Have Games Become Too Cinematic? | Narrative Vs. Game Design


YouTuber and friend of Source Gaming, BriHard (Twitter) has debuted his newest discussion video. This time he tackles games increasingly reliance on cutscenes and prescripted moments.

What do you think? Is it a problem? Do cutscenes and prescripted moments in games make games more enjoyable?


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  1. “Cinema Vs. Game Design.”

    This perspective is not helpful.

    Narrative and gameplay are not at odds with one another. They are used best when they are made to coexist, acting as different but intertwined and symbiotic elements of a game’s design. Some may focus more heavily on gameplay, others more heavily on narrative. The two serve to aid each other, and each benefits greatly from having the other to support and bolster it. A good game narrative does not separate itself from gameplay; instead, a good narrative takes advantage of the medium to deliver experiences that cinema can never offer.

    BriHard, near the beginning of the video, says that some amount of narrative is necessary to drive the player’s motivation. While I do not agree that it is needed for every game – I can in fact play a game of Mario with no story and still enjoy myself, as evidenced by both Mario Maker and the original game’s lack of a story outside of the instruction book – I do agree with the basic sentiment that a simple plot can give the player reasons to do what the game asks them to, and add something to the game. The same exact concept applies to more complex narratives as well.

    For example, say that you are playing a narrative-heavy action game, with fairly enjoyable gameplay and well-crafted story beats. In cutscenes and other, more interactive segments, your character – and by extension you, the player – bond with the other characters in the game, perhaps your party members. Each of them is portrayed as having a unique personality, with qualities, flaws, and everything that makes a good character work in other media. By the game’s halfway point, you know these characters almost on a personal level, just like any character in a film or novel. You make choices that subtly affect how they behave in the future, leaving as much of a personal impact on them as they have on you.

    Your character is awoken by a noise in the middle of the night. You stumble out of bed and grab your weapon, with the controls acting a bit sluggish to mirror how your character is half-asleep. Your character calls out, “is everything alright?” with concern, but no answer. Upon reaching the next room over, where one of your party members is sleeping, you see a demonic, towering figure. And beside him, she is still in bed, a mix of blood and tears dripping onto the floor below. Your character’s control is suddenly hyper-responsive, a burst of adrenaline mixed with anger which makes every movement and attack extremely energetic and powerful but uncontrollable, causing self-damage as you flail around and collide with furniture and walls. You lash out at the villain, but your character’s uncontrolled anger is easily countered. You manage to take a few hitpoints off of him, but he decides that you are not worth his time and leaves – he has what he came for. You try to give chase, but there is no hope. He is gone. You run back to the side of the mortally-wounded party member. In her dying breath, she says, “I’m sorry.”

    This segment is enhanced greatly by the interactivity *and* the narrative. In a film, you would simply be watching this. It would be moving, yes, but in a game, we can make it all the more impactful by developing a deep, personal connection between the character and the player.

    The narrative benefits the gameplay by:
    – Having a reason for some variety in controls, which could offer some difference in kind or a unique challenge.
    – Giving some levity and entertainment to tense battles via mid-battle dialogue.
    – Adding all the more reason to want to kick that villain in the rear end later in the game. This is similar to how BriHard mentioned making a boss unbeatable to make the player want to show superiority, but driven by deeper emotions than the urge to one-up someone.
    – Cohesively tying together gameplay segments – not only with cutscenes after each mission, but also with things such as dialogue in the middle of a battle, or even elements of the gameplay itself. For example, say that there is a stage set on the roofs of buildings, with an emphasis on jumping from roof to roof and taking out goons along the way, in the hopes of reaching a particular goal at point B. Upon reaching point B and retrieving the item, you return to home base. Mission accomplished, S Rank, all of that. However, to your horror, the next day’s news broadcast shows the smoked ruins of those very buildings. The place has been bombed in an attempt by the antagonist to destroy you, resulting in the death of thousands of innocent civilians. Was that plot-important item really worth the risk – now reality – of all of those deaths? You are not just wondering whether or not a character did something – that character is you. YOU did that. YOUR actions resulted in the death of thousands. And YOU must now personally wrestle with the question of whether or not your actions were justified. Oh, and to get back on the topic of this bullet point, later in the game you could come back to this area in another mission, navigating the destroyed rooftops for more tricky platforming challenges and the like.


    The gameplay benefits the narrative by:
    – Making the impact of the scene that much deeper by developing a uniquely personal connection between the player and the characters.
    – Having the game’s mechanics reflect the story, showing more clearly what the character is thinking and doing. The confusion and unsettlingness of stumbling out of bed after being awoken, for example, is strengthened by equally offputting controls.
    – Giving the player a more active involvement in the story, allowing for not only the ability to influence story arcs or characters’ personalities through choices, but also a more active and less passive experience and thus more engagement with the narrative.

