forms of the 20th century.
Some might (and have) argued that this reliance on older forms is a crutch on which video games rely too often, and to their detriment. In what follows, I’m going to play the part of the old fogey uncomfortable with the changing media landscape, and complain about what video game cutscenes are doing, in turn, to films. My primary object of scorn will be the recent film Man of Steel. The revenue of the video game industry as a whole has been out-earning domestic Hollywood box office receipts for over 20 years now, and Hollywood is still looking for ways to make films successful in the age of video games. Warner Brothers seems to have found one viable strategy in the success of Christopher Nolan, who has directed some of their biggest hits in the last few years.
Whatever you think of the work of Nolan, who co-wrote (with David S. Goyer) and produced Man of Steel and was responsible (also in collaboration with Goyer) for last year’s The Dark Knight Rises, I think it’s fair to say that he cares more about puzzles than he does about people. In all the debates about the ending of Inception (2010), rarely have I heard anyone discuss what the ambivalent ending signifies in terms of character. Instead, the debate focuses on the decision between two possible facts: Leonardo Dicaprio’s character is dreaming, or he isn’t dreaming. The whole debate is not about the story as such, but about the film as a puzzle: In what way has Nolan put the film together in order for us to dissect it? The scenes in the film thus become a set of information from which we are to decode a final message, rather than dramatic set pieces that explore the space and meanings of a multilayered story.
With both The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel, although they are not strictly “puzzle” films like Inception or Memento (2001), I got the same feeling: The scenes serve as summaries of information. Compelling interactions between characters, the non-expository speeches, the dramatic or comedic beats that ultimately mean the most in terms of our emotional experience, are basically non-existent. (An observation not made often enough about Nolan: He is truly awful at comedy.) I was never invested in any of the characters present because Nolan, Goyer and director Zack Snyder never gave me the chance to be, as each line of dialogue is simply a character expressing a discrete set of bits of information, which leads, in a machine-like logic, to the next scene.
I don’t mean to argue, and far be it from me to say, that this is an illegitimate approach to filmmaking—in fact I rather like Memento and even Inception, with all their pretensions and latent sexism. And clearly, it´s a successful approach. But in a film series that has aspirations of conveying the complex emotional life of a man who seeks to assuage the pain of the loss of his parents through vigilantism (Nolan’s Batman films), or in a film about the one-man diaspora of an exterminated alien race (Man of Steel), it is not unreasonable to expect some actual emotional experience. Instead, however, watching these films I feel I’m watching a series of cutscenes, occasionally complete with bad voice-acting (let’s be honest: Batman´s voice in the last two films was stupid). Nolan’s films have the logic of games, which is just as incompatible with their subject material as the cutscenes in the Assassin Creed series, which must take things out of your control every five minutes.