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Why do so Many AAA Games Play Like Movies?

The Last of Us. Uncharted. Metal Gear Solid. Yakuza 0. Horizon Zero Dawn. Universally beloved franchises that have a few things in common. One of those things is the gratuitous amount of cutscenes and gameplay interruptions they force upon the player. Of course, many gamers play these games FOR the cutscenes, which in this case is a synonym for story. Why do so many AAA games rely on their cutscenes, though, whilst delivering only average quality when it comes to their gameplay? After all, the pop-a-mole quick-time-event driven gameplay of the Uncharted series is not exactly the holy grail of innovative player interaction, to name one example.

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Metal Gear Solid 4 holds the record for the longest cut scene in gaming history at over an hour long.

The reason appears to be that in order to be compatible with the taste of mainstream gamers – and I’m desperately trying to avoid the words ‘casual’ and ‘core’ gamers here – a game has to feel like, act like, and play out like a movie. Interestingly enough, games that solely rely on their gameplay loops to entice gamers rarely become pop culture phenomenons or sell multiple millions of copies. Isn’t that a bit sad? A bit schizophrenic, perhaps? Diminishing the value of games as an entertainment medium, even? With so many brilliantly designed games out there, the ones that try their best to hide the fact that they’re games are also often the most successful ones.

There are, of course, a myriad of reasons why gaming history played out this way. For one, cutscene-heavy, light-on-gameplay games are easy to digest. The vast majority of people who spend at least part of their free time gaming are people who couldn’t care less about what they actually consume. They are not people who would frequent a site like ours; they’re not hobbyists; they’re not enthusiasts; they just want to chill on their couch after a hard day of work and not have to worry about the intricacies of modern game design. They are also most familiar with the cinematic experiences rather than interactive ones, as many will have seen bombastic movies much earlier in their life than they would’ve been exposed to video games.

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The Last of Us told a blockbuster-quality story, but was its gameplay really that good?

It is a logical step, then, to prefer cinematic experiences in games too. What could possibly be better than a movie-going experience, but you get to change part of the story yourself? It’s wholesome; it’s thrilling; it’s non-stop action. It doesn’t even matter that much if you’re in control all the time, as long as the player gets the illusion of agency and the story is gripping, all other factors that a game could be judged by become irrelevant.

I’m not going to lie; I wish this aspect of our beautiful gaming world was different. I wish games that focus almost exclusively on their experience as a game, rather than a movie-style storytelling medium, would get more attention in the mainstream, not out of an egotistical desire to see the games that I like in the spotlight, but rather to emancipate gaming, to let gaming stand on its own, instead of being the red-headed stepchild of the movie industry. The sales numbers are there; the games industry surpassed every other entertainment form years ago.

So why would our most popular games not sever the cord to the medium that they’ve tried emulating for decades now? Perhaps it is corporate greed, and AAA publishers would prefer to stick to proven formulas than exploring new possibilities. Or maybe it is the rigidity of humans as a whole, as we love what we know and treat that which we don’t know with suspicion. I for one will not stop dreaming that one day, Dwarf Fortress will reign supreme.

Okay, that last one was perhaps a bit too much.

– Falko (for feedback, please do tweet me @thachampagne)