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The Sandbox: The Trouble with Cutscenes

The Sandbox: The Trouble with Cutscenes (photo)

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Video games aren’t movies, but they sure can be intent on acting like them, most prominently through the scripted sequences known as cutscenes, those insufferable CG-animated interludes that propel stories forward while you wait… and wait… and wait to resume playing. Cutscenes have been around, in at least some rudimentary form, since the dawn of games, and they’re not all bad — the quick between-level vignettes of the NES’ “Ninja Gaiden,” for example, were so thrilling to me as a kid that just thinking about them elicits a pang of sweet nostalgia. But as graphics have improved and games have tried to elevate themselves to a cultural plane equal to that of film, these intermission sequences have become hair-tearingly inescapable. They’ve become a pox on mainstream gaming, providing style without substance, and forcing the mechanisms of one medium onto another.

This desire to be “cinematic” is, as even gaming fan Steven Spielberg recognizes, a fundamentally misguided one, since what distinguishes video games from films is their interactivity. When a game takes a breather from its primary action to present narrative and character-building intermissions over which a player has no control, it betrays the very nature of games. In other words — I play games to play them, not to watch them.

Nothing sabotages your immersion in a game faster than being denied the ability to have a say, however superficial, over what’s going on. Cutscenes throw in your face the fact that games are authored and constructed — and of course they are, but that’s a truth that’s deliberately masked by their interactive elements. Cutscenes often come at pivotal moments in the story, usually featuring graphics and action jarringly superior to those found in the in-game action, and frequently can’t be skipped. They’re a reminder that all of that gameplay just strings along between these unavoidable milestones in the narrative, undercutting the very I’m-in-charge fantasies all of the role-playing sagas, first-person shooters and survival horror thrillers that use cutscenes aim to create.

08112009_MetalGearSolid4-2.jpgWhen it comes to cutscenes, there are countless culprits in overindulgence, though if there’s a king of the hill, it’s 2008’s “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots,” the latest iteration of a series whose creator, Hideo Kojima, helped usher in the modern age of prolonged cinematics. “MGS4” has hours of cutscenes, all of them beautifully rendered to resemble a high-tech summer blockbuster, complete with dramatic confrontations, large-scale firefights and enough death-defying, superhuman martial arts action to fill out multiple feature-length films.

On a purely technical level, they’re phenomenal. In every other respect, though, they’re abysmal, and help ruin what’s an otherwise superb entry in the long-standing stealth series. “MGS4″‘s cutscenes laughably halt the momentum of its own gaming experience by asking players to put down the controller and passively sit and stare for 20 minutes at a time. Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what games are supposed to do? Because of that, slogging through “MGS4” requires the patience of a saint — or, at least, interest in a title where the action comes in fits and starts, and takes a backseat to its author’s CG-filmmaking aspirations.

“MGS4” is the most egregious example of games’ misbegotten belief that they should imitate films by way of extended pauses in the action. And its narrative-only portions are made worse by some pretentious, overwrought scripting. The game’s story involves super-spy Solid Snake’s efforts to thwart a madman intent on taking over the world by using private military contractors injected with nanomachines, a premise that leads to more speechifying about the nature of war, the burdens of heroism and the dangers of the military industrial complex than can be found in ten award-season message movies.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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