    As shown here, gameplay and narrative, when well-crafted, benefit each other and can make a game equal more than the sum of its parts. Narrative provides context for the gameplay, gameplay adds to the impact of the narrative. This is the merit in adding cinema-like elements into games. These elements allow us to tell the stories that we could not otherwise tell; deeply personal, interactive, and player-led ones.

    Another point brought up in the video is replay value. While narrative can be effective on the first run through a game, BriHard argues, it can be frustrating to have to wait through long story segments on repeat playthroughs. And yes, this can often prove true in games which have a heavy narrative focus but do not take full advantage of the medium, i.e. by having a lot of cutscenes. However, if the game has a heavy focus on gameplay and wants its players to be brought back for replays, this can easily be fixed by including skippable story segments. Moreover, games do not necessarily have to be replayable. Granted, triple-A titles are more costly than a film would be, meaning that some additional value should be present. This is accomplished by having gameplay which compliments the narrative – not only by enhancing story beats as described above, but also by making the game worth its price tag and adding more hours of enjoyment to the game. If a game must cost $60 to deliver a unique, interactive narrative, then gameplay is necessary to carry the extra weight of that price tag and make it worth the investment. For some games, this does indeed come in the form of replay value. However, for other games, it comes in the form of a single, lengthy, immersive, captivating, engaging, gameplay-enhanced narrative.

    Finally, I would like to briefly touch on the idea of narrative created by the player. The player, in nearly any game, has the ability to decide the actions of the main character. This is especially true in sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, where you can decide to do practically anything at any time, as well as games with dialogue choices, where the main character can either be polite and respectful, or a trash-talking, interrupting jerk. However, even in linear games, the player can project his own personality onto the character. In Super Mario Bros., depending on the player’s actions, Mario can either be a careful, methodical strategist who plans everything out and executes on that plan without flaw – waiting for firebars in Bowser’s Castle to move to the right spot, running underneath Bowser when he jumps – or an impatient daredevil who keeps on running and stops for nothing. This unique aspect of games, allowing the player to choose what happens in a story, gives the medium potential to be used not only for telling stories in a unique way, but also to be used as a tool to allow the player to write a tale of their own – better yet, live it out in real-time!

    In summary, narrative and gameplay are symbiotic. They are vastly different, but can be used in combination with one another to deliver a fusion of “pure” games and cinema which can be achieved by neither individually. While games may not always use this to its full potential, that is no reason to dismiss the idea entirely. There are places for purely passive narratives such as cinema, and games with little emphasis on story have lots of merit too. However, it is not justified to dismiss narrative-driven games on the basis that they are different – if you want gameplay-focused titles, there are already loads of them – and it is also not true that there is no merit to combining these two media. Combining cinema and games allows for a uniquely deep, personal relation with the story, added impact to dramatic story beats, and even the ability for the player to create a narrative on-the-fly or influence the direction of a game’s story. “Narrative versus gameplay” is an inaccurate way of putting it. Rather, the path to delivering the best of both worlds and creating entirely new types of experiences, is “narrative plus gameplay.”

  2. Something’s itching me about this. Early in the video, you compare a player playing The Last of Us and Devil May Cry, saying that players would judge the former better on the first playthrough but the latter better on subsequent playthroughs. The issue I have is that not all games have to be designed with replayability, nor do replayable games have to be played more than once. It seems you’ve conflated aspects that work for certain games that you enjoy and applied them to all games, when video games are extremely varied. What works for one game does not have to work for another. Sure, I might not be too willing to replay a long RPG after I’m finished with it the first time, but if I thoroughly enjoyed the game the first time, is it really that bad that I don’t want to play it again? I enjoy all kinds of games for what they are, and I appreciate games with a heavy cinematic experience for the opportunity they take to build and establish characters and the world, at least when it’s done properly. That’s not to say it’s a perfect system, but I don’t think it’s telling of the whole story to pass it off as not being an enjoyable experience.

    Also that thing you said about Telltale games and having to reload the game just to pick a different option? While I will admit that I’m not personally a fan of the Telltale games myself, I do believe that you’re going against the game design. Considering those games have choices which have lasting effects down the line, I don’t think you’re meant to reload every time you want to pick a different option. Had you played the game in one straight run instead, I think you’d find that the game flowed better. I wouldn’t know though, as those games aren’t quite my fancy.

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