Oughtta Stay Out of Pictures

Why video games shouldn’t be like the movies.

… but first, a message from our plotline

Critics have called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas a blood-soaked crime simulator that valorizes the worst gangsta stereotypes. What they haven’t noticed, though, is that everyone’s favorite shoot-’em-up is also a family drama. Early on in the game, my character discovers his brother and sister fighting over her decision to date a South Side Hispanic man. I don’t need this racism, she says, from “a no-good, narrow-minded, hypocrite gangbanger.”

These minimovies, called “cut-scenes,” are part of a longtime trend in gaming to create more nuanced characters and more story-based play. Whether a cut scene explains your next mission or just sets a mood, the basic idea is to make a game seem cinematic—more like Citizen Kane than Pac-Man. For many designers, crafting bravura cut scenes has become the best way to transform a mere game into a genre-smashing event. When Halo 2shipped, for example, the game’s creators bragged that they had created nearly a feature film’s worth of scripted scenes.

These Hollywood flourishes are good for dazzling mainstream journalists and pundits. That’s because there’s still a weird anxiety about adults playing games. Most people still think that video games are sophomoric kid stuff; the ones that have a narrative and emulate the movies seem more serious and, well, mature. In fact, I think the truth is almost the opposite. The more video games become like movies, the worse they are as games.

Playing a game, any kind of game, is inherently open-ended and interactive. Whether you’re playing chess, Go, or Super Mario Bros.,you don’t really know how things will wind up or what will happen along the way. Narrative, on the other hand, is neither open-ended nor interactive. When you’re watching a story, you surrender masochistically to the storyteller. The fun is in not having control, in sitting still and going “Yeah? And then what happened? And then?”

That’s why cut scenes are such a massive pain in the neck—they enforce passivity. There’s nothing more annoying than going on a shooting spree, then having to break the rhythm of play by putting your game pad down for minutes at a time. Before my character embarks on a home invasion in GTA: San Andreas, a quick cut scene shows the layout of the house. As I’m sitting there, waiting to start mashing buttons again, I can’t help but think that this is kind of lazy design. Isn’t there a better way to do this inside the game itself? Why ask the player to stop playing?

There are rare instances where cut scenes are truly wonderful: Final Fantasy Xand last year’s Ninja Gaideninclude several tiny masterpieces of kung-fu melodrama (you can see them online here). And for all my bitching, I’ll admit that some cut-scenes in GTA: San Andreashave dialogue funnier than Tarantino. But the fact remains that storytelling halts game play, and thus removes the central thing that makes games gamelike.

Today’s games are strongest not when they’re slavishly emulating cinema, but when they borrow from disciplines like urban design and architecture. Few of my friends got particularly jazzed about the story in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. But everyone raves about the open-ended environment—the hundreds of buildings you can enter, the dozens of souped-up cars you can jack, the fact that you can ignore the missions and just perform sick BMX stunts for a few hours. As a story, GTA is no Boyz n the Hood. But as a theme park? It’s better than Disneyland.

Haloand Halo 2succeeded for the same reason. Both games had forgettable storylines—pure alien-invasion boilerplate—that were redeemed by the game’s superrealistic physics. Long after I finished the game, I used Halo 2 as a playpen for physics experiments, tossing grenades beneath vehicles or bodies to see how high I could blow them in the air. (Some players took that to an amusing extreme.) That same mojo has fueled the enduring appeal of The Sims. No purple-prose narrative there—just an open-ended game so terrific that 25 million people wanted to explore it.

In my more cynical moments, I think this whole pursuit of narrative is the industry’s sneaky way of forcing gamers to buy more products. When a game has a story that “ends” after 40 hours of play, you have to throw it away—and go spend another $50 on the next title. That’s movie-industry logic, not game logic. Chess doesn’t “end.” Neither do hockey, bridge, football, Go, playing with dolls, or even Tetris. Worse, by selling “narratives,” game publishers can cover up the fact that they rarely create truly new forms of play. In any given year, I’ll play a dozen first-person shooters with different stories—Save the world from Martian devils! Penetrate an island full of genetic freaks!— that are all, at heart, exactly the same game.

Only a few designers are talented enough to create new, durable forms of game play. But every once in a while, someone proves that it’s possible. One recent example is Katamari Damacy, a daffy little Japanese import in which you roll a sticky ball around and “pick up” objects that you encounter. Like a snowball, it gets bigger and bigger—while you start off picking up tiny objects on a desk, pretty soon you’re rolling across cities and picking up street signs and people. The first time I started up Katamari Damacy, I played for hours, racing against the clock and making sure my ball didn’t get too uneven when it rolled over cars. There are no nuanced characters, no reams of dialogue, no bloated plotline—just one simple premise and an insane amount of fun